I’ve Taken 142 Consecutive Chairlift Rides Alone and It’s Starting to Feel Weird

What are we in a plague or something?

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Damn I miss me some random bullshitting

It occurred to me some time on my recent explorations of independent New York ski areas that the last chairlift ride I’d shared had been with my daughter at Maple Ski Ridge over MLK Weekend. A consultation of the Slopes app on which I track every run revealed that I had taken 142 lift rides across five ski days since that outing.

This is bizarre. Random chairlift conversation is one of the great joys of skiing. The impression a person can leave on you in three to 10 minutes can be remarkable. That you already have something in common with your liftmate is obvious, but perhaps these encounters are memorable because you get the practiced elevator-pitch version of their life. Here’s what’s interesting about me and why you should care. Or they just have a manner about them that resonates. I wrote about this dynamic shortly after launching The Storm:

We are three of us crunched onto a triple chair that crawls up the 500-vertical-foot rise. I do not know the other two passengers and deeper into the season we may have spaced this out so as to have our own chairs but it’s Killington and it’s October and the hill and the liftline are still swarming early in the day and we are all just so jacked to be here on snow when snow can’t possibly be that we all scrunch together and up we go.

One of the other riders is a skier and one is a snowboarder and they are probably in their mid twenties and they seem like the kind of guys who are probably into recreational drug use but the kind of drugs that make you mellow and talk about how the moon landing or 9/11 or dinosaurs never happened man and not the kind of drugs that make you lose control of your life and live amidst piles of pizza boxes and forget to brush your teeth for a month and sell your dad’s toolshed for $25 on Craig’s List. They live in Rhode Island and both have the Ikon pass and last year they’d had the Max Pass and they are ready. To. Go. Yeah Yawgoo’s close but by whatever lucky confluence of circumstance they can ride midweek and from their perch in southern New England they sit within striking distance of all those mountains cut rising along the northern ranges all the way up to Canada. It is obvious they are best buds and both have the same ski-the-shit-out-of-winter attitude and they are not the kind of dudes who will look back on their twenties and say man I fucked that up. I am a little jealous of their comradeship as I generally cannot find anyone to daytrip to Vermont with me from NYC especially midweek but I am glad they have this and that there are people doing things with days off other than binge-watching Game Throners or whatever it’s called and we all ski off and away.

So many things about that passage recall the innocence of our pre-Covid societal bodyslam: sharing a triple with two strangers, the push to open limited terrain to as many people as cared to come as early in the season as possible, crowds as a source of energy and not viral menace.

But there’s something else. I’m someone who likes skiing alone. This is partly because I do improbable things that few other sane people will consider, like day-trip to Bolton Valley or Stowe from Brooklyn. In a snowstorm. I take few breaks and ski until last chair. I do not understand the point of skiing groomed terrain. I do not want to lounge at the bar. I am there to ski and the skiing is the only thing that I care about. This is not to say that I always or exclusively ski alone but I am not unhappy doing it.

But. On the chair, paired up randomly with someone local or someone from another city or someone who happens to live down the block from me, my ski days develop a social dimension. This is important. It is confirmation that I am part of a shared experience among other humans. The loss of these sorts of casual interactions has been one of the great social consequences of the pandemic. From The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull:

American culture does not have many words to describe different levels or types of friendship, but for our purposes, sociology does provide a useful concept: weak ties. The term was coined in 1973 by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, and it comprises acquaintances, people you see infrequently, and near strangers with whom you share some familiarity. They’re the people on the periphery of your life—the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator. They’re also people you might have never directly met, but you share something important in common—you go to the same concerts, or live in the same neighborhood and frequent the same local businesses. You might not consider all of your weak ties friends, at least in the common use of the word, but they’re often people with whom you’re friendly. Most people are familiar with the idea of an inner circle; Granovetter posited that we also have an outer circle, vital to our social health in its own ways.

