It's 8:30 am, Saturday, mid-February in the mid-'80s and I'm standing in exactly the right place, on the right day, at the right time to achieve one thing and one thing only: Ski the most untracked powder possible. It's 28 degrees, there's just a slight breeze blowing at around 5 miles per hour, the sun is shining and the Norse God of snow, Ullr, has blessed my ski-fiend soul with 12 inches of shimmering snow at about a 10 percent water content.
I'm not the first person to arrive at this sacred spot on this morning; there's a handful of like-minded individuals who were motivated enough to beat me here. There's a couple of grizzled older guys right up front with beards that make it look like this probably isn't their first trip. Behind them, there are a couple of guys sporting the latest and greatest in winter outdoor gear, looking like while they might not be here every day, they mean business on this particular day. Then it's us, my ski partner and I, a couple of high school kids who became infected with the powder disease at a very young age.
Of course, as is the case on any powder morning, at any mountain, in any state, to say we were in the right place at the right time is a matter of opinion. A clear majority of powder hounds on this particular morning had chosen to make the short uphill walk to chair one at Schweitzer Mountain and get direct access to the steep tree skiing offered in the area known as the South Bowl. That majority was wrong.
Standing as we were, our smaller group, at the base of chair four, known these days as Sunnyside, put us in the ultimate position to stay ahead of the crowds and slice up the virgin powder canvas leaving only our tracks as evidence that we'd already been there. Starting at chair four on a powder morning in those days was akin to being in the pole position at the start of a NASCAR race. You were simply in the best position to be the first person to get out — and stay out — ahead of the throngs that followed.
The terrain serviced by this beloved old Riblet double chair is not only straight fall line skiing, but much of it has the distinct advantage of being within eyesight of the lift itself. Back in the day, this gave a skier the ability to carve up the early morning untracked while also keeping an eye out for when the snooze button crowd finally arrived on the scene.
In the mid-'80s, the only way to get to the glorious powder goods of Schweitzer's North Bowl was to drop in from the top of chair four. So when the crowds did begin to appear, the alert powder hound could quickly drop onto the backside and once again maintain the always important powder pole position to arrive on the scene of the untouched goods one step ahead.
There was a lot of discussion and reflection about what replacing an old slow sentimental double chair with a newer, bigger, faster and less soulful version means about the future of our sport when the iconic Snow Ghost double fell victim to progress two seasons ago. But what got lost in that shuffle is that the old-school Schweitzer faithful still have one dear friend to turn to in the Sunnyside chair.
Of course, these days much of the former glory has worn off. The birth of the Great Escape quad chair meant there was now a much quicker and more efficient way to get to the backside. The ability to access much of the Sunnyside terrain from that same quad chair has reduced the operating schedule to a level that makes riding it an afterthought to most skiers.
The top and bottom lift shacks show all the signs of age you would expect. The unload at the top is basically death-defying compared to the gentle release of the newer detachable chairs. The paint on the lift towers is chipped and peeling. In short, a thorough examination of the chairlift previously known simply as chair four reveals almost nothing of its former status. But for any skier who has a touch of nostalgia running through their wintery veins, a few rides on this old beauty each season are a must.
When you slow down and make Sunnyside a part of your ski life, you can still ski unbroken fall lines with little to no run-out, you can still see lovers put their arms around each other on the chair and you can still have time to share a beverage with a friend. In short, you can still sit back and enjoy the ride, because it's important to recognize and acknowledge that as it is with chairlifts, as it is in life, our past is always what has delivered us to where we have now arrived. ♦