Point of view shot from a chairlift showing skis
Point of view shot from a chairlift showing skis
(Photo: Andri Klopfenstein/Unsplash)

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.”

Madison and Dakota are on a Tinder date. He swiped right because her profile said she was looking for a guy who enjoyed beer, cars, and snowboarding. She swiped right because his profile had pictures of cars. She’s wearing Pit Vipers, with long strands of blond hair unfurling from her hoodie; he’s wearing a GoPro on his lid. They just met ten minutes ago, and this is their first chairlift ride up. I ask how the date’s going.

“So far, so good,” Madison, 26, says, laughing a little wildly. “I mean, the interview’s a little intimidating.” She takes a pull from a skinny can of Michelob Ultra hidden in her mitten.

Do they think they’ll be compatible on the mountain?

“She says she’s pretty good,” Dakota, 28, says. “I think I’m pretty good. But maybe one of us is lying.”

Dakota’s never gone snowboarding as a first date, but Madison does it because, “if you can’t ride, that’s a dealbreaker.” She has an ex who once gave her two concussions on the mountain, both times by running into her. That, she says, was definitely a dealbreaker.

At one point, I refer to what they’re doing as “skiing,” and Dakota heckles me. “We’re snowboarders, not two-plankers. Who are you, my dad?” It’s interesting that he associates skiing with being old, because snow sports in general are aging out. The share of skiers and snowboarders under age 17 has declined over the past ten years, while the number of riders over 55 has increased, according to NSAA data. “We’re not keeping or attracting kids to the sport as much,” Adrienne Isaac, NSAA’s director of marketing and communications, tells me. There are various reasons for this, but two of them might be cost and convenience. The region with the highest share of under-17 visitors is the Midwest, where there are still many more-affordable ski hills close to cities, Isaac says. (Unfortunately, these types of low-elevation ski areas are the ones most in jeopardy from climate change—since 1993, the number of ski resorts in the U.S. has gone from 529 to 473, the majority of the loss being small resorts.)

When we get to the top, I ask Dakota and Madison for their phone numbers—I want to hear how the date went. As we part ways, I call out, hopefully, “Maybe when I see you guys again, you’ll be holding hands.”

“Yeah,” says Madison. “I’ll let you know if he has a concussion.”

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.
black and white image of a ski chairlift
(Big Bear Cabins/Unsplash)

It’s about noon, and I’ve been asking people if anything interesting happened to them today. But it seems like the most notable experience for the majority of folks is that they sat in horrendous traffic. Earlier, a liftie told me that Northstar was expecting a crush of 13,000 visitors over the course of the day, and the last few groups I’ve spoken to are only now taking their first runs.

Eric, Alex, and Martin, thirtysomething finance bros from San Francisco, are part of this ill-fated cohort. They got to Truckee at 8:15 A.M. Then it took them two hours to drive the 7.5 miles to the mountain.

Everyone had their own way of coping. Martin kept cracking jokes. Alex brewed in a silent rage. What was going through his head?

“That I could have flown to Park City or Vail or Montana in the same amount of time.”

I’ve had similar thoughts while sitting in Colorado ski traffic. Like many Front Range skiers, I knew that, in order to survive, you must follow three rules: Never get on I-70 after 6 A.M. Don’t go through the tunnel. And never, ever, ski past noon on a Sunday. But the grind still wore me down. It takes 23 percent longer to drive from the Front Range to the mountains than it did four years ago, according to a 2020 report by Colorado Public Radio, and drivers are having to get up an hour earlier to match the drive time they had five years ago. That’s why, when my partner and I got the opportunity to relocate to Tahoe for this winter, we jumped on it—we were ready to leave the state to actually get into the mountains.

I ask Martin how he kept it good-vibes-only in the car. “What’s the alternative?” he says. “We could be in a lot worse places.”

Has it been worth it?

“Hard to know,” says Alex. “Ask us in four hours.”

It’s early afternoon, and I’m starting to feel flaccid, like a vegetable that’s been in the fridge too long. My editor got into my head with all his talk about sitting in the cold, and I’d started the day in an expedition-worthy puffy jacket. Now it’s 40 degrees, and I’m trapped in a sweaty prison. He wins after all.

I survey the crowd at the bottom of the lift for people who might have more interesting stories beyond their commute, and spy a trio of teenage guys. A slender kid wearing a knit beanie and a black hoodie faces two friends, one of whom wears a lavender parka that reads DOPE. The kid in the beanie appears to be demonstrating how to dismount a lift. As they skooch toward the line, I ask to ride up with them.

“It’s our first time,” Daniel, 18, in the DOPE parka, warns me. “We might fall.”

“Perfect,” I say.

