VIEW TO THE WEST | Slow Lifts, The Upside
by Peter Shelton
Feb 14, 2013 | 1406 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print

People bitch about old, slow chairlifts, but they have their upside.

Alta’s Alf Engen used to say he preferred the crowd hanging up in the air, rather than descending the slopes en masse. “Roons the skiing,” he said. And it’s true. A high-speed quad is capable of putting many times the number of bodies on a given piste. More skiers equals more scraping edges, more ant-farm traffic. The “quality of the experience underfoot” (another one of Alf’s terms) is a delicate equation involving uphill capacity and the (admittedly subjective) capacity of the terrain served.

The West End double chair at Powderhorn was installed 40 years ago, in 1973. It’s painted sky blue: towers, chairs, lift shacks, everything. It runs great, not too far off the ground; it almost never stops. It takes 18 minutes to climb 1650 vertical feet. Time to rest. Time to get to know your chairmate.

The lift was built by Heron-POMA, a late iteration of Bob Heron’s Heron Engineering. He was a Denver guy. He cobbled together some old mine equipment to make the Lift No. 2 single chair on Aspen Mountain in 1945. He built the first double chair in the state at Berthoud Pass. Before that, as a member of the 126th Engineering Battalion, he designed and built a portable jig-back tram that travelled to Italy with the 10th Mountain Division and was reassembled on the spot in support of the assault on Riva Ridge.

The other thing about a classic double is the conversation factor. On a recent weekend day I rode with a physical therapist from Grand Junction. We talked about Rocky Mountain Health Plans, the Affordable Care Act and The New Yorker. I was pleased to learn that he had read Atul Gawande, a thoughtful Boston surgeon who writes about medicine in The New Yorker. Not only had he read him, he had been instrumental in getting elements of Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right adopted by surgical teams at St. Mary’s Hospital, with resulting improvements in outcomes.

On another ride, I was side-by-side with the father of 9 and 11-year-old girls, who happily occupied the chair behind ours. He was a Navy man, a Grand Junction native who learned to ski while stationed in Naples. “My buddies and I would take the train north, through Rome and Bologna, up to the Dolomites somewhere. I forget the names of the ski resorts. It was fantastic.”

When I mentioned that the 10th Mountain Division landed in Naples and that several veterans had told me how indelibly the poverty there had impressed them, he said, “It’s still a poor city. As Americans, the only safe places for us to go out at night were clubs run by the mafia.”

Another time I rode with a young father from Montrose. He’d picked up some beautiful wood-grain Wagner skis secondhand and was loving them. (Wagners are made in Placerville, Colo.; they are hand crafted for each buyer, and are often quite expensive.) This man had a 20-month-old toddler at home. “My wife said, ‘OK, you’ve got 12 hours,’” he confessed, grinning, on borrowed time.

I met another man as we slid together up to the loading zone. (People don’t holler “Single!” in the lift line like they used to. But on busier days, it’s only considerate to fill as many seats seats as you can.) This fellow and I shared an instant link: his father had for a time been the city manager of Aspen. My father was a similarly peripatetic city manager in California when I was growing up. “I don’t think I’ve ever met another child of a city manager,” he said, amazed.

Perhaps the most amazing West End coincidence to date was my random ride with a former Grand Junction-based producer for Colorado Public Radio. After a while, I shared a 10-year-old frustration. Climb to Conquer, my book on the 10th ski troops, had just come out (this was 2003), and I thought I could get an interview/plug with the folks who produce “Colorado Matters.” I sent them a book, but never heard back.

(To top off the disappointment, my dad and I were driving to the airport in Junction, when we tuned into CPR and they were airing an interview with McKay Jenkins, whose rival tome, The Last Ridge, had been published at almost exactly the same time. It bummed us out.)

My chair-mate seemed genuinely chagrined. She had in fact been working for CPR then and might have been the person to whom I addressed my book package. (My memory is not precise on it, though I did recognize her name.) “Oh, dear,” she said. “Could it have gotten lost in the mail? I’m sure I didn’t see it. If I had I would have read it. And I would have pitched it for a story.”

She grew up skiing in Vermont. Her grandfather was a 10th Mountain veteran. She said he was reluctant to talk about the horrors he had seen.

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