It All Just Sort Of Happened
It is possible that nobody knew it would work out this way. Back in the '40s the main concern of most U.S. ski area operators was to build a device that would get the customers up the hill so they could ski down. And it followed that these ski lifts should be constructed according to the rudimentary geometric principle that the shortest—and cheapest—distance between two points is a straight line. Usually, the shortest way up also turned out to be the steepest, and as a result the terrain under a lift line is just about the meanest on the mountain.
So far, so good. But one thing the resort operators hadn't figured on was that skiers like to show off and where better than on the hairiest trails on the mountain? Thus, no sooner would a new lift be installed and its rocks, stumps and tower bases covered with snow than there the skiers came, bombing right down the lift lines. The trails, often perilously narrow, became a stage for winter theater: everybody did his act for the benefit of the audience riding the chairs and gondola cars, wheeling, jumping, tight-turning—and falling. Knowing a profitable thing when they saw it, the area operators then began to do their best to help the hot dogs, clearing the lift lines completely of trees and grooming the trails below. It all seems to have worked out well.
Chan Weller, director of marketing at Sugarbush in Warren, Vt., says, "Sometimes instead of going directly from Point A to Point B, we build a lift from Point A to Point B-plus—just so we can stay with the fall line and have the sort of terrain that we can make a run out of. It may cost more, but there is nothing like a great lift line to keep skiers happy." Ernie Blake, founder of New Mexico's Taos resort, says, "One of the most important things at any area is boosting the ego of the hotshot who wants to show off for his girl friend and all his friends on the chair lift. Our greatest lift line run is Al's Run, and everyone who skis Taos insists on going down it. Even snowplow skiers get up there; those snowplowers push an awful lot of snow down the mountain when they go, but a lift line attracts them all."
At Sugarbush, says Weller, the management sometimes arranges for 30 or 40 ski-school instructors to be at the top of one of their best lift lines—the Mall or Hot Shot—just as the first chairloads of ski-school students are on the way up the mountain. "Then we send the instructors flying down the slope, two dozen, three dozen fantastic skiers, flying down through moguls and powder, hollering and yelling all the way. You can't imagine what that does for those people riding the lift. It gets them all excited; they come off the chairs quivering for action. They love their lessons and they're all worked up. In fact, lift line skiing can really get a whole mountain together. You run the line; all your friends see you, they holler down at you. That night in the bars you're all talking about how you saw each other running the line. It's a great feeling."
The fact that it is also entertainment is confirmed by the names of typical lift line runs from Catamount in New York to Mammoth Mountain in California, names that reflect the true motives of many skiers: Limelight, Exhibition, Hot Shot, Stage Center, Look Ma!, Showcase, Stargazer, Twilight Zone and Curtain Up.