A typical day on Chair 23, Mammoth Mountain. Photo: Peatross/MMSA
The chairlift is the perfect ski vehicle. Not the tram, not the t-bar, not even the gondie. No, the chair is ideal — it provides a moment to get off your feet, look around, and talk, all while staying connected to the fresh air and other elements. Imagine how different the ski culture would be if we didn’t have chairs, if we didn’t have the chance to scope lines, heckle, catch up with bros, or meet someone new. Indeed, when it comes to culture, chairs are every bit as important as aprés…beforeprés.
What makes a great chairlift? In descending order of importance: access to awesome terrain, access to the best snow, exclusivity to terrain, cultural resonance, scenery, and history. Speed and capacity are nice to have, I suppose, but often come in inverse proportions to the chairs that warm your heart; six packs, for example, are simply soulless people movers installed by profit-hungry corporations.
Indeed, that’s why Mad River Glen’s single chair is on the list — not because of the terrain (which is just okay) or the snow (which is usually crap), but because of Mad River’s dogged (and miserly) insistence on keeping the woefully inefficient lift running despite a dozen reasons to replace it. The Mad River single represents skiing culture at is simplest and finest — rooted in tradition, a little crunchy, beloved despite itself.
But enough of that. Here are, in my opinion, the best chairs in North America. For all those I’ve left out, graded too high, or offended, well, I’m sure you’ll let me know.
In alphabetical order by ski area name
Collins, Alta, Utah Type: Detachable quad
The best lift at the best powder ski area in the world, Collins services most of the benchmark, gotta-ski runs at Alta: High Rustler, the Backside, Eddie’s High Nowhere, everything off the High Traverse, Gunsight, High Greeley, Eagle’s Nest, North Rustler, Yellow Trail, Baldy Shoulder. http://www.alta.com/
Glacier Express, Blackcomb, British Columbia Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,965 feet
Riding the highest chair at Blackcomb is like being given the keys to the kingdom, with fast, 270-degree access to alpine and sub-alpine skiing, plus a short hoof to Spanky’s Ladder, a quick booter that unlocks an ungodly amount of backcountry. http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/
Sublette Quad, Jackson Hole, Wyoming Type: Fixed-grip quad
Vertical: 1,630 feet
The chairs at Jackson don’t get their due, not when the tram looms over the landscape like lord and master of all it surveys, but day in and day out, Sublette delivers fast access to most of the mountain, especially good if you want to lap the upper pitches (like, when there’s an inversion). The Thunder quad is fun, but Sublette gets you to the backcountry on both sides of the hill (Rock Springs to the south and Granite to the north via Headwall hike), plus inbounds goodies like the Alta chutes. And jeez, don’t forget the Hobacks — those runs alone would put Sublette on this list. http://www.jacksonhole.com/
Single Chair, Mad River Glen, Vermont Type: Fixed-grip single
Vertical: 2,067 feet
Soft, spoiled western skiers don’t really get Mad River Glen or the obsession with its single chair (single as in only holding one person, not the only chair for the entire hill), but MRG stands for the things in skiing that don’t change and don’t need to be changed: a mountain, some snow (if you’re lucky), and uphill access to it. That’s all. The Single Chair is absurdly anachronistic, but that’s why people love it — because it’s only about chasing turns, not profits. And hey, it’s not just us: Mad River is the only ski resort named to the National Register of Historic Places. http://www.madriverglen.com/
Chair 23, Mammoth Mountain, California Type: Fixed-grip triple
Vertical: 1,121 feet
The beauty of Chair 23 is in its simplicity: Atop Mammoth’s open, European-style upper mountain, you can see everything you want to ski from the chair — and get access to about two-thirds of the mountain. 23 follows a spiny volcano ridge, with twin chutes plummeting from either side of its hoover-like top station, Dropout to looker’s left, Wipeout to the right, so you can scope your line and get a snow check as people drop in before you. On a powder day, it provides the fastest, surest lapping opportunities — hit it hard and straight back to the chair. http://www.mammothmountain.com/
Double, Silverton Mountain, Colorado Type: Fixed-grip double
Vertical: 1,900 feet
There’s no chair in North America like the Silverton Double because there’s no mountain like Silverton. The highest, steepest lift-served hill in North America is unique in that’s ungroomed, all advanced and expert terrain, mostly guided (though not always), and extremely low skier density. More like a helicopter operation than a typical commercial area, Silverton’s lift gets you 1,800-plus empty acres, and, if you’ve packed a third lung, you can hike another thousand vert to above that to 13,487. http://www.silvertonmountain.com
KT22 Express, Squaw Valley, California Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,767 feet
Is KT overrated or underrated? The debate rages on while the first chair powder morning lineup stretches to the parking lot. Whichever your position on KT, there’s no arguing that the skiing off this lower-mountain lift at Squaw is one of the more sublime drops in the Lower 48, with open faces, fat old tree glades, and a handful of infamous finger slots right under the chair. For pure theater, there’s nothing like it. http://www.squaw.com/
Challenger, Sun Valley, Idaho Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,630 feet
You know that thing I said about speed not mattering? Scratch that. The Challenger quad on the Warm Springs side of Sun Valley hauls ass up Bald Mountain, giving access to the entire area, and then you can turn around and haul ass down. My legs still quiver at the remembrance of the day I skied Warm Springs nonstop from bell to bell and logged 100,000 vertical in 32 runs. Not too many chairs where you can do that. http://www.sunvalley.com/
Peak Express, Whistler, British Columbia Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,316 feet
Oh, c’mon, it’s Whistler. It’s the Peak Chair. Almost 5,000 acres of terrain and a mile of vertical if you want to go all the way to the valley floor. How to put it in easy-to-understand terms…riding Peak is like…owning New Belgium Brewery…like…being married to a supermodel…like…having a helicopter without the danger of crashing in a whiteout. A minimum of four alpine bowls, including Harmony, plus glades and more. http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/