I Spent 7 Straight Hours on a Chairlift. Here’s What I Learned About Why We Still Ski.
Despite rising costs, surging crowds, and shorter winters, people still flock to the mountains. What keeps us coming back?
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Let me tell you a tale of a mythical beast who wanders the wintry peaks. He is your average American resort skier, and he does strange and marvelous things. According to legend, he will sit in traffic for three hours on a Saturday morning to make a drive that would otherwise take less than half the time. He will wander haplessly to a ticket counter and pay $200 for a lift ticket. He will wait in lift lines so long, the locals whisper, that you can see them from space. He will do all this for the privilege of sliding around for a few hours on a chewed-up slope days after the last storm. He will call it “skiing pow.” This behavior is nonsensical, you say. This man must be a myth.
On a sunny, bluebird Saturday in January, in a gondola going the wrong direction at Northstar ski resort outside Lake Tahoe, California, I find myself face-to-face with this fantastical beast. His name is Calvin, and he comes from Florida.
The creature, alas, is wounded. He shows me his forearms, where two hematomas are rising like bread loaves. “I got beat up a little,” he tells me. That’s why he’s riding the lift down.
I’m taking the gondola down too, but not because I’m hurt. I’m two hours into a daylong mission to ride a chairlift from first chair to last, 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., and interview everyone I encounter. That’s roughly 30 seven-minute interviews on the ride up, plus anyone I meet on the ride down. My editor wants me to take the lift both ways, I think because he hopes to torture me for comedic effect. He mentioned, a little too gleefully, that I should bring a warm jacket in case I’m on the chair for eight hours in a blizzard.
Sorry, guy: the day is instead warm and brilliantly clear, and the only lift a local resort will allow me to lap is Northstar’s Tahoe Zephyr Express, a “chondola” that carries both chairs and gondolas. I ride the chair up and the gondola down, and the latter is how I meet skiers and riders who the mountain is spitting out, like Calvin. (According to chairlift cultural norms, I’m going first-name only.) As with all the conversations I’ve had today, I ask him various unscripted questions, but they all circle around the same theme: why do you ski?
Or really, why do you still ski? Because it’s getting harder and harder to do. The average weekend warrior encounters increasingly insurmountable obstacles on their journey to the mountain: traffic chokes the highways; lift ticket prices are extortionary; climate change has made powder days scarcer. Even if our hero could move closer to the slopes, Airbnb and remote work have decimated ski-town housing. “The regular Joe or Jill can’t afford to fall in love with the sport anymore,” Seth Masia, president of the International Skiing History Association, tells me. “If you fall in love, it could be like a bad marriage.”
I know this feeling. When I became enamored with snowboarding 17 years ago, the romance began like a dream. There were ski cabins leased with friends in Tahoe, a winter in New Zealand, a hundred-day season in Aspen. But after I moved to Colorado’s urban Front Range in 2012, the relationship began to sour. Weekend ski traffic got worse. Lodging got more expensive. I shifted time to the backcountry—by then I’d switched to skiing—but a lot of it was still off the notoriously congested I-70. So I sat in the gridlock. I skipped more powder days. And I wondered, at times, if my love affair had become toxic.
But Calvin, 27, is still in the honeymoon phase. He’s just happy to be on the mountain, which he describes as “next-level.” Calvin’s first foray into snowboarding was in Tennessee, and he started on the bunny hill with a bunch of little kids. Now he can kind of make turns, except when he can’t, and the board squirts straight down the hill. This, he says, is terrifying.
Calvin is here in Tahoe on a work trip, and he was determined to go snowboarding today. “I was like, whatever the cost,” he says, “I’m paying it.”
What did he pay?
He furrows his brow. “I rented the gear. It was maybe $130, and then for the day ticket it was like $200. So not too bad. You usually expect to spend like 500 bucks to go snowboarding.”
Do you? This expectation alarms me. This year I paid $870 for my season pass, and that felt like a big expense. But much news has been made of outrageous lift ticket prices; recently, a resort broke the $300 barrier. Price gouging—let’s call it what it is—for day passes is, of course, a strategy for selling season passes. And season passes are a climate-change-resistant strategy for collecting cash upfront, regardless of snowfall. But over a third of skier visits still come from folks like Calvin, who shell out for lift tickets at the window. And in some regions, like the Rockies, those folks have gone from paying an average of $98 for a day of skiing in 2013, to $197 in 2022, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).
But Calvin has no complaints. The views here are “unreal,” he says.
Is it worth it?
“Oh yeah. A hundred percent.”