Never heard of ‘lifties’? Pull up a chair

LIFTIES ARE A SPECIAL BREED. Most suggest that they do it because they love working with people, working outdoors and paying the bills, all of which may be exaggerations. But last Thursday in the midst of a snowstorm, Guy Winig, working the #2 chairlift at Catamount in Copake, brushed snow from the quad seats with a broom. “I’m going to set out a tip jar,” he quipped.

There’s much more to the job of a liftie–the ski slope employees responsible loading people safely onto chairlifts–than holding the chair to avoid hitting the guests in the back of the calf. Safety is a main issue. Freak accidents are not common but do happen. In December a woman skiing at Hunter Mountain Ski Area in Greene County fell to her death. Inexperienced skiers who try to unload too soon fall into nets set up in front of most unloading stations. Some skiers panic and don’t get off, riding around the bull-wheel at the summit–a large, horizontal pulley that redirects the cable and lift chairs and sends them back down the mountain.

Tracy Hanselman, lift operator at the mid-station of Catamount’s #5 chairlift, says she’s literally caught many a child who hasn’t yet figured out how to get off. She removes their skis and holds out her arms for them to jump into.

“My main concern is the safety of everyone. I know when someone is scared. You can see the fear on their faces. My aim is to get people’s attention, to get their trust,” she said. “I talk to them and let them know I’m there to help them get off, or else ride safely to the top—tips and poles up!”

Unlike lifties at some other stations, she stays outside on the platform, her hand not far from the chairlift emergency stop buttons on the side of the hut.

“Communication with the other lift operators is a big deal. They will call me to let me know if there is a first-time skier or someone with a handicap on their way up. Often someone is on their way up and has no idea what to do to get off,” Ms. Hanselman said.

At the base area loading station, other issues come into play. Unlike high-speed lifts that slow down for the skiers to load, the chairlift swings around the bull-wheel at full speed, presenting a challenge for lifties. “The chairs are heavy, at least 550 pounds, so we generally do it in teams, one on each side,” said Mr. Winig. “I don’t know how many times I’ve yelled ‘Get back!’ when someone edges too close to the push-off spot and is about to get whacked by the chair in front of them going by.”

Some resorts are more automated. For example, Jiminy Peak in Hancock, MA, has a six-person “six-pack” high-speed lift that uses a system of timed starting gates that release skiers to approach the loading position. But Catamount sees value in the human approach.

“We have about 25 on the staff,” said Tom Gilbert who, along with Rich Edwards, co-owns Catamount. “They go through a rigorous workshop each fall, with multiple sessions for both newly employed and seasoned employees. We take our safety very seriously and so do the staff.”

Catamount straddles the New York-Massachusetts border, which means inspectors from both states check its lifts.

In addition to safety, Mr. Gilbert said the lifties are “the main face-to-face interaction” skiers have with the ski area.

And then there’s brutal weather. Last Sunday, February 15, for example, the air temperature didn’t go above 15 degrees F. and the wind chill factor put it far below that. Mr. Winig has a system for warming his feet inside the base hut and always has a second pair of socks at the ready.

His association with Catamount goes back to the ’70s, when he began as a snowmaker. “I knew that couldn’t last, so I went to college and eventually became a landscape designer,” he says. “Way back when, when I was working the summit sitting in the summit booth, I could get some studying done when it was slow.”

Ms. Hanselman has a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, with a concentration in art. She designs custom snowboards, one of which is displayed over the Catamount office front desk and portrays the layout of the mountain.

“I do snow dances with the kids and share their enthusiasm beyond all measures,” said Ms. Hanselman. “I love to cheer the kids on and usually lose my voice by Sunday.”

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