How to Survive a Skilift Ride on a Snowboard
Created | Updated Feb 22, 2010
The entry on How to Survive a Chairlift Ride deals with the tricky subject of getting up a hill, as a preliminary to sliding back down it. It describes the experience of using a chairlift as simple, for experienced skiers, but as another story for beginners. Well, that goes triple for snowboarders!
The Basic Problems
All ski lifts without exception are, as the name suggests, designed for transporting skiers. This is something of a problem for participants in the fastest-growing sport in history. There are two basic problems which rapidly become apparent even to novice snowboarders:
Both your feet are bolted to the same plank and you have no poles. Therefore, once you've stopped, there are two ways to get about - hopping around in an ungainly fashion or, the ultimate indignity, unstrapping your bindings and walking as hordes of smug skiers swoosh past using their poles.
You are going sideways, dude!
Novices may think that they are, therefore, at something of a disadvantage when using a ski lift and in some cases they may well be. However, this should not put them off. The following useful advice is gleaned from several seasons of European snowboarding. It is aimed at the competent intermediate snowboarder, rather than the complete beginner. Complete beginners should either have an instructor with them, or stick to cabin lifts.
Types of Lift
There are four basic types of ski lift: the button, the chair, the cabin and the T-bar (or 'spawn of Satan').
A cabin is any lift which requires the complete removal of board or skis and is, therefore, not really relevant to this entry - capacities vary from the four-seater 'bubble' type to the huge, bus-like vehicles which can take 100 or more standing passengers.
The T-bar is a cruel joke on snowboarders perpetrated by the skiing industry, but since more and more people with money are snowboarding instead of skiing, these abominations will soon die the hideous death they deserve on scrap heaps around the world. If you do see one the best response is to make a hissing sound in the back of your throat, the sign of the cross with your fingers, and a sharp exit in the direction of a more civilised lift, or possibly a bar of a different kind.
A button lift drags a single rider up the hill over the surface of the snow, ice, bodies of people who couldn't get the technique right, rocks or whatever else is below the lift that day. It does this using a long metal bar with a plastic disk on the end. This disk should be placed between the legs. Since the snowboarder rides sideways, this may seem difficult and, at first, it is. Because of this initial difficulty, some snowboarders have been known to attempt to ride button lifts by placing the disk under their back arm. Do not attempt this unless you fancy your chances in a tug of war against the population of Canada. Button lift rides vary in length from sixty seconds to fifteen minutes, can go through otherwise trackless forest and can feature fearsome uphill sections. If you cannot master the between-the-leg technique - avoid them. It is really not that difficult, however, and several resorts have large areas which are only reachable (or at least returnable-from) by button lift, so it's definitely worth persevering.
Chair lifts come in a variety of guises, from slow, rickety pre-war two-seaters to super-fast detachable six-seaters with weather domes. The most important distinction is between detachables and non-detachables. Non-detachables seem unbelievably quick when you're hit in the small of the back by one, but seem incredibly slow when they've hoisted you out of the lift station and into the teeth of the wind for the long ride to the top. Don't worry, because they'll seem unbelievably quick again when the time comes to dismount. Detachables, on the other hand, are far more user-friendly. A detachable will swoop into the lift station at alarming speed, slow down drastically to pick you gently off the floor, then wait for a few seconds while you get comfy before accelerating up the hill. At the top it will slow down again, depositing you gently on the snow before shooting off down the hill again. Detachables really are the only way to travel (assuming there are no cabins to be had).
This shouldn't need saying but, from experience, it seems it does: it can be very cold on a chairlift. They take you high above the ground, where the wind isn't slowed by the surface friction, and where the ice crystals can get a really long run up at your face. If you are at high altitude, or high latitude, or both, be very sure to take something to cover your face on the lift. Lifts often stop, sometimes because they've broken down but most often because someone's had a minor fall at the mounting or dismounting area. These stops can make the ride seem much, much longer. Most people only make this mistake once, but once, on a long lift with several stops in low temperatures, can be enough to give you frost-bite. Black may always be a fashionable colour, but you really shouldn't want the tip of your nose to be that fashionable.
Arriving at the Lift
Skiers will often ponce about in the general vicinity of lift queues, without actually queuing. However, as discussed, the snowboarder does not have the luxury of those handy poles to punt over to the queue anytime they feel like it. Therefore, the aim is to get all the way to the queue without stopping, or preferably without even slowing down. This is especially important at lifts where there is an extensive flat area around the lift or, heaven forbid, the lift station is on a slight rise. This may take some planning. You should be able to see the queue from some way off. Plan your attack, and follow the line ruthlessly - do not slow down. A good indication that you are on the right lines is if, when you pass the large red sign saying 'Ralentir' ('Slow'), your eyes are still watering. You should aim to arrive on the rope or railing which leads to the lift, thus allowing you to remain strapped into your bindings.
Ski lift queues, particularly in France, can make a rugby scrum look like a Buckingham Palace garden party. All concepts of fairness and order go out of the window as otherwise well-bred and well-heeled people knock the elderly and small children out of the way in order to be able to buy a beer at the top of the hill thirty seconds sooner. On no account make eye contact with anyone in a queue for a lift (mirror-lens goggles are an asset here).
There are two schools of thought regarding bindings in lift queues. The first suggests not unstrapping your bindings at all, and humping along like a loony fully strapped in. This has a number of benefits. The first is that even a skier can recognise that a snowboarder fully strapped up in the queue presents a clear and present danger to their equipment, if not their health. They therefore tend to give you a wider berth than normal. Other benefits of this approach accrue on the lift and at the dismount, of which more later.
