The Downhill Report, December 1996
Etiquette has been pretty well mapped out during the twentieth century. Emily Post tells us when to kneel during an audience with the Pope. Debrett actually explains how to address a Samoan government minister's younger son. And yet these courtly gasbags have overlooked one key area: the dos and don'ts of chairlift conversation.
Socially, the lift is a unique and complicated realm. High above the world, you are exposed not only to wind and sun, but to long-forgotten words like "pinko" and "Jazzercise!" You meet the salesman who sees these 12 minutes as a "golden insurance opportunity"; the Minneapolis teen who tries to offer you dope and then keeps rambling about how misunderstood Beck is; the Old Hand, who puffs out opinions about every bump and gully on the mountain; the cell-phone bastard; even the blabby grandma. All of these people require different conversational strategies on your part. There's no set rule. You have to play it on the fly.
There is one particular type, however, that calls for especially delicate handling: the liftophobe. Many skiers, even good ones, get edgy on their teetering rumble up the mountain. The liftophobes who ski among us perceive things in their own suspicious way. We see chairlifts; they see death traps. We see time-tested steel cables overhead; they see time-worn, spindly strings ready to snap apart at any moment.
Accordingly, since you never know whether you're sitting next to a liftophobe, there are things you should never, ever do on a chairlift. One is to blurt out, "Wow! Isn't that Colorado down there?" Another is to point straight up at the cable while shouting, "Oh no! Oh no!" The least acceptable option of all is to quietly admit, "I have an overwhelming urge to push you right now."
Think of it this way: If you wouldn't broach a given subject to a man who was hanging off a ledge by his last two fingernails, you shouldn't talk about it on the lift. Steer the conversation toward topics that have no conceivable link to your present situation. Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, is terrific, since every mental image it conjures is old, sandy, and low-to-the-ground. Carnivals, on the other hand, may sound like a lot of fun, but in reality they involve Ferris wheels and thrill rides, a connection best left unexplored.
Tricky as lift etiquette might seem, consider one small incentive. Chairlift riders who freeze in terror--or worse, thrash around--have a limited number of objects they can grab onto up there. It's simple logic that, having lost his trust in technology, the panicky liftophobe will try to hitch his fate to something human. And, let's face it, pal: That's you.