While the first ski lifts were able to transport winter sports enthusiasts comfortably up the mountain, thus making winter sports a mass sport, they had one decisive disadvantage: Since the lift riders had to glide their skis over the snow, the ski lifts did not work without snow on the ground. So the lifts could not be used in summer, which led to the first thoughts about how tourists could also be transported up the mountain outside the winter season – for hiking, for example. That was the birth of chairlift skiing. SnowTrex knows that in the meantime not only hiking enthusiasts but also all winter sports enthusiasts benefit from this.
What is a chairlift?
A chairlift is a cable car that runs an endless loop on a haul rope. Seating devices are attached to the haul rope, in most cases for one to two, but maximum up to eight persons. In Europe, chairlifts have safety bars, but this is not always the case in North America.
In contrast to drag lifts, where winter sports enthusiasts guide their skis along the ground, passengers on a chairlift float in the air. A distinction is made between fixed-grip and detachable chairlifts.
Fixed-grip chairlifts: From walk lifts to basket lifts
The simplest form is the fixed-grip chairlift. In Austria they are called “chairlift”, in English they are called “fixed grip chairlift” (colloquially just “chairlift”). They are called “fixed grip” because the bar on the haul rope is firmly connected to the seat device. As with the T-bar lift, winter sports enthusiasts get on and off while the lift is in motion; the chairlift does not stop. In more modern lifts, conveyor belts help with getting on and off. On some chairlifts, lift staff slow down the speed at the stations.
The world’s first fixed-grip chairlift had only one seat for one person and was a kind of walk lift. It worked exactly like a surface lift: the speed was slower, however, so that passengers could walk or pull their feet along the ground during the ride.The Swiss engineer Ernst Constam finally had the idea of replacing the stirrups with chairs. Thus, in 1943, the first chairlift was built on the Jochpass in Engelberg. Strictly speaking, it was a combined lift with both stirrups and chairs and gondolas. Passengers could therefore choose their own form of transport. The stirrups were the cheapest option, while the gondolas were something like first-class transport.
in 1954, the world’s first fixed-grip chairlift was operated with only two-seaters. This brought many advantages: more winter sports enthusiasts could be transported and skiing became more sociable. In the 1980s, the capacity increased to four people in many places.
Among the special forms of fixed-grip chairlifts are the basket lifts popular in Italy. Here, skiers jump into standing baskets and ride up the mountain. Another interesting special form are the group circulating lifts, which come to a stop at both the top and the bottom of the station at the same time, making it easier for winter sports enthusiasts to get on and off. However, these group circulating lifts have not yet been able to establish themselves in many ski resorts because they are more expensive and ski lift operators prefer to use the more popular detachable circulating lifts instead.
Detachable chairlifts emerged at the same time as fixed-grip lifts. However, their origins date back to 19th century material ropeways.
The main difference between detachable chairlifts and fixed-grip chairlifts is that the seats in the stations are automatically detached from the rope by a mechanism. This slows down the speed at the summit as well as in the valley, so that winter sports enthusiasts can get on and off more comfortably. In order not to restrict the transport capacity too much, the detachable chairlifts travel faster between the stations than fixed-grip lifts.
The world’s first detachable chairlift was built in Switzerland shortly after the end of the Second World War and could carry two people. They were seated at right angles to the slope, which was supposed to give them a better view. The disadvantage of this design, however, was that winter sports enthusiasts had to unbuckle their skis, which made getting on and off more complicated.
It was not until the mid-1970s when detachable chairlifts were built parallel to the direction of travel so that winter sports enthusiasts could keep their equipment on that the lifts became established in many ski resorts.
The special forms include, as already mentioned, the gondola lifts as well as the combined lift. This so-called “telemix” lift offers both chairs and cabins on a single haul rope. Experienced skiers who can get on and off quickly may choose the chairs. Beginners or children therefore often prefer the cabins.
Meanwhile, chairlifts are also recognised by ski resorts as a marketing tool. Safety bars that open and close automatically are designed to make passengers feel safer. Heated chairlifts as well as weatherproof cabins, the so-called bubbles, are meant to attract winter sports enthusiasts through the increased comfort factor.
The right behaviour in the chairlift
The safest way to ride a chairlift is to know the rules of conduct – and to follow them. Since most accidents and falls happen on chairlifts when getting on and off, it is important to be especially careful here. But that’s not the only thing that requires attention:
As with skiing, queuing on chairlifts also requires consideration for others. This means that winter sports enthusiasts should wait patiently, not push, queue properly and not push in front. If there are lift staff, the instructions of the employees should always be followed. If you need help getting on, it is advisable to announce this well in advance so as not to hold up following passengers unnecessarily.
There can be different forms of queues. Either there is a single queue, in which case people simply get to the back of the queue, or passengers can get on from different sides. It is worth making a brief arrangement with other passengers beforehand so that everyone knows who is sitting where. This avoids long waits for the next riders as well as crashes because the seats might need to be changed.
Often there is a separate queue (single line) for people who ride alone. As soon as a seat is free in the chairlift, it is filled up. Ski schools also use these to transport smaller children who cannot or should not ride alone.
