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It’s difficult to imagine skiing before lifts when you had to haul your gear up the mountain in a tweed suit. There’s got to be an easier way. How do skiers nowadays get up the mountain?
Skiing and snowboarding are unusual sports in that it is generally not practical to climb to the ski slopes. Most skiers get to the top of mountains using ski lifts. While some skiers do hike up and ski down, the more adventurous get a ride on a helicopter.
It is the force of gravity, that provides the energy, which enables skiers to ski down a mountain. Sadly, gravity only works in one direction towards the center of the earth, so skiers need help from other sources to get back up to the top of the mountain. When skiing first started there were no luxuries like chairlifts or gondolas and skiers had to climb the runs in full gear.
Technology has transformed mountain transport and there are now numerous models of equipment, which are used for different applications to carry skiers up the mountain.
Ski touring has grown in popularity over recent years. Skiers enjoy the freedom of going their own way away from the crowds. Ski touring involves hiking up the mountain using specialist equipment and then skiing down in a conventional way. For ski touring the ski boots are softer and more flexible and the skis are generally lighter.
The ski binding at the rear is detachable for going uphill, which enables your ankle to flex. To stop slipping backward the skis have ‘skins’ attached to the base of the skis, which are traditionally made from mohair although there are numerous man-made skins available too. The direction of the hair on the skin makes sliding forwards easy but creates resistance against the snow when the ski goes backward.
1. Drag Lifts
There are several types of drag lifts used to carry skiers up the mountain. More commonly chairlifts have taken the place of drag lifts, although most resorts still use them. Drag Lifts are much cheaper than chairlifts and are often used for shorter sections.
2. Button lift
The button lift is often used in beginner areas and on mountainsides that are particularly uneven where a chairlift wouldn’t be appropriate. The button lift consists of a long metal pole suspended from a high wire and has a small button or seat at the bottom.
The button goes between your legs, and you hold onto the pole as you are dragged up the mountain. A spring section in the pole mechanism creates free play for uneven sections.
3. T-bar lift
The T-bar lift is very similar in construction and use to the button lift except that instead of a button at the base of the pole it has a T-shaped bar. This enables two people to take the lift at one time, one on either side of the pole.
4. Magic Carpet/Rope Tow
Magic Carpets are continuously moving belts, which generally carry skiers across slight inclines or flat sections, often in the main part of the resort. Rope Tows consist of a continuous loop of rope, which circulates at waist height for skiers to grab onto. They can be used to cross short flat and uphill sections.
Chairlifts are the most frequently used pieces of equipment for transporting skiers and snowboarders. The chair or seat can take anything between 2 to 8 passengers and is suspended from a heavy-duty wire, which runs over a series of pylons going up the mountain. With your skis on you sit on the chairlift and lower a metal safety bar to stop you from falling out.
Technology is applied at the top and bottom of the lift so that as the chairlift approaches the station a mechanism transfers the chairlift to a slower wire temporarily, to allow passengers off and on. On leaving the station the chairlift is transferred back to the faster wire and accelerates away. If you’re wondering, chairlifts are not cheap to build and this one in Austria cost $83 million.
The gondola is a small, enclosed cabin, which has automatic electric doors which open in the lift station. Gondolas operate in a similar manner to chairlifts, with numerous gondolas spread along the overhead wire.
Gondolas carry from four to 30 people and travel slowly through the station at the top and bottom so skiers can get on and off. Often skiers remove their skis and slot them into specially designed external baskets.
7. Cable Car
Cable cars generally have two cars on the same supporting wire. They vary in size and design enormously and often carry up to 200 people, some in double-decker cars. Cable cars are designed to quickly move a lot of skiers high up the mountain. Because of their size and design, they are usually ad hoc projects and consequently very expensive.
There are two types of the funicular railway, one travels overground and the other underground.
The overground funicular railway runs on traditional rails but may have a narrower gauge. For particularly steep sections the train has a rack and pinion system. A metal rack is situated between the rails and a cog on the train driveshaft marries with the rack to give assured drive over the steeper sections.
Occasionally funicular railways are constructed completely inside the mountain. This ensures weather never causes any hold-ups but increases the construction cost considerably.
Heli-skiing started in the late 1950s and is still popular today. A small group of skiers or boarders are flown to their desired starting point to then freestyle down the mountain. It’s naturally very expensive and not very environmentally friendly. France has banned heli-skiing explaining that it benefits very few and causes a lot of noise pollution to many.