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Beneath the surface

Scott Willoughby

As the T-bar lurched and wobbled to a suddenly abrupt halt mid-way up the face, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was still there. It was the third such pause, this time to allow a snowmobile to drive past and coat us in noxious fumes before the creaky surface tow jerked us back up the slope.The pondering was rhetorical at best. In spite of the annoyance, I knew good and well why I was there, the reason everyone was there. As a rule, surface lifts rule.I have a theory that those who learned to ski on a T-bar have an advantage later in life. There’s no such thing as a magic carpet ride to the top. At the risk of inadvertently quoting Tony Robins, if you want to reach the summit, you have to pay your dues.Surface lifts force you to ski your way up the hill as well as down. The keep you in the zone between runs, in the elements and always on your toes.On the day in question, I happened to be riding the T-bar to the Headwall at Mt. Crested Butte, a sheer, precipitous face at the apex of the area’s “Extreme Limits” terrain. Why the operations crew opted for a surface lift over a chair lift isn’t readily apparent, except for what I would consider philosophical reasons. Simply put, T-bars go to the gnar. And gnar, as we all know, builds character.I have a friend who learned to ski on a T-bar north of Lake Tahoe his crew dubbed “the humiliation machine” because it humbled so many it dragged up the final steep face on their faces. And humiliation builds nearly as much character as gnar, just in a different sort of way.In Crested Butte, for example, the humiliation machine is just beneath the T-bar, at the surface platter known as the High Lift. The High Lift is the access point to both gnar and hair in the form of Phoenix, Spellbound, North and Third bowls, places with runs featuring such character-building monikers as “Body Bag Chutes.” But in order to get there, you first need to ride the platter up an equally precipitous slope to the top.Like at any surface lift worth riding, there’s always a line at the High Lift, mostly locals heading out to the goods and sizing up every individual rider making them wait for their daily treat. They aren’t shy about heckling anyone who lets a platter slip by empty because their skills aren’t up to snuff, pointing out that if you can’t ride up, odds is good you can’t ride back down.To make matters worse, the lift was designed with a lurch at the onset, yanking skiers off the snow by the crotch before it tugs them up the hill. Despite the opportunity for both mortification and emasculation, you have to straddle that platter if you really want it. Or tuck your tail and cruise.In the hierarchy of lifts, T-bars and platters are second only to the tram, topping even their popular polar opposite, the gondola. Nothing beats the thrill of piling into the big boxcars at Snowbird, Jackson or Squaw and heading up to the cirque, but the humble surface lift certainly holds its own.Sure, they’re a pain in the butt, but T-bars take you places a cushy gondola never would. They take you to that last nipple of terrain the gondola, or the chair for that matter, left out. Places like Crested Butte’s Headwall, the Lake Chutes, Horseshoe and Contest bowls at Breckenridge, the Cirque off the Big Burn at Snowmass, Spaulding Bowl at Copper or the sicko terrain above the glacier at Whistler. Steep, scary places where the wind howls between rock and ice and only the most driven skiers and snowboarders would otherwise hike.Of course, they also take you to Two Elk Lodge if you’re too lazy to skate across the ridge for your burger and fries. (Although the four-day-a-week tow to the East Vail boundary gate might be considered compensation.)And while only a few areas offer a high-alpine surface tow, it seems like everybody has a gondola designed to appease the poseur. Even Keystone has a gondola, although it is best used as a downloading shield against the menacing masses still attempting to master the mountain at day’s end. People love the gondola at Vail, willingly waiting outside a full maze and watching skiers zip past on Chair 8. Same goes for Aspen, with the least comfortable gondola on the planet. Steamboat’s Silver Bullet gondola at least has a cool name.Telluride’s gondola is more of an eco-friendly commuter ride, since it doesn’t seem to access much of the desirable ski terrain. Beaver Creek wants one just like it.To their credit, gondolas definitely beat the 6-pack in the lift pecking order. Except maybe in Durango where the weather is too nice to ride inside and the comedy value of watching a half dozen Texans in novelty hats attempting to negotiate the maze on what amounts to Figgels is worth more than the price of a lift ticket.The jury is still out on the status of the “complementary cat ride” at places like Highland Bowl in Aspen and Tucker Mountain at Copper, otherwise known as a Midas lift: Midas well be a T-bar because you’re still gonna have to walk up the hill after the cat drops you off.Of course, Colorado skiing would never be what it is today without the mass-transit people movers we know and love as high-speed quads, zipping us around massive mountains on what amounts to aerial sofas and touching down atop slopes at a rate that would otherwise take even the heartiest of skiers years to conquer. But since Colorado’s first rope tow cranked up at Berthoud Pass some 60 years ago, the tried and true method of humiliation machines has been building strength among skiers two feet at a time.Scott Willoughby is a freelance writer who has humiliated himself in many publications and at almost every ski mountain in the Rockies. He can be reached at snowrite@vail.net.


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