As a not-getting-any-better “green slope” skier, I’m in awe of the amazing feats Winter Olympic athletes perform on snow. But I’m always disappointed that I never get to see how they get to the top of that gigantic mountain. Do they ride a chairlift like the rest of us? And does the lift ever give them any problems?

Anyone who’s ever attempted to snow ski knows that mastering the lift is one of the first lessons, right after how to put on your skis. I confess that chairlifts have gotten the best of me more than once but, for the most part, I still find riding up way less stressful than skiing down.

Unless I get stuck.

Which happened a few weeks ago on my annual “girls’ trip” to West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain. Though we’d experienced bitter cold on previous trips to Snowshoe, the weather had never been quite so brutal as it was this past January. The high temperature both days we skied was zero. And the wind was blowing hard enough to make it feel a whole lot colder.

We dressed for the conditions, of course. Heavy-duty long underwear. Layers of fleece on top of that. Coats zipped up tight. Neck gaiters and face masks and goggles and warm hats. “Toasty Toes” inside our ski boots and “Hot Hands” inside our mittens. Which seemed to be sufficient as long as we kept moving.

But on the third trip up the mountain, the chairlift ground to a halt. This is not unusual on lifts that service easy runs. Inexpert skiers frequently have problems getting on and off, so operators have to shut lifts down fairly often to prevent pile-ups. What was unusual about this break in the action was how long it lasted. Five minutes passed. Then ten. We three friends who shared the lift began to speculate about what might have happened. Was somebody hurt? Were we swaying high above the ground because of some kind of mechanical failure?

No way to know.

Then we began to discuss how we’d get down if the lift was really and truly stuck. It was far too frigid to sit there indefinitely, no matter how closely we scrunched together. We weren’t so high up that jumping out of the chair would likely kill us, though it would almost certainly break some bones. A few feet to our right was a massive metal support tower with a ladder attached. Had we been teen-aged boys without good sense, we could have popped off our skis, leapt onto that ladder and made our way down. But alas, we weren’t teen-aged boys without good sense.

All we could do was wait and wonder. And shiver. Would authorities send snowmobiles outfitted with cherry pickers to rescue us? Or stretch bedsheets beneath our chair and insist we jump? Maybe they’d rig up some kind of rope harness to get us down.

In the end, none of those things happened.

After what seemed like hours but which was really only about thirty minutes–plenty long enough, though, to become convinced we were going to lose all our fingers and toes to frostbite–the lift began moving. We made it to the top of the mountain, skied down to the lodge and thawed ourselves with ridiculously expensive cups of hot chocolate, which management—in a shocking lack of public relations judgment–didn’t give us for free. We later learned that the chairlift motor had literally frozen up. An emergency generator had to be brought in. As to what would have happened if they couldn’t get things moving again, I guess we’ll never know.

At least until next year’s trip.

(March 2, 2014)

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