The metronomic strains of a cable running over wheels means that a ski lift is keeping time, and with it, the skier. Unlike standardized chronometers, however, each lift’s time code is unique, inculcating its own wayward mathematic: the distance between towers isn’t uniform, so time in this odd universe seems to slow down and speed up at strange intervals. When a lift stops suddenly, it’s like time itself has halted.
One time I wondered how much time I’d spent on lifts. But first I had to calculate how much time I’d spent skiing. A reasonable estimate was 30 years x 75 days per year = 2,250 days, and 2,250/365 = something just over 6.16 years. Wow. But what about the ascent to descent ratio? I figured you spent two-thirds (.66) of a ski day not skiing, so 6.16 years x .66 = 4-ish years. Even if I generously ascribed half that time to eating lunch and waiting in line, I’d still spent two full years riding lifts.
A crazy statistic, but accurate?
I asked a ski friend who is a professional actuary and hobby number-nerd — with reams of self-collected data at his fingertips — to also derive a figure from first principles. Assuming high-speed lifts, average ride times, and a typical day for an advanced skier being 23,000 vertical feet, he came up with 72 percent of a day spent not skiing. As further test, he analyzed a spreadsheet from a 44,200-vertical-foot day at Snowbird, Utah, with minimal crowds; using trail-map ride times, he again estimated close to 70 percent of the day spent doing something other than making turns.
Bottom line? Waiting for and riding lifts easily consumes more than half a normal ski day at a modern resort; throw in excessive lineups or slow lifts, and 60 to 70 percent is more than reasonable.
That’s depressing — unless it’s a powder day. Since the 95 percent of time spent ascending in backcountry skiing is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for untracked snow, you’re doing okay.
Photo: Chair 23, Mammoth Mountain, by Steve Casimiro