Okay- I admit it. I have skied for 53 years but I am afraid of heights. I have faced my demons over the years and have managed to think nothing of the lifts in my local area. But even there, when the chairs start swinging in the wind, I get a little wigged out and hang on the the back of the chair. So, you ask, how can you be a skier and be afraid of heights? You have to get up the mountain to ski down – don’t you? The answer is a resounding “yes” but it is always a mental ordeal for me until I get back on terra firma with my skis on. Let me tell you about some ski lifts that I faced in my life.
The Single Chairs- Stowe used to have them and Mad River Glen in Vermont still has the single chair. But they were kind of crazy in that they each came screaming at you in the loading zone and before you knew it, the operator was loading you and giving you a wool blanket for the ride up because in most cases in mid winter in Vermont, it was wicked cold. So there I am hanging in mid air, in a single chair, with a wool blanket wondering why this was the only option at the time. The single chair is iconic in New England ski lore and most people love the history of the lift. Me? I just wanted to get off the damn thing and start skiing.
The Fixed Grip Doubles with the pole in the center of the seat- the two that come to mind for me were the Cloud 9 chair at Aspen Highlands and the High Campbell chair at Crystal Mountain in Washington. I was stuck in the most frightening place on the old Cloud 9 Chair one year. The lift stopped and all I could see was 1000 feet below me on one side of the ridge and 1000 feet down on the other side of the ridge with the chair swinging wildly in the wind. I was hanging on to that pole for dear life. The High Campbell Chair was scary as well because it rose higher and higher as you were coming into view of the summit. When you got to the top and did a little hiking, you had a great view of Mt. Ranier and Mt. St. Helens on a clear day, but getting there was harrowing for me. An avalanche took out that chair last year and it has been replaced. I was in Crystal last winter but didn’t get to ride the replacement chair. Oh well.
The infamous Chair 23 at Mammoth Mountain, California- Mammoth is huge and so are the drops below the gondola as well as the chairs. A lot of them do not have safety bars as is the case with Chair 23. Every year, I face my demons again and load this chair with my friends. Two years ago, my friend Helen had to talk to me to distract me on the ride up. No safety bar and if I was in the middle I literally had both arms on the back of the chair looking straight up in the air. Helen laughed at me and so did her rotten husband. On our Mammoth trips each year, our group always delights in seeing how I will handle the heights of Chair 23. My phobia is well known with our group and it is a laughing matter to all of them. Sorry, but when I slide off the ramp at the top, I am a happy man.
Gondolas and Aerial Trams- these are not as bad for me because I am inside, sitting down or standing and have the feeling that I am in an airplane. In some strange way, I feel secure although the gondola at Mammoth rises to some astronomical heights and I mostly stare at the metal grating on the bottom of the gondola car until my friends tell me it is time to get off. They chuckle as I grab my skis and head for solid ground. I always feel better when I have my skis on.
Sometimes to get to the good stuff you have to climb. I have been on the High Traverse at Alta, Utah when part of it is eaten out and you have to take your skis off and walk across the rocks. That is real shaky for me looking to the left with a view of the base lodge and steep vertical in between. I can’t wait to get my skis back on and get out of the way of the crazy locals who are racing along that ridge to get to Eagles Nest to ski the deep stuff. At Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire, you have to climb to get anything. No lifts, and when your skis are over your shoulder, your knees are hitting the slope because of the pitch, and you are getting to the top of one of the gullies, putting the skis on and looking straight down into the valley- whoa Nellie!!!!!. It was amazing how much better I felt when at last my skis were attached to the bottom of my boots. I climbed to get to some good stuff at Snowbasin in Utah with my friend Jeff Mihalsky. He is a mountain goat and loves to climb. I was happy to ski his favorite lines but I must admit that the demons were screaming around me until I had my skis on once again.
Heights are definitely my nemesis in many ways. I have driven 18 miles out of my way to take the San Matteo bridge in San Francisco instead of taking the dreaded Bay Bridge. Whenever I have driven that Bay bridge, I have to talk to myself in the right lane all the way across and convince myself that I can make it. The height of that bridge is real frightening for me. Just like in a chair lift.
I have survived the lift and climbing situations over the years but it has definitely been a challenge for me. But, I like to ski and make turns so much that I have been willing to do whatever I can do to ride the lifts and fight my fears. So, if you are thinking about skiing and you don’t like the idea of chairlifts, aerial trams, or gondolas, just think of me. I have been at the mercy of my fears for 53 years but I still love to ski. That should tell you something about the great sport of skiing. Believe me, if I can do it, you can too. Thanks for reading and hold my hand if you are on the lift with me.