I consider the people who ski the same places as me at the same times that I do to be “weak ties.” They are part of the experience. Backcountry skiing has never had any appeal to me. When I’m skiing, I want to be part of something larger. Those brief chairlift conversations confirmed that I was. This matters. Mull continues:

This realization [that casual relationships are important], new to me, is also somewhat new in the general understanding of human behavior. Close relationships were long thought to be the essential component of humans’ social well-being, but Granovetter’s research led him to a conclusion that was at the time groundbreaking and is still, to many people, counterintuitive: Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to well-being as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends.

And what happens when we are isolated among ever-smaller groups of people?

The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it.

The loss of these interactions may be one reason for the growth in internet conspiracy theories in the past year, and especially for the surge in groups like QAnon. But while online communities of all kinds can deliver some of the psychological benefits of meeting new people and making friends in the real world, the echo chamber of conspiracism is a further source of isolation. “There’s a lot of research showing that when you talk only to people who are like you, it actually makes your opinions shift even further away from other groups,” Sandstrom explained. “That’s how cults work. That’s how terrorist groups work.”

So we can thank Covid both for the legions of Q morons now proving that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution are no guarantee that critical thinking will ever catch on and for draining our lift-served ski days of an almost imperceptible but critical social dimension.

The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health. But that does present an opportunity. In the coming months, as we begin to add people back into our lives, we’ll now know what it’s like to be without them.

I now see what it’s like to be without random fellow lift-riders. It’s not a crisis but it’s an absence. One that is partly due to Covid social mingling hesitancy among skiers and partly circumstantial: I’ve been sticking to remote, less-traveled resorts where liftlines are few. I probably wouldn’t have been sharing lift rides at most of them even in a normal year.

Of all the grief and problems Covid has caused, social isolation among individuals strong enough to ski and solvent enough to afford it is the least of them. Still, it is one more piece of the Humpty-Dumpty egg of our shattered society that we will have to tape back together once this virus fades.

In case of emergency, please leap from the chairlift

Blue Hills, a 300-foot bump 17 miles from the Boston city center, re-opened yesterday after a one-day state-ordered shutdown catalyzed by a pair of chairlift incidents. Last Monday, a 7-year-old boy “suffered serious injuries” after falling 35 feet from the chair (it seems as though he’s OK). Then, on Thursday, this happened, per Boston 25 News:

Dozens of skiers were stranded on a chairlift at Blue Hills Ski Area, some for more than two hours, after a malfunction Thursday night, just three days after a child was seriously injured in a chairlift accident there.

On Thursday, some jumped off their chairs and others were removed by ski patrol.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the chairlift began moving again, skiers told Boston 25 News, and the remaining stranded people were able to get off. No one was injured, but many reported they were extremely cold and anxious to get off the lift in frigid temperatures that were in the teens.

All of which sounds like the opening scene of a Hollywood movie about a dysfunctional ski area that’s then purchased by some dufus who knows nothing about skiing or ski areas but turns it into the next Aspen. I mean I don’t know much about running a ski area but evacuation-by-jumping does not scream This Is A High-Functioning Snowskiing Machine. The state, unimpressed, shut down the whole operation to take a closer look at the ski area’s only chairlift, which according to Lift Blog is a 1978 Hall Double.

That the tramway board gave the all-clear in highly regulated Massachusetts does actually satisfy my concerns that Blue Hills can safely operate, but the whole incident underscores the precarious circumstances of so many small ski areas. Most that lean on these decades-old lifts will have a very difficult time replacing them when they finally die, as the lift industry has largely moved away from the fixed-grip, low-capacity installations for far more expensive models. There are dozens of such areas throughout New York and New England.

There are echoes of this in New England Ski Industry News’ roundup of ski areas that had yet to open for the season as of Saturday: Quoggy Jo, Lyndon Outing Club, Mt. Eustis, Baker, Mt. Jefferson, and Big Squaw. Most of these have no or little snowmaking, and it is hard to see how they will survive many more of these unpredictable winters. Covid is raring to devour the weak, and a late start coupled with outmoded technology may be enough to push more than one of these small areas into the abyss.

Elsewhere

I wrote up my recent day at Maple Ski Ridge for New York Ski Blog. Harvey hits four New York ski areas in four days. King Pine will soon have a new property manager. Indy Pass will announce two new resorts tomorrow. If you want to do backcountry skiing in the Northeast, start here. An Ice Coast Magazine Q&A with Dudeville author J.D. Kleinke. Read the full Winter/Spring 1975-76 issue of Powder.