No matter whether it’s the conveyor belt to the lift or the barrier – once it’s the queue, he or she quickly makes their way to the entering point. The ski poles remain in one hand. Snowboarders get out of the rear binding. A glance backwards at the chair and the free hand help to get on safely. If you take a backpack with you, it is best to carry it around your chest. This way, winter sports enthusiasts do not push anyone away unintentionally. When getting in and out of the car, it is also important to make sure that the buckles or straps of the backpack do not get caught anywhere.
Closing the stirrups
In some chairlifts the bar has to be closed manually. Here there is either a signal indicating when this should be done, or there is consultation with the chair partners. In particular, the bar should not be pulled down while others are still sitting down or adjusting themselves.
During the ride, skiers should remain calm and not rock back and forth, for example, in order to cause the track to wobble. In addition, the stirrup should be kept closed.
Under no circumstances should passengers jump off the lift during the ride. Even in places where it may be possible (such as when there is an extreme amount of snow and a lift rides quite flat over the ground), this is absolutely forbidden.
Smoking and dropping rubbish during the ride is of course also strictly forbidden for reasons of nature conservation. It is also important to hold on to your own equipment and secure it so that nothing can fall out.
Stopping during the ride
If the chairlift stops during the ride, it is important to remain seated. If there are children in the chairlift or other passengers are getting restless, they should be calmed down. The most important rule is to remain calm and follow the instructions of the staff. Passengers should never act on their own authority or even try to jump off. Chairlifts often go higher than expected and therefore there is a high risk of injury.
Before getting off
Disembarkation is smoothest when passengers prepare themselves in good time. To do this, it is absolutely advisable to keep your equipment together, stay alert and lift your skis out of their holders and the tips of your skis a little before you arrive. This prevents the skis from ramming into the snow, which reduces the risk of injury.
Automatic brackets open about 20 seconds before exit. If they need to be opened manually, most lifts have signs, lift staff or signal lights to indicate when the stirrups can be opened. All skiers should coordinate beforehand so that everyone is ready to open.
Chairlifts typically have two phases at the top station. First there is a flat area where the skis touch down, but the poles are still held in one hand before pushing off the lift with the other and finding balance. This is followed by a gentle slope that helps to glide quickly out of the exit area. Skiers and snowboarders should not stay there too long in order not to hinder following skiers or be hit by the lift. Only when you are far enough away from the lift are both poles taken in hand and the descent begins. This is important because using the poles too early can either damage the poles or cause falls. For example, other passengers may be hit with the poles or the poles may get stuck in the snow, increasing the risk of damage to the equipment.
If you fall down when getting off, you should try to get up again as quickly as possible and move on. If you can’t do this, you can roll to the side so that you are not in the way of other skiers getting off. If winter sports enthusiasts have more difficulties, they should give the lift staff a hint. They are generally very attentive and helpful and will stop the chairlift if necessary.
Otherwise, it is important to observe the markings and signs on the chairlift. Instructions such as “No swinging” or “Open the bar now” should be followed for your own safety. These instructions are not always written out. Sometimes pictograms, such as an arrow pointing to the bar, show what to do.
With children on the chairlift
If you are travelling in a chairlift with children, you should pay attention to some special features. For example, depending on the country, different rules apply as to which children are allowed to travel alone on the chairlift and when an accompanying person is required. In Switzerland, for example, all children over the age of six are allowed to ride alone, in Germany only school-age children are allowed on the chairlift without an accompanying person, and in France the height (at least 1.25 metres) is decisive.
The rules on accompanying persons also vary from country to country. In some countries it has to be a parent or guardian, in others a person who is at least 16 years old is enough. Some ski resorts even have special lanes for ski school children.
If children or even nervous beginners are riding the chairlift, it helps to calm them down during the ride and explain the rules again. Those who are more experienced should take over the lifting and closing of the bars.
During the ride, children should be reminded again not to sit too far forward on the edge and to sit quietly, otherwise they can fall out. When getting off, children and beginners can be helped if necessary or the lift staff can be advised to slow down a little if necessary.
It is generally advisable to teach children how to ride the chairlift at a ski school. This way, even the little ones can ride the chairlift safely.
Chairlifts take winter sports enthusiasts safely and comfortably to higher altitudes. Although they are more comfortable than the classic T-bar lifts, it is also important to be considerate here and to observe important rules of conduct so as not to endanger yourself or others.
FAQ on chairlifts
In the fixed-grip chairlift, the rod and seat device are firmly connected to the rope. In the detachable chairlift, on the other hand, the seat detaches from the rope.
Since most accidents on chairlifts occur when passengers are getting on and off, special care must be taken during these phases. This includes not pushing, showing consideration for others and remaining calm, but also not dawdling and following the instructions of the lift personnel or signs.
Those who can, get up again as quickly as possible and ride out of the exit lane. Otherwise, it is advisable to roll to the side so as not to obstruct other passengers or the person who has fallen gives the lift personnel a hint.
Depending on the country, there are different rules about when children are allowed to ride chairlifts alone and who can be an accompanying person. Anyone who rides with children should explain the rules of conduct to them in advance, calm them down if they become restless, and help them. In addition, riding on chairlifts can be learned in ski schools for children.