Mountain Blog

As the Bullwheels Turn

Nancy Story - Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It’s late in the season. Temperatures change, conditions change, daylight changes – but one thing remains constant every day of every ski season. Month after month, day after day, hour after hour, the chairs on the lift go ‘round and ‘round, ascending and descending over and over again as the bullwheels turn.  

Do lift operators count chairs in their sleep? What’s a lift op to do to stay alert?

Being a lift operator is the only job where you may well meet everyone on the slopes in a single day. Since a trip down these Midwestern hills is often quicker than the trip up, Crystal’s lift ops can string out a single conversational topic with a skier over the course of a day. When there are no skiers around, the bottom operator can converse with the op in the upper lift shack through an open intercom. The upper lift shack operators are like eagles in their aeries, keeping sharp eyes on unloading skiers.

“We make sure everybody’s getting off safely. We keep the ramp flush and level, we listen to the radio,” says one lift eagle. Time goes by pretty much the same on both ends, whether they’re working the top or bottom. “You always have people to watch out for, or to take care of the ramp area. It’s always fun to talk to the skiers.”

The top and bottom lift ops change places every two hours. Over at Totem Park, the ops switch spots with the Loki quad operators every two hours. Crystal’s band of four lift supervisors and 30 lift operators is primarily a gang of guys, with just two females. Operator Willie Hanson is King of the Shack Pack, with 21 years behind his belt. Most ops tend to stay around for two to three seasons.  

As with every job, there can be challenges – like extreme weather conditions, hectic Saturday afternoons, and skiers not paying attention who load or unload too late or too early, to cite a few. But by arming themselves with grins and cheery greetings, Crystal lift operators have to power to create an atmosphere of good cheer regardless of the weather or occasional loading/unloading mishap. They stay fueled up and fired up by conversations with the customers, against the constant hum of the chairs going around and around… the bullwheels turn.

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