At today’s (ever more commercialized) ski resorts, terrain is accessed by an increasing number of sophisticated lift operations. During the advent of alpine sport, it used to be that speed was reserved for the downhill portion of a skier’s time on the mountain. For better or worse, in today’s mega-resort world, speed is now also associated with the race uphill aboard high-speed quads and new trams, designed to bring more and more skiers to the top of the mountain at a faster and faster rate.
Prior to this need for speed, the ride up mountain was considered a quiet and quintessential part of the skiing experience. Not too long ago, even in the midst of a frenzy of hot laps, racing was reserved for the way down the mountain. The slow and unhurried attitude of a rickety double chair lift seemed purposely designed to ensure that skiers took pause to enjoy their surroundings, converse with friends or new acquaintances, and to breathe fresh air while surveying the beauty of the mountains.
While technology and speed have their benefits, we’ve also discovered that moving slowly can be a bit more romantic. The quiet anticipation of what’s to come...like opening your presents on Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve or creaking patiently up the double chair to Jupiter Bowl in a whiteout at Park City with Utah’s champagne powder falling all around you.
Alas, such analog lift service is a dying breed and with it a simpler time, and perhaps a more authentic experience. Each and every season an old soul lift passes on, making way for new, modern, faster, and sometimes more noisy and crowded delivery systems (original Jackson Hole Tram R.I.P). At Alps & Meters, we lament the changing times but know that nothing can stop the march of progress. However, here in New England, skiers are still forged by a hangover from our puritan patience of old which recalls and continues to cultivate a slow, traditional, and sometimes quirky lift experience that left the racing for the downhill adventures only, not crowded quads and sardine can trams. Below, are three New England favorites; one just a memory and the other two still delivering an experience of quiet, slow, tradition today.
Mount Cranmore's Skimobile
There actually was a time when quirky and slow lifts allowed for a time of reflection, contemplation, and comfort. None were more unique, interesting, and quaint as the Skimobile at Mount Cranmore in North Conway, New Hampshire. A mash-up of rope tow, chair lift, and terrain tram, according to Cranmore Mountain and the New England Ski Museum, the Skimobile was the brainchild of Cranmore’s founder/owner Harvey Gibson and local mechanic George Morton. In the late 1930’s Sun Valley was North America’s premier ski resort and had the distinction of introducing the world’s first chair lift. Despite recommendations to construct a similar chair lift at Mount Cranmore, Morton, who had participated in the construction of early overhead cable cars in Jackson Hole, WY designed 60 cars that ascended a two tier wooden trestle linked by a halfway station.
Having grown up skiing Mount Cranmore in the early 1980’s as a young child, I marveled at the Skimobile and its odd place in the lift service annals of North America. At the bottom of the first trestle, skiers would approach a merry-go-round like circle in which the cars, descending from the summit, would enter a small rotary. One would walk briskly beside the car, place skis in a stand up holder and then take a seat for the ride to the summit. Slow as can be, the ride was fun and, while lacking the company of a double chair lift, offered a pleasantly relaxing ride and cars were close enough and slow enough to converse with those riding in front and behind should the occasion arise.
On the Skimobile, it was impossible to have a hurried attitude and in a reclined position, relaxation and reflection tempered anticipation and allowed riders to disappear into a quiet, present state with only the silhouetted skiers flashing behind trees on either side of the trestle reminding oneself of the downhill activities to come.
Mad River Glen’s Single Chair Lift
Much has been written about Mad River Glen in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, with its traditional ski atmosphere, and sturdy New England values. In keeping with the original founders’ intention, Mad River Glen has sought to maintain a strong sense of community dedicated to the purity of the sport of skiing.
When investment banker Roland Palmedo founded the ski area in 1947 at what was then General Stark Mountain, he wanted a place where skiing was the sole focus - not money, return on investment, or real estate. Palmedo envisioned a place where a community of skiers could enjoy the sport in its purest form. Often at odds with the fast paced expansion and fast paced machinery of its neighboring mountains and resorts, Mad River Glen’s timeless, authentic, and steadfast attitude is symbolized by its vintage single chair lift; the oldest continually operating lift of its kind in the U.S. Since 1948, the single chair has shirked today’s bigger, better, faster attitude.
Instead, a deep desire to cultivate alpine tradition make Mad River’s 78 year-old lift one of the last bastions of the pure, rustic and original alpine sport experience. For locals and visitors alike, a single chair lift ride is one of the most authentic and protected experiences remaining within the lift service arena of North America. Supported by old cross-hatched towers (refurbished in 2007), Mad River’s single chair not only carries one up the mountain but also transports the individual to a nostalgic, simpler time and place lost forever to the appetite for real estate expansion, increasing lift ticket prices, and the need for 6-pack quad and other churn and burn lifts that seem to track out snow as fast as the flakes land below.
Riding the single chair presents one with a serene opportunity for solitude amidst Vermont’s majestic Green Mountains. Being alone with one’s thoughts in the outdoors is a wonderful experience and one that is not so easy to achieve in today’s hyper connected social media, Instagram-Twitter-Facbook universe. However, when unplugged at Mad River Glen on this solo journey, one has the chance to survey the trails and snow filled trees while reveling in the precious silence of the day. Alone, the 12 minute climb to the summit feels longer, but as one is pulled from tower to tower the vision of Mad River’s Founder, Roland Palmedo, becomes ever more apparent in the midst of such a pure skiing experience.
It is as if that elder statesmen of Vermont skiing and his old tried and true single chair impart a mountain wisdom to all who ride it, landing skiers at the summit refreshed and with a sound sense of perspective and knowledge of what skiing is truly meant to be.
Sugarbush's Castlerock Chair
In the midst of expanding resort amenities and growth, one must appreciate that Sugarbush Resort in Warren, VT has aimed to preserve a sliver of the mountain as it was when the first trail lines were cut during the 1958-1959 ski season. The Castlerock chair is a true classic low capacity, fixed grip, double accessing an area of Sugarbush know for narrow chutes, moguls, and small waterfall cliffs that offer expert skiers a more challenging in-bounds fair than commonly encountered at standard East Coast resorts.
In similar spirit to the upkeep and refurbishment of Mad River Glen’s single chair lift, when the original Castlerock chair required replacement in the winter of 2000-2001, resort management was careful to maintain the authentic double chair experience by replicating both the design and capacity of the original lift operation. Like its predecessor, the restored Castlerock chair even accounted for the wide spacing between chairs so as to maintain its traditional persona while also contributing to the preservation of the snow and trails below, avoiding quick deterioration of the snow pack and track-outs dooming many crowded East Coast slopes after a storm (the Castlerock area is without snowmaking thereby making such controlled traffic efforts even more important to the shared ski experience of this area).
The Castlerock chair is slow. Verrrrry slow. However, skiers appreciative of Castlerock understand and abide by the spirit of this rugged aspect of Sugarbush Mountain. With terrain unchanged since the 1950’s, a reliance on natural snow fall, and a serene set of surroundings cut off from the hustle and bustle of more high traffic areas of the resort, it would be hard to imagine anything other than the classic fixed grip chair transporting skiers to the summit of Castlerock.
Those who steer their skis to Castlerock share a common set of values and while virtually all are capable skiers, crowed and fast lifts do not register on their list of a day’s must have requirements. There is a desire to reach back to a simpler time, forgo the noise of snowmaking apparatus, and chat with a fellow local or visitor in an unhurried fashion about the fresh air, love of skiing, trips taken or planned, family, and the best setting for an après beers and snack.