SAM announces the winner of their 2021 I Am A Snowmaker contest:

This week in skiing

A few weeks ago I sent out a real poop-in-the-birthday-cake email basically saying Covid-era skiing sucks and the lines suck and the snow sucks and can we all stop pretending like this is fun? Well it turns out I just needed to skate away from megaresort megalines and turn on my pow-dar. It hasn’t been hard. It started snowing a few weeks ago and it keeps snowing and Mother Nature fucked up her last deck shuffle and the dealer’s about to lay down a card meant for Little Cottonwood Canyon in New Jersey of all goddamn places. Kaboom. These are the best conditions we’ve had in years in the Northeast and they’re about to get better so let’s go slay this shit before it starts raining hamsters or whatever bullshit will inevitably ruin this amazing run.

Labrador and Song

My quest to find the fewest people and the most snow led me last week to the twin bumps of Labrador and Song outside of Syracuse, where the mountain report claimed that recent snows measured “in feet not inches.” Open Snow said each got a foot over the weekend. I landed at Lab in the quiet, still and cold hour before a midweek storm hit and was soon skiing whiteout conditions, lapping the black diamonds skier’s right off the triple, ignoring the closed trail signs because closing trails when coverage is good but the mountain didn’t staff up properly is utter bullshit and I will always ignore such signs. Yes at great personal risk in the sidecountry wildlands of Central New York where between the avalanches and the wolves it’s hard to say how I got out alive.

At mid-day I drove through heavy snow over to Song. Approaching from the parking lot the mountain is underwhelming, pinched and tame with a few old lifts doddering up into the trees. In reality this is a stellar little ski area with incredible pitch and fall-line skiing. Ignoring more closed trail signs I skied untracked pow on black diamond Jupiter and beneath lift A and then lapped the trees between all the runs. These are not marked glades but the spacing is perfect and the pitch is amazing and the snow was deep and light and fresh and glorious. I should have hit Song first because it soon grew cold and dark and I was beat and it got busy with the after-school crowd, but this is one I have to revisit.

Mount Peter and Mountain Creek

Mount Peter is close enough to New York City that I dropped my son off at school at 8:30 and was at the mountain before it opened at 10. On the way up I drove past the abandoned Tuxedo Ridge ski area and its old Hall doubles crawled sadly up the mountainside with no one to ride them. Mount Peter is compact and adorable and bustling with children who are apparently “remote learning.” A single lift called The Comet served the summit but if comets moved at this speed then surely we would be less amazed at their fiery march through the cosmos. The snow was still soft and crisp and I spent most of the morning slicing a pair of legitimately steep but short black diamonds called Dynamite and Wild West.

Twenty runs was enough and at lunchtime I drove down to Mountain Creek, 25 minutes away. All four peaks are at last connected and I skied around but the most interesting thing that happened all day was watching a ticket-checker try to explain to a pair of idiots why they had to remove their skis to board the Cabriolet, a sort of open-air gondola that shoots up to the summit of Vernon Peak. They didn’t seem to believe him and skated into the lift maze and sadly I boarded the lift and rode away before I could see this New Jersey saga to its conclusion.

Plattekill

When Plattekill has snow it has the best skiing within three hours of New York City or probably anywhere south of Gore or Stratton. And right now it has snow. The woods are deep and the mountain is 100 percent open and the place is utterly empty still. I will never understand why this is so but it is and as a result I had what amounted to a private mountain rental but without the $5,000 pricetag and all day I found new lines through the trees off both peaks and bounded through untracked but stiff snow in great loping turns like some kind of weird tree-dodging forest animal. It was two degrees below zero and windy and I was never cold probably because I bundle up like some kind of experimental soldier deployed to an arctic planet on the outer edge of the solar system but also because of my rad Helly Hansen gear and if you want an 18.77 percent discount at the Boston or Burlington stores just listen to this podcast with Windham President Chip Seamans to find out how to get it.