Daniel has been wanting to learn how to snowboard ever since he was six—he owned the video game SSX Tricky, and he thought the sport looked “super sick,” he says. “Like, I’m really excited.”

“He’s been talking to me about it forever,” says Chris, 19, in the beanie. He’ll be coaching Daniel and their third buddy, GC, who didn’t really want to come today, but was peer-pressured into it.

You might be surprised to learn one of the main reasons people don’t ski. Cost and time are indeed major deterrents, NSAA rep Adrienne Isaac tells me. But another big reason is that they don’t have people to go with—or like Daniel, haven’t had people to take them. To Isaac, this speaks both to the inherently social aspect of skiing—which, of course, is largely defined by the chairlift rides—as well as a barrier to entry that threatens the growth and diversity of the sport. Skiing is still very white, though I’ve seen more diversity today at Northstar than at any other resort I’ve skied.

It’s our turn to go. The Zephyr’s mechanized gates snap open, and we all shuffle toward the red line. Daniel and GC waddle after us like ducklings, but they’re not waddling fast enough. The chair is coming around the bullwheel, the guys are still moving in slow motion and oh God please hurry—Chris grabs his friends by the hands and tows them up to the red line.

My heart rate settles and the chairlift hums. I ask Daniel what he’s expecting.

“I’m feeling confident,” he says. He’s been watching instructional videos like Chris told him to do.

What’s GC expecting?

“To fall,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t watch the videos, personally.”

“I sent them to him,” says Daniel, “but he didn’t watch them.”

“I bet you’ll still kill it,” I tell GC.

“No,” Chris chuckles. “He’ll regret it.”

“It’s our first time,” Daniel, 18, in the DOPE parka, warns me. “We might fall.” “Perfect,” I say.
black and white image of a ski chairlift
(Kipras Štreimikis/Unsplash)

Alex, Jim Bob, and Johnny Rad inform me, off the record, that they’ve been lapping the Zephyr because they have White Claws stashed at the top.

C’mon. Does this really need to be off the record? They already gave me fake names.

Jim Bob, who wears a red beanie and a basketball jersey, considers this. “OK. You can use that.”

All three guys, who range in age from 29 to 33, have been snowboarding since they were 12 or 13. But they never had season passes until recently. Northstar is owned by Vail Resorts, so the guys have the Epic Pass, which gets them access to 41 resorts for about $850. They like it—it motivates them to go more often, which enables them to progress. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the beginner park, which I find endearing.

“What do you like about riding in the park?” I ask.

“The technicality of it,” says Johnny Rad, who is smiley and Abercrombie-model handsome. “And floating in the air off the jumps.”

“It’s like a natural stomach drop,” says Alex, who gave me his real name before he realized his friends were making up pseudonyms.

“It’s such a thrill,” agrees Jim Bob. “It feels like a roller coaster.”

Like other sports we now do for recreation, skiing began as a mechanism for survival. In snowy regions thousands of years ago, skis were the only way to get around, says historian Seth Masia. Wooden planks fixed with animal fur were particularly important for hunting, as they allowed people to float, kick, and glide on snow. On skis, man was a quiet and deadly predator, faster than elk and reindeer.

People grew proud of their prowess on skis, and by medieval times it was seen as a macho skill; men bragged about how fast and far they could slide. (By the 19th century, in places like Scandinavia, women were also admired for their skiing.) But the sport was also fun. Masia says that early literature mentions “the sheer thrill of running, gliding, and jumping.” In other words, we ski today for the same reasons we did back then.

The guys on the lift sat in traffic this morning too, but they’re sanguine about it. “It’s not even worth talking about,” says Alex. “Snowboarding is such a good way to spend your time. You’re doing something that’s active and healthy and challenging.”

“What else are we gonna do?” says Johnny Rad, still smiling. “Just stay home all day?”

At 3:55 P.M., I get on my final chair of the day. My companions are an Asian-American man wearing glasses behind his goggles, and four children so tiny and twee, a liftie has to swoop behind us and hoist them onto the chair by their jackets. Once I get permission from the man, whose name is Sean, to interview the little ones, all four lean forward dutifully to speak into my mic. The kids are on Northstar youth teams, and two of them are Sean’s, while the other pair belong to his friends—the families are from the Bay Area, and they’re renting a ski house here for the winter.

What’s your favorite part of skiing, I ask down the line.

“Probably park and riding the trees,” says Olivia, 10.

“Probably park,” says Johan, 7.

“Powder and park,” says Simon, 11.

“Powder and jumps,” chirps Zyana, 9.

Sean tells me that he and his wife learned to snowboard as adults, and that being on the mountain felt like an antidote to what he calls “the corrupted culture of Silicon Valley.” Then the whole family got into it. “It’s such a great family sport, right?”

