The Liftie Life
It’s a simple job, but loading lifts can change lives.
BY REED FINLAY WITH REBECCA HUNTINGTON AND DANI SPENCE
Every workday starts with a cold bus ride in from the employee parking lot. You shuffle uphill, fresh corduroy crunching underfoot as you pass Walk Festival Hall, Jackson Hole Sports, and Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. You can’t count how many times your older co-workers have told you about the Forest Service cabin that used to sit where the latter now does. The cabin was the site of bonfires and parties evidently memorable enough they’re still talking about them years later. (The cabin was razed more than a decade ago.)
Arriving at the MOB (Mountain Operations Building), fluorescent lights blazing overhead and the air ripe with the smell of dried sweat and stale boots, you squeeze by and around ski patrollers and instructors to get to your locker. It seems everyone is trying to wake up or sober up. Changed into your uniform, boots on and skis in hand, you head back outside and toward your lift. “What better way to start your day?” asks Dani Spence, who began working as a liftie at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) in the winter of 2002-03.
Running JHMR’s thirteen lifts—everything from a magic carpet to a state-of-the-art aerial tram—requires about 125 lift operations workers. Lift ops includes lifties, ticket checkers, foremen, and supervisors. The responsibilities of ticket checkers are obvious. Foremen, of which I was one from 1999 to 2005, assist supervisors in overseeing two or three lifts over the season. Supervisors manage lifts and handle the staffing and day-to-day operations of a particular lift.
Lifties—I was one of these, too, from 1992 to 1997—are the most public face of the department. A liftie working a fixed-grip chair loads about four hundred chairs an hour—coming into contact with about 1,600 people. They work ten-hour days, four days a week. Each day is broken into three shifts—top, bottom, and rover. Within these shifts, lifties rotate duties hourly. Together, the three shifts operate with the precision of a Swiss watch, shoveling the maze, brushing off seats, loading skiers, unloading skiers, counting skier numbers, keeping tissue boxes full, and making sure the lift itself is running smoothly. As a former lift mechanic put it, lifties are “the eyes and ears” of the lift mechanics.
Mostly, lifties love it. They love working outside. They love the immediate access to skiing the job affords. They love the camaraderie. At each winter’s orientation, Tim Mason, JHMR’s vice president of operations and a former liftie himself, says, “A lot of my best friends I’m still in contact with aren’t guys from high school or college. Most of them I got to know through the ski industry, and a lot of them are ex-lifties and patrollers.” Says Susanne Knighton, who worked the Teewinot lift at the bottom of the mountain for a season, “Everyone was just excited to go to work every day. You don’t find that in a lot of places, and I found that working as a liftie here. Even though I was a bottom feeder, I found a lot of joy at the bottom.” On average, 75 percent of JHMR lifties return the next season.
It’s spring of the 1995-96 ski season, my first working as a liftie on the Sublette chair. Locals have nicknamed this winter “ninety-five/ninety-sick” because of how much snow we’ve gotten: five hundred inches so far. It’s not stopping. Assigned to Sublette chair on the upper mountain—one of the most coveted liftie assignments because 1) of the terrain you can ski on your breaks and 2) you have to take the early tram, the 8:12, to get to your post—my legs have been rubber since, well, December. I’ve been skiing that much powder. I occasionally consider taking it easy, actually resting on my breaks instead of cramming in three 1,500-foot powder runs each one—but I can’t. How can I not ski when there’s yet another foot of new snow? Skiing is why I took this job in the first place.
I knew I wanted to move to Jackson Hole to ski after graduating, in 1992 with a degree in history, from Davidson College in my home state of North Carolina. The summer after graduation, I worked at a dude ranch in Montana. Some of the other ranch hands had worked at ski resorts in Colorado. They made being a liftie sound like the ultimate job for someone who wanted to ski. Which was just what I wanted to do. Other ski-town jobs good for racking up serious ski time are bartending and waiting tables. Both pay (much) better, but I liked the idea of being a liftie more. Lifties worked outside and right on the mountain. My breaks would be other people’s vacations, skiing some of the best in-bounds terrain in the country. That following winter, 1992-93, I was living in Jackson Hole and bumping chairs on Après Vous.
