Peeking Into a Lift Operator’s Life

In any skier’s typical day, each chairlift or gondola ride always involves a Lift Operator. This key employee is constantly making sure that everyone is safe and well cared for. The constant interaction between Lift Operators and skiers has perked up my curiosity and prompted me to know more, and understand better, what motivates these seemingly tireless mountain workers.

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Late this season, one early morning, just before his shift, Kevin Combs, one of the many Deer Valley’s Lift Operators, took the time to listen to my questions and shone a rather enthusiastic light on his daily life:

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JF: How long have you been a lift operator?
Kevin: This actually is my first year.

JF: What was your occupation before that?
Kevin: I was a machinist, back east, in Massachusetts. I moved to Utah in November.

JF: How do you like working with Deer Valley Resort?
Kevin: It’s fun. It’s a great experience being here, lots of great people to work with, everyone has a smile on their face and always ready to serve our guests and makes sure everyone has a great experience, whether we’re talking about guests or fellow employees.

JF: Were you a skier before you came here?
Kevin: Oh, yes! I have been skiing since I was 12 years old.

JF: So, I guess you learned and skied in New England?
Kevin: Oh yeah, I skied the ice, which is something you have to learn on the East Coast. I can guarantee that it makes a good technical skier out of anyone who learns over there!

JF: How often to you get to ski?
Kevin: That’s what makes the job so exciting: I get to ski every day; whenever I get a break, I ski, it’s great!

JF: Even on your days off?
Kevin: You bet, I ski every day that I can, I wouldn’t miss a beat!

JF: Where, on the mountain, do you work?
Kevin: I am working out of Empire Canyon. I either work on Empire or Ruby Express chairlifts. I also help around on the mountain when another lift is short of people. I’ll rotate as needed.

JF: Since this was your first season, have you visited other Utah resorts?
Kevin: I’ve almost skied them all; the only ones I think I haven’t skied yet are Solitude, Powder Mountain and Snowbasin.

JF: When you’re skiing Deer Valley, what’s your favorite run?
Kevin: I’m into extreme skiing so I love to ski a lot around Lady Morgan, because of its great tree skiing and its cliffs. I’m particularly fond of Centennial Trees, and of course, I ski off Empire Express in places like Daly Bowl and all the surrounding Daly Chutes. When I happen to find an untouched area, I just “drop-in…”

JF: Are you skiing alone or with buddies?
Kevin: I do a lot of skiing by myself. This said, I have a lot of friends who ski with me; I do my own things in the morning, and then I hang with them in the afternoon because sometimes they can’t quite follow me. But I like to ski with everybody and together, we always have a great time; I guess that’s what skiing is all about!

JF: What would you say are the skills required to do your job well?
Kevin: Before anything, you need to be a great people person. You need to be concerned about skiers’ safety and comfort, especially those who are less advanced and aren’t always familiar with riding lifts. Sure, it also helps to know a little about things mechanical, the lift itself, because it’s a big piece of machinery. For instance I pay attention to noises that may come from the lift; with my mechanical background, I can alert Maintenance to a problem if there seems to be one. Of course, the job also demands that one is a decent skier so you can ski to and from work, can relate well to our guests and have a wonderful interaction with them.

JF: Does a healthy passion for skiing help?
Kevin: Oh yes, most definitely! If you work as a Lift Operator and are not really here for skiing, you miss out a lot. Of course you can take the job just for the love of the mountains, but a passion for skiing shows and makes all the difference. Working no longer feels like work!

JF: What would be your next professional goal with Deer Valley Resort?
Kevin: I’d probably love to move up to Ski Patrol, because I like to help people and be on skis. For me, being outside and helping people are the two main reasons why I love with my life at Deer Valley!

JF: If people reading this blog were interested in a position like yours, what kind of advice would you give them?
Kevin: Don’t be scared by the responsibilities and by all the impressive machinery; the work is totally doable. The training Deer Valley provides is great, everything is fluid, all the kinks have been purged, and of course, there’s all the skiing!

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JF: What will you do this summer?
Kevin: I’m planning to get a job with an online sport equipment supplier in the Salt Lake Valley. During my spare time, I also plan to mountain bike a lot here and around Moab!

