From rope tows to heated chairlifts – the history of getting to the top fast

High-speed detachable chairlifts holding six riders, domes and heated seats are an absolute luxury compared to the first lifts offered at many ski resorts way back when. Many slopes were only accessed by the mountaineers who trudged through the snow on foot to come home boasting about making two runs for the day. When the first surface lift was invented it was a game changer. Let’s take a look at where it all started in North America. And it’s a tip of the hat to Quebec. 

Ropes, old car motors and telephone poles

In 1931, while watching everyone hike up the slope at Shawbridge, in the Laurentians, Alex Foster of Montreal decided there had to be a way to get everyone to the top faster. He gathered together 730 metres of rope, a few telephone poles, some pully wheels, and a four-cylinder Dodge engine mounted on cement blocks. Stretching the length of rope between the pullies at the telephone poles, Foster powered up the noisy engine. The rope moved, and everyone grabbed on for dear life. His idea spread like fire and it wouldn’t be long before the rope tow graced many of the resorts in North America. Back then Foster charged a nickel per ride or a quarter for the entire day. 

The rope tow I dared to use as a kid in the 1970’s would twist and pinch the fabric in our gloves. If we didn’t continually change our grip, our gloves would be torn as we peeled away. Today, the rope tows are cables with handles making it far easier to release.

Scoop and tow

The J-bar was invented next and looked a lot like a T-bar. The tow cable is safely raised above the riders and a seat-like hook would hang down to scoop up the rider’s butt who tried desperately to stay in the groves as it towed them to the top. Before the 1930’s exited, the T-bar was quickly invented – doubling the capacity going to the top. 

At the same time, Poma was creating the surface lift that has a pole dangling from the overhead cable with a little disk to tuck between the rider’s legs to gentle pull them up the hill. The Poma is still used today at many resorts because it can pull a rider quickly up a slope where a chairlift might be deemed impractical. Because the grip is detachable, the rider stands with the platter between their legs and waits for the lift operator to engage the grip. The two Poma lifts at the ski hill I grew up at would catapult younger or lightweight riders the first 20 metres before dragging them until they released their grip. Those of us in line would cheer for anyone who landed the flight and continued up the slope.

Banana hooks and roller skates

While rope tows, T-bars and Poma lifts were dragging people to the top of the slopes, other people were busy trying to lift them above the ground. In 1936, under the searing heat of a summer day in Omaha, Nebraska, an engineer named Jim Curran suggested the banana hook. Why Omaha? And what’s a banana hook got to do with skiing!

Omaha was the main yard for the Union Pacific Railroad and rail companies were in the process of building mountain resorts to take passengers to. But Mr. Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific wasn’t about to bring people across the country to be towed by a rope. That’s when Curran suggested a banana hook like device. Curran had invented a conveyor belt system to move bananas from the plantation to the rail cars suspended by hooks to avoid bruising the bananas. Instead of hooks, they would hang chairs that would scoop up the skiers. 

Over the next few days, Curran and a group of willing testers constructed a prototype to swoop behind skiers and lift them into the sky. It was probably very comical to watch. There in the summer heat stood fully clad skiers waiting to be hauled up by a contraption dangling from a truck. Wearing skis wasn’t a good idea so roller skates were brought in to replicate the movement of skis on snow. It didn’t take long before they figured out the optimum speed to lift the skiers off the snow without flipping them over or bashing their legs. That speed they picked is still used on fixed grip chairlifts today.
Union Pacific swiftly went into build mode. In just under five months, the rail resort near Ketchum Idaho was renamed Sun Valley and had a chairlift to take skiers to the top of the slopes. Sadly though, there was no snow until the following February. 

Mount Norquay was a leader in innovations

Chairlifts popped up across the USA and by 1939, the first one was installed at Mont Tremblant in Quebec. Now many resorts are removing the fixed-grip chairs and replacing them with detachable chairs. Some with heated seats, some with domes. I’m still very fond of the two-seater North American chair lift first installed in 1948 at Mount Norquay. It was the first chairlift in the west and is still doing its job quite nicely.

In 1986, Doppelmayr built the worlds first eight-passenger gondola at Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado. By 2001, Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park did away with the bus shuttle to the alpine resort and installed a much-appreciated gondola. And in 2008 Whistler Blackcomb in BC, opened the Peak-to-Peak gondola spanning 4.4 km between the two mountains becoming the longest free spanning gondola with 3.03 kilometres between two towers. 

What’s next? How about drones to lift you where you want to go? What would you do to get first tracks? 

Did you know that BC is home to several epic resorts? Read about them as we Ski BC. 

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