But back to my first year on Sublette, because that winter was just sick. Almost every morning in the locker room that season was wonderfully the same—fellow Sublette liftie Steve Romeo bouncing all over the room, giggling over the fact the resort was again reporting new snow accumulations in the double digits; Rick Swanker, another Sublette colleague, cracking coffee-fueled jokes. Even the lifties on Thunder—the other quad on the upper mountain—are lively; in past seasons, Thunder was a hard-partying crew that showed up each morning in a zombie-like state.
The exuberance only grows as we board the 8:12 a.m. worker tram and see the extent of the previous night’s dump. Most days, we’d see that all tracks had been obliterated, leaving the mountain a blank slate. By the time we pass the second tram tower, my thoughts are calculating how to sequence my runs during breaks and shift changes. I want to get as much powder as possible, hitting the main runs first and saving my secret stashes for last.
But first I have to get to Sublette. I traverse halfway across Rendezvous Bowl so I can drop straight down the fall line. Another morning, another set of fresh tracks down the bowl. The face shots—powder flying up into my face—choke me, and clumps of snow stick to my goggles. Still, I can see on both sides of me the contrails of other lifties enjoying their own fresh tracks. When I stop at the bottom, Swanker is straight-lining down on his snowboard; his lanky frame, slicing the deep snow like a shark fin, leaving a trail of cold smoke hovering in the air. He arrives at work, like we all do, with a humongous grin. Getting to work, we crank up the snow blower, shovel the ramp and start the lift just before the first tramload of ski schoolers and die-hards arrives.
It’s been more than seventeen years since that winter and sixteen years since I last bumped a chair for an entire season. (I bumped chairs, again assigned to Sublette, for one more season before moving on to other lift-related, on-mountain jobs.)
Still I remember those days like they were yesterday. This could perhaps be nostalgia—they were a carefree time when my biggest concerns were quaking quads. Or perhaps it is because every workday all winter long I still see and talk to lifties. Working as a liftie changed my career path and was the initial reason I stuck around this valley. From liftie, I worked my way up to foreman and then supervisor. Since 2005, I’ve been a full-time JHMR ski patroller.
One of the lifties I supervised after I began climbing up the ranks, Dani Spence, is now Detective Danielle Spence. She works for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. Spence says interacting with the public as a liftie and getting to know the community and mountain helped the growth of her career as a sheriff’s office detective. “By understanding the Jackson community, and also the ski culture, language, and lifestyle, it’s made it easier to navigate some of my cases in the valley,” Spence says. “I remember what it’s like to move here bright-eyed and looking to ski and have fun.”
“During the winter months, at any given point during the day, it’s possible the majority of the Teton County population is out at JHMR and Teton Village. At the sheriff’s office, we deal with a lot of calls for service out there—citizen assists, crimes, emergencies—and there are resources I have from being a liftie. I’ve helped close cases because of having been a liftie,” Spence says. “I know who to talk to out there and how to approach them. There are contacts throughout the community I made that help when I need to track down people or resources. Knowing ski patrollers and the layout of the mountain has helped me talk a few people out of the backcountry and give a heads-up to responding deputies about the terrain or possible equipment needed to rescue someone. I know where the service roads are on the mountain: Can we drive right to an incident or do we need a helicopter and Search and Rescue?”
Today, Mike Nichols, who bumped chairs between 1997 and 2000, works behind the concierge desk at Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. He advises the property’s guests on how to make the most of their time in the valley. “Having been a liftie makes me more effective as a concierge,” Nichols says. “I know the mountain in all weather and snow conditions, and can guide guests to the best terrain for their level.”