Skiing tends to be very generational, says the NSAA’s Isaac. Most people learn because their parents took them as kids, and indeed, the folks I talked to today were often with people who are significant to them: a mother-daughter duo, two brothers-in-law, childhood friends. Creating memories with people we care about, Isaac tells me, is a big reason we ski.

“What’s it like,” I ask Sean, “watching your kids learn from such a young age?”

Sean says it’s meaningful to watch them feel strong and conquer their fears. It’s a good answer, but now I realize I was fishing, because I wanted to hear him say something else. I wanted him to say what I was feeling when I saw his kids, which was a sort of redemption, a way of getting closer to a childhood I never had.

See, Sean and his kids look like me. I’m also Asian American, and like him, I don’t tick the NSAA’s box of being a generational skier. My parents grew up in Taiwan, a tropical island, before they immigrated to the U.S. They didn’t ski, so we didn’t ski. I learned as an adult, and I’ve always been envious of people whose parents started them as toddlers. These people ski with a grace that I wonder if I’ll ever attain. But it’s not just about the skills. It’s the pang of time lost, of an opportunity missed, of memories never made with the people I love most. I felt this loss earlier today, when a woman told me about her dad, a patroller, holding her between his legs at three years old, wedging downhill while she stared in awe at the glittering snow. I feel it when I’m awestruck by the view from a snowy ridge; in these moments, I always think about how I would love to share this with my mom.

That’s one reason I still ski, I guess. Because I haven’t skied enough.

The math of skiing makes no sense to anyone but a skier.
black and white image of a ski chairlift
(Urban Sanden/Unsplash)

On Monday morning, I scroll through Tweets about the weekend ski traffic and see this gem from a guy name John Bai: “bro let’s go skiing in tahoe bro it only takes 3 hours to drive 1 mile from the $800/night airbnb bro please we can split a 4-piece chicken tendies for $28 and head back down to sf at 11pm to avoid traffic.” The lengths we go for skiing, captured in 140 characters.

But if few leisure activities demand as much of us, few, if any, match the reward. Over and over again, people told me that despite the effort, or the cost, skiing was worth it: for the time spent outdoors with loved ones, for the opportunities to challenge themselves, for the thrills and the pleasure. We do a lot for this sport, and yet it still delivers, at a payoff ratio that defies logic or rationality. One guy told me that a single untouched powder run last season made all the other lackluster snow-free days worth it. The math of skiing makes no sense to anyone but a skier.

The business people know the remarkable math of skiing too, and they have priced it accordingly—after all, it’s a price we’ve been willing to pay. But in the future the sport will only cost us more—not just in dollars, but time and effort, as the same number of us fight for access to less and less snow. The issue is not the demand for skiing. Just three percent of the American population skis, and that figure has stayed relatively flat over the past decade, with a small recent uptick, Isaac says. The issue is the supply of skiing: the number of ski resorts in the U.S. is declining, and winter is already a month shorter than it used to be in some regions. In my lifetime, in many places, scientists predict we’ll see what’s left cut in half. At some point, for most of us, skiing will become a memory.

So, while I have friends who say the price is already too high, that they can no longer handle the traffic or the crowds, I’ll pay, as long as I can afford it. I keep skiing because I’m making up for lost time. And maybe we all keep skiing because we know we’re running out of time.

There was one more conversation I had to have for this story. On Monday, I called Dakota to see how his Tinder date with Madison went. (I called Madison, too, but she never responded; Dakota told me she was working all day.) After making sure it was OK with her, he called me back.

The date went well, he says. “Uh, I kind of embarrassed myself.” He threw a snowball at her while they were going downhill, and it hit her on the helmet. “Then I started laughing and caught an edge, and totally wiped out in front of her.”

But they had a lot of fun. “She was being a sweetheart,” he says. She hung back with his buddy, a beginner, and gave him tips.

Anything else?

“Well, you called it,” he said. “We had our first kiss on the mountain.” They were lying in the snow, mid-lap, and it felt like they were hitting it off. He asked if he could kiss her. She said yes.

Asking why we keep skiing on a warming planet feels like asking why we keep loving in a world that’s careening towards disaster. Or why you’d go on a Tinder date if it might end in heartbreak. Skiing is an imperiled sport, but it’s still a beautiful sport. If you fall in love with it today, it could end up like a bad marriage. But maybe you’ll let yourself fall in love anyway, because however long the romance lasts, you could find moments that contain a multitude of joy.

Will Dakota and Madison see each other again? He thinks so, probably next weekend in Tahoe. He was already planning on going back. But now he has even more of a reason to go.

Lead Photo: Andri Klopfenstein/Unsplash