JF: Sounds exciting! So, you’re looking forward to another winter season with Deer Valley Resort?
Kevin: I think so; I’m now convinced Deer Valley is the place to be. It’s a lot of fun here. We’re surrounded with lots of great, helpful people all the time. I’ve never had a bad day here, which is simply… amazing!

Slow lifts: Endangered Species?

Not so long ago, most ski lifts were slow. They provided us with a chance to catch up, regroup, think about our technique, rest our legs and even munch on a sandwich or a bar. They also gave us a chance to talk. Talk about anything: from views, to snow quality, to weather, good restaurants or cool equipment; the list could go on forever… In those days, even though chairlifts could be painfully slow, we got to the top without realizing we had spent fifteen solid minutes hanging up in the air.

We had to wait until 1981 to see the first ever, high speed detachable quad in the world, installed in the Rocky Mountains. Since then, that precious “chair-time” has been rapidly eroding; at the best American resorts, high-speed chairlift are becoming the norm. Next winter, what used to be the perfect illustration for today’s subject, the Deer Crest chairlift, will undergo a total metamorphosis and in the process, will shed its fixed grips, its slow, easy pace, for a brand new detachable design that will whisk skiers, in less than half the time taken previously, to the top of the Jordanelle Gondola. In the process, it will also get rechristened “Mountaineer Express.”

Back in February of 2010, I wrote a blog about chairlift stories, set back in a time where most chairlifts hanged to a fixed grip, moved up much more slowly and were the perfect place for telling, trading or making stories, as long as the company was receptive and the weather wasn’t extreme. Of course, things have changed a great deal with the spread of portable music players and the proliferation of smart phones. Now, a short life ride is all the time one needs for checking emails, tweeting or responding to a Facebook post. What I’m trying to say is that today, chairlifts have become more an opportunity to catch up on-line than striking a long and profound conversation. From that viewpoint, the demise of the slower lift might accompany the end of endless chat aloft. So much for long conversations or even for a quick lunch up in the air (Deer Valley restaurants are a much better culinary alternative anyway!)

And with the switch to faster ski-lifts what about our own, tired legs. I can think of many time when finally sitting down while riding up the mountain was a welcome relief! One might argue that nowadays skiers are much more fit and don’t generally look for the “rest” provided by a slow moving seat. I would add that with so many new spas available in and around Deer Valley, soothing options are today more easily available and have become so common-place that a tired pair of legs can soon be pampered and repaired into peak shape after a solid day of hard skiing.  On the flip side, one aspect no one will miss with detachable chairlifts is the “bump” in the back of our calves that could be common place if we didn’t pay attention or if the lift attendants weren’t so kind to be holding (or bumping) the chair for us.

This creature-of-comfort consideration also brings up my last argument: Today, with much faster ski-lifts, the same amount of skiing that used to take an entire day, can be compressed into half that time thanks to these express chairlifts and there’s now more time for enjoying all the extra resort activities that have sprouted in recent years. We all know that multitasking doesn’t work too well, so why not ski more intensely for fewer hours on these state-of-the-art lifts and use up the extra time for a longer and much more civilized lunch break, some early après-ski, a shopping spree, a spa session or for discovering snowmobiling or a hike in snowshoes?

So, well before the last slow chairlift is slated for demolition, Deer Valley Resort recognizes that some chairlifts should, for the time being, remain in the slow lane if you need to share very long stories or if you want to relax your legs for more than just six or eight minutes. I’m not talking about the few beginner lifts that are found on Wide West or the short connecting chairlifts that are spread all over the mountain, but bigger lifts like Mayflower or Red Cloud. They both run in parallel with a much faster chairlift and will also get you to the top, giving you much more time to catch your breath, enjoy the vistas and smell the snowflakes!

Of course, if that story has made you really nostalgic about slow chairlifts and you can’t wait until this winter to experience these slow, classic machines, now is the time to jump on any of Deer Valley’s express chairlifts when they’re running at low speed during the summer season to accommodate mountain bikers and pedestrians; that way you’ll be able to fully enjoy the ride, marvel at the scenery and trade some really good stories, but don’t delay, summer will soon be over!