“I barely knew how to ski and had never been on a snowmobile before,” says Knighton, who was a twenty-year-old petite blonde from North Carolina when she started as a liftie in the 1999-2000 season. “I was a Southern bell in a stinky locker room” dominated by men, she says. Given Knighton’s limited skiing skills, she was assigned to the Teewinot chair. She worked as a liftie just one winter before heading back to school to finish her biology degree. But she didn’t stay away. Degree in hand, she came back to work at JHMR. “I wasn’t going to be a bottom feeder anymore, though,” she says. (“Bottom feeders” are the lifties assigned to the resort’s lower-elevation lifts: Teewinot, Union Pass, Eagle’s Rest, Moose Creek, and Granite Ridge.) With the ski skills she had honed during her time as a liftie, she secured a job as a ski instructor and eventually, a Kids Ranch supervisor in the ski school. Knighton also worked as a ski host and conducted surveys for the resort. She has since earned a master’s degree in education and started her own tutoring business.
I’m not the only liftie who has opted to stay and rise in rank within the industry. Mason got a job as a liftie in the early 1980s. He bumped chairs on the Mary Jane side of Winter Park Resort in Colorado. At the time, he thought it was more a job than something that would lead to a career. “I decided I wanted to work outside, I wanted to be a lift operator, and I wanted to do it for one year,” Mason says.
Mason moved to Jackson in 1996-97, also known as “ninety-sick/ninety-heaven”—lifties, and locals, give most winters a nickname. With fifteen years of lift-related jobs under his belt when he arrived here, Mason started at JHMR as lift operations supervisor, overseeing the resort’s one hundred-some lifties, including me.
Now, as vice president of operations, Mason is still head of all lifts at JHMR and also of snowmaking, grooming operations, and ski patrol. Lifties remain close to his heart; he makes sure to check in with the culture by riding every lift at least once every three days.
While the benefits are hard to beat, bumping chairs can be one of the toughest and least-appreciated jobs on the mountain. Knighton is just five feet tall and weighs 105 pounds. “The hardest part of the job was lifting kids weighted down with ski gear onto the lift,” she says. But some mornings, lifting kids paled in comparison to the meteorological phenomenon of an inversion, which we get fairly frequently. On inversion days, the upper mountain, and the lifties assigned to its lifts, bask in sun and (relative) warmth while the lower elevations and its workers must endure temperatures that can be twenty to forty degrees colder.
Other mornings, Spence recalls, the “commute” to work is horrible. “You’d have to try to keep the fillings in your mouth as you raced over frozen corduroy and bumped down slopes trashed from the previous day,” she says. “Those were the mornings you just tried to survive the first run. Then you get to your lift and that’s when the work really set in.”
“We weren’t spoons, carting around food and tucked away in warm cafeterias all day. We weren’t the local skids who had trust funds and no idea what it meant to earn a dollar. We weren’t the high-and-mighty ski schoolers with their pompous attitudes. We weren’t patrollers, who actually were pretty cool,” Spence says. “We were lifties—we were the ones who started the magic every morning. We were the keepers of fun. A liftie knew the beep code and what would happen if you couldn’t get the backup generators going if something took the main power out. We kept the mountain running, the maze shoveled, the seats brushed off, and the pit snow-blown. We endured backaches or repeated sore shoulders from a bad bump of the chair. We did it all so that the bull wheel kept turning.” Also, because we love it.
“You don’t become a liftie to be rich,” says Spence, who, simultaneously with bumping chairs, worked the second shift at Albertsons bagging groceries. “I had to pay my student loans and bills. But it was worth it. You work as a liftie to live a few rich months of your life in near-poverty. The funny thing is that a lot of lifties have the education and skills to get jobs that make serious money. I have a four-year college degree and many of my co-workers also had bachelor’s degrees, if not master’s degrees or even doctorates. We joked that we were the smart ones with our current employment choice, though. We weren’t stuck in office buildings in the city with only a week a year to recreate.”