In a winter where the entire season has behaved like March (and now March has behaved a bit like January), the 2016/17 ski season marches into its final weeks. It's been a season of constant temperature changes, snow condition changes, and now daylight change – but one thing remains the same 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. The top and bottom lift ops usually change places every two hours, and time goes by pretty much the same on both ends. “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.” Over at Totem Park, operators switch spots with the Loki quad operators every two hours, just to break it up a bit. And according to the lift loaders, every lift has its own character traits. “My favorite lift to work is Buck, because that’s where the best skiers are”, noted one lift op. “People sometimes get confused by Loki’s moving platform.” A common Clipper calamity, according to the ops, is that riders frequently forget to tell one another which direction they’re headed after unloading, prompting occasional ramp mishaps. The Ridge Runner chair is fairly easy to load, but manning the North Face takes some muscle to hold the chair. And yes, it’s mainly men who man the lifts - Crystal’s crew of four lift supervisors and 35 lift operators is primarily a gang of guys, with just two females. Most lift ops tend to stay around for two or three seasons, but the friendly bearded face of Fuzzy (Mike Rushlow) is familiar to every Crystal Mountain regular. He’s our current king of the Shack Pack, with 13 years under his belt – and according to Fuzzy, boredom is never an issue. “There’s never a dull moment. Just when you think you have time to turn around and grab a sandwich, or reach for the shovel, that’s when something happens”, he observed. Keeping an eye on those skiers who aren’t keeping an eye themselves on what’s happening keeps Fuzz on the alert. “If I could write one thing on my white board, it would be HANG IT UP AND SKI! So many skiers and riders are distracted by their phones,” he noted.
As with every job, there can be challenges – like extreme weather conditions, hectic holiday 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 greetings, Crystal lift operators have the power to create an atmosphere of good cheer regardless of ever-changing weather or lift loading/unloading adventures. They stay fueled up and fired up by conversations with the customers, against the constant hum of the chairs going around and around…...as the bullwheels turn.