The second school of thought suggests unstrapping the back foot. This allows you a degree of manoeuvrability. It also allows you to prevent other people from pushing into the queue in front of you by the simple expedient of standing on their skis, or even better, between their skis. Since you are already in front of them, there's very little objection they can make except to stare at you. Even for the French, actually saying 'Do you mind getting off my ski so that I can rudely push in front of you?' is considered a bit much. This method also has benefits when mounting the lift, but is significantly worse later.
Mounting and Riding the Lift - the Button
This Researcher is firmly of the opinion that button lifts should only be ridden when fully strapped in to the front and back bindings. You don't ride down with your back foot out, so why ride up? Scoot forward and grasp the button shaft firmly. The machine will not begin to pull you until the guy in front is a decent distance away. Tuck the disc firmly between your legs, and grasp the shaft with your front hand. (And stop that tittering at the back!) Don't attempt to turn to face up the hill, or you will go that way, the toe edge of your board will dig in and stop and you will be catapulted several feet to the amusement of the smug skiers in the queue. Instead, relax, dangle your back hand loosely behind you, and keep your weight slightly back of centre. When the pull comes, don't resist it, just lean back slightly and let it drag you. Concentrate at all times on not tripping an edge. If necessary, carve a little left and right as you ride, but do not allow the board to go completely flat. If you do fall, or start to, do not attempt to keep hold of the tow - that way lies undignified flailing and inevitable failure. Bail out fast. If you fall on the track, roll away quickly - the skier behind you has nowhere else to go but over you. Repair your injured pride, get back to a piste (you may have to unstrap and walk) and try again.
Dismounting the Lift - the Button
Assuming you reach the top unscathed, you should come to a reasonably flat area. Look ahead and plan the direction you are intending to go well in advance. As you approach the dismount, keep tight hold of the pole in the front hand. At the same time, firmly push the disc out from between your legs with the back hand and don't let go. Allow the lift to tow you the last few metres by the arms then, when you are comfortable, just let go and ride away.
Mounting and Riding the Lift - the Chair
An important point - try not to share a chair with a skier. They get off chairlifts in a straight line, and they almost never fall over doing so. Neither of these applies to snowboarders. Therefore, snowboarders and skiers on chairs are a bad mixture. Especially bad is a three seater with the skier in the middle of two boarders. If you must ride with a skier, have them on the end. If you must ride with skiers, and you're the only boarder, make absolutely sure you are on the end or you will take at least one of them down. This can be funny but should, in general, be avoided. Other boarders will generally forgive you for taking them out on the dismount of a lift - they've been there too, possibly that day. Skiers are rarely so good-humoured.
One-footers can scoot forward, two-footers may need to hop. If you are in any doubt about your ability to get into the mounting zone in time, wait for the next lift - it'll be along in just a second. A look of pathetic desperation toward the lift operator can sometimes work wonders - they can slow the lift down for you to make it easier. Look over your shoulder but don't turn around and anticipate the arrival of the chair by sitting down toward it. Stretch out your back arm over the back of the chair to give yourself some extra purchase if necessary. Once you're on and the footrest (if any) is down, you can relax.
At this point, some one-footers like to fasten up their back binding, transforming themselves into two-footers for the dismount. This is a good idea, but should only be done by leaning over the safety bar. If there is no safety bar, forget it. If you are staying one-footed for the duration, you may find it more comfortable to balance the board on top of your back foot.
Dismounting the Lift - the Chair
Dismounting a chair lift on a snowboard can be an experience fraught with difficulties. There are a few lifts, spoken of in hushed tones, which demand the very highest standards due to a combination of speed, difficulty of runout and other dangers. One, which serves the main snowboard park in Avoriaz, France, discharges riders at speed onto a steep, narrow runout with a sheer cliff off to the left. It is a rare rider indeed who can leave that lift with grace and style.
The dismount is where having both feet strapped into the bindings becomes a big advantage. You are already ready to ride away and, although you may wish to adjust the bindings before making the assault on your next black run, you can at least get to somewhere quiet before you check the settings. One-footers, by contrast, must ride a board with the back foot out to a point where it is both possible and safe to stop, before strapping in fully. On the more difficult runouts, it can be simpler for the one-foot brigade to simply give it up as a bad job and just fall over deliberately and under some degree of control as soon as they get off. This is often the safest option, too.
The dismount starts some 20 metres from the lift station. Place the back hand over the seat back - you may still be ten metres or more above the snow (or rocks) and falling off now would not be cool. Raise the safety bar (if there is one) and shuffle into a sort of side-on position with your weight on what will be your back buttock. If you are sharing the lift with skiers, make it plain by verbal or non-verbal means that you are getting off the lift and you are therefore a danger for them to avoid. They usually take the hint and give you lots of space. If you are a one-footer, try to place your back foot somewhere near where you think the board will come up. As the snow comes up to meet the board, rise to standing position by pushing on the back of the chair. Keep your hand on it until you are comfortably upright, letting it push you along and out of the way. If you're fully happy ride away to a clear spot before stopping or, in fact, just ride away altogether. If you are a bit wobbly - fall over deliberately and under control. This is preferable to picking up speed and then hitting someone, or just falling over out of control and breaking your arm. Roll out of the way as quickly as you can, because there is another lift on the way and the people on it have their own problems without you lying in the snow in front of them laughing.
Although designed originally for skiers, button lifts and chair lifts are easily usable by snowboarders. Don't be put off, make sure any skiers give you plenty of space, and above all, enjoy yourself!