You spend a lot of time on lifts on a ski holiday, and resorts are progressively realising that comfort on the lift, and a short queuing time, are important factors to skiers and boarders when gauging the enjoyment of their holiday. Lift systems are progressively becoming more elaborate and resorts are continually looking for new ways to form high-speed links between ski areas; the Vanoise Express in France (linking Peisey-Vallandry in the Les Arcs ski area to La Plagne) and the Peak 2 Peak Gondola (linking the summits of Whistler and Blackcomb in Canada) are great examples of new technology enabling a holidaymaker to make the most out of their time on the mountain.
Most common types of ski lifts
A chairlift is probably what most people would picture if asked to think about a ski lift - it circles on a wire, the skier or boarder sits on it and then pulls down a safety rail to hold them in. They may seat from two to eight passengers and come in various degrees of complexity, from some of the more basic 'one speed' lifts (which the lift attendant will generally grab to limit the impact when it arrives - it's not as bad as it sounds, but you do need to be prepared!) to ultra-complex bubbles which have a hood to protect the passenger from the elements and, in the case of some of the more upmarket American resorts, even heated seats!
Gondolas are similar in operating style to chairlifts, in that they operate on a cable which circulates in one direction. They are enclosed cabins which seat anything from four to thirty people - the smaller ones have seats (and you store your skis or board in racks attached to the outside) and the larger ones are basically standing spaces, and you keep your equipment with you. Gondolas obviously protect you from bad weather - but conversely, are one of the first genres of lifts to be closed in high winds.
Cable Cars and Funiculars
Cable cars generally comprise two cabins which operate on a pulley system - i.e. one goes up when the other comes down. Again they can be affected by adverse wind conditions, and you often have to wait a few minutes for one to arrive. However they can carry a large number of passengers at one time - the Vanoise Express mentioned above can hold over 200 people on its 1.9km journey between the two lift stations, hanging around 340m above the valley floor.
Funiculars, or mountain railways, are generally the fastest means of transport. They run on rails - often underground - and comprise a number of carriages.
Drag lifts tow you along the path as you hold onto them - they are often operated in beginner areas (because the short distance travelled means it's not worth installing a chair lift) and come in various guises:
Button (or Poma) Lifts
Named after the company that manufactures them, button lifts are often used in beginner areas in France; the lift comprises a series of poles with button-shaped seats on the end that are suspended (via a spring arrangement) from a high-level moving cable; you put the seat between your legs, then hold on to it as it drags the button and you up the slope. Button lifts are also sometimes used in areas that may be too narrow or infrequently used for a chairlift to drag skiers up steep slopes (sometimes boarders and beginners are banned!) or to link across flat areas.
These operate on much the same principle as button lifts in that they drag you up the slope - the main difference is that two people take the lift at one time, and lean against a support like a large 'T' rather than a button.
Rope Tows / Magic Carpets
A number of other simple-to-use lift systems exist - rope tows are based around a waist-height moving cable which may have hand holds or seats attached. Magic carpets allow a beginner or child to stand on a moving travelator-style belt which is easy to get on or off as necessary!
Tips for ski lifts
In some resorts, lift queues can be longer than one would like. Here are a few tips for avoiding the queues, well known by the locals:
- In many resorts, there are a number of lifts which will eventually lead to the same place higher up the mountain. Sometimes, by heading further down the mountain (for example a piste that runs past, and then lower than resort) you can jump on a chairlift which heads in the same direction as a larger lift and avoid the peak-time bottleneck at the main lift station.
- Check out the links between the whole of the ski area, and the lifts outside the main village - often it is worth jumping on a ski shuttle bus to another village in order to find quieter lifts and slopes in the same ski area. For example, the queues at the Mayrhofen gondola can be avoided by catching a bus to Hippach or Finkenberg, whose gondolas also feed into the same area.
- Chair lifts and buttons are often much less popular than gondolas, as you are outside for the journey. Take advantage of this to find shorter queues, and use the extra time in the sun to work on your goggle tan!
- A number of resorts, particularly in North America, run a 'first tracks' scheme, where riders can pay a fee to board the lifts as much as two hours before the standard opening time, and so combine avoiding the early morning queue with being the first on completely untracked pistes! Whistler, for example, offers a daily 'fresh tracks' ticket, which also includes a large breakfast in a mountain restaurant.