The first time I ever rode a ski chairlift I misunderstood my friend’s instructions and ended up riding all the way to the top of Bridger Bowl’s Alpine lift by myself.
I was supposed to get off at Midway, an exit ramp halfway up the mountain, but hesitated. My friend skied off. I was alone, clueless and frightened.
Luckily, at the top of the lift I did manage to ski off. Then the challenge began. For an 11-year-old new to skiing, the nearly 7,500-foot-high edge of that mountain seemed pretty formidable. It took more than an hour, several falls that ejected me from my Cubco bindings and a lot of humiliation to ski 1,400 vertical feet to the bottom.
It was a heck of a learning experience, somewhat similar to figuring out how to swim after being tossed into a lake.
Since that introduction to riding chairlifts, I’ve come to see them as much more than a simple, cold conveyance up a mountainside. They can be a window into other people’s worlds, if only for the few minutes that you share such close proximity with a stranger.
For example, one graying man I rode uphill with recently noted that he hadn’t been skiing nearly as much this year. He blamed his wife for always finding tasks for him to do, which he said was required work unless he wanted to sleep alone. He didn’t, so he groused to his chairlift mates.
One woman had just quit her job, moved to a nearby town and started her own marketing business. Her former corporate career had left her with a solid sense of educating clients, but she noted she had earlier in life considered writing as a career, maybe journalism. The problem was she didn’t like deadlines, which is kind of essential in this line of work.
On another ride with a man and his son, the child informed me that when his father was younger he had shot a deer in his rural family’s front yard, angering his mother. “Your grandmother has been telling stories again,” the man said, shaking his head, and then noted that the boy didn’t need to be so talkative to strangers.
A young man was taking his newlywed wife on her second or third ski outing. They were quite the contrast from the grumpy guy at the beginning of the day, all sunshine and roses, excited and happy. It was almost like I had rode the chairlift full circle.
More often than not, strangers riding chairlifts talk about the weather, the snow conditions or how the skiing has been, topics that are diplomatic. A few people don’t talk at all, absorbed in their own thoughts, unsocial or just uncomfortable with the close confines.
For those non-talkers, the internet now has some suggestions on how you could get them speaking. One Boyne Mountain posting suggested you tell your fellow rider: “I met my last three (wives or husbands depending on your gender) on this very chairlift! Or, I always ask telemark skiers not to call my house at dinnertime.”
Given that on cold days most skiers and snowboarders have their face buried under goggles, a helmet and face warmer, it would be easy to joke with a fellow rider about a mistaken case of identity.
“Bob? Is that you? I haven’t seen you since we robbed that bank in Butte on St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry I ratted you out to the cops and Trixie divorced you and took the kids. I haven’t drank green beer since that day,” followed by an elbow nudge and a hearty “har, har!”
There are also primers on the web now that inform young skiers on proper chair etiquette, as well as how to load and get off a lift. That could have come in handy for me 45 years ago. Or I could have taken a lesson from a professional, which is always a good idea when starting a new pastime.
I've fallen off chairlifts face first getting on, and I’ve slid to a crash while getting off — always a humbling and embarrassing experience. I’ve jumped off a low-riding chairlift when Bear Canyon, outside of Bozeman, had a ski lift way back in the 1970s. I’ve shared snacks with friends, family and strangers while riding and often took the opportunity of a chairlift ride to snap a photo of our group when we are all gathered together in one place.
Chairlifts unite us in a fun, often thrilling and almost always beautiful experience — hanging out in the mountains. Now you can even ride lifts in the summer at some ski resorts to see the view, take a hike or haul your mountain bike uphill for a wild ride down.
The next time you ride a ski lift, take a good gander at the surrounding mountains and forest, enjoy the experience of gliding quickly above the snowy terrain, take a big deep breath of the cool clean air and strike up a conversation with your lift mate. There’s no telling what you might learn, or what you may reveal to the person sitting next to you. As the sign near the top always warns, “Prepare to unload.”