Why Saving Ski Area Surface Lifts Matters

Why Saving Ski Area Surface Lifts Matters

Some of my strongest memories from nearly 40 years of skiing happened at the hands of the sport’s most questionable lift. I can still clearly recall my first day ever out, four decades ago, for falling off a T-bar surface lift. I can picture my teenage best friend and I huddled together on a slow and cold double-chair plotting our future as pro skiers. And I’ll always remember riding a T-bar with a toddler, partially because of the back pain.

But a troubling trend to replace these ski hill scourges has some collateral damage: losing all those rites of passage for the next generation. And all that core character, replaced instead by a high-speed quad that plays music, a heated bubble chair, and a covered magic carpet, respectively, in one case in particular.

That latest stinging casualty is the Summit Platter, which used to pull the daring to the best skiing at Lake Louise Ski Resort. It was the only access to the peak of Whitehorn Mountain and its long fall-line chutes, snow-catching bowls, and lift-accessed backcountry. In the fall, the resort replaced it with the Summit Chair. Most people were stoked.

The trudge up the Summit Platter at Lake Louise. Shannon Martin

See, you didn’t so much ride the Summit Platter as survive it. The J-bar or Poma-style surface lift was a solo affair. Lines were often long and the ride was always lonely and rough. It would launch you out of the gate and then shake you back and forth up a rutted and icy track. That was the warmup for the Headwall, a nearly 40-degree pitch with literal lifelines laying in the snow on either side. Survival usually delivered a howling north wind. Even getting off was stressful: Let go of the platter too soon and it would whip around the cable, stopping the lift cold, or, worse, snapping the platter off. Either brought on the ire of lift attendant and other riders. I’ll never make that mistake again.

This winter, Louise expanded its border north to include West Bowl, 420 acres of open alpine and steep tree chutes only accessible from the peak. At 40 years old, the Summit Platter had become a mechanical nightmare.

“We needed a lift to manage the access to West Bowl and the platter wasn’t reliable enough to do the job,” says Dan Markham, Lake Louise’s marketing manager.

Lake Louise Summit Platter
Shannon Martin

The new Summit Chair, a quad, runs up a totally different line. It carries more skiers, in far more comfort, with less exposure to the wind, to an unload that’s actually better situated for accessing all the terrain.

Sounds great, but it fundamentally changes the ski experience. And not all for the better.

It’s part of a growing split in skiing, between the glitz of the destination resort and the grit of community ski hills, suggests Tim Cohee, a veteran ski resort manager and the owner of China Peak Mountain Resort near Fresno, CA.

“Not many people at Vail Resorts or Alterra would say they need a T-bar anywhere on their mountains,” Cohoe says, referencing two major resort conglomerates. “But there is a segment of the ski community that thinks T-bars represent the nostalgic part of skiing. Some people care about that.”

It’s why he says funky independent ski hills continue to thrive. And it’s why he invested $30,000 over the summer to fix up a T-bar that hasn’t run in five years at China Peak.

“People are pumped about it,” he says. “T-bars are super fun and cool.”

In contrast: “Most people are happy to see the Summit Platter go,” says Markham.

The difference in opinion is part of a bigger question about what part of the ski experience matters. On one side are the comfort seekers. They want high-speed lifts to shrink lift lines and fly them up slopes, RFID gates instead of human pass checkers and Starbuck lattes in modern lodges. They’re OK paying $15 a beer to get it. They are the majority and I can’t deny the appeal of their style of skiing.

On the other side are a smaller group of skiers, people like me and Cohoe, who know that often the best experiences hide behind a little rust and suffering. We prefer a wooden deck, $5 beer and shooting the shit with a buddy on a slow-ass lift.

The next time I’m back at Lake Louise I’m sure I’ll ride the new Summit Chair. The terrain might be just as steep. The snow might be just as deep. But I doubt I’ll remember anything about the ride up.

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