How long will you wait in a lift line?

snow action team 12.02.2020

How long will you wait in a lift line? As long as it takes is the short answer of course, as the viral images of the huge lift queue at Vail last weekend, a 1.5 hour wait apparently, demonstrate. Pity the guy who’s ski fell off on the chair to make Jerry of the Day for his efforts.

But lost in the clic-bait frenzy was the fact seriously big snowfalls left plenty of control work neccessary to get more lifts and terrain safely open. That was illustrated with avi control at A-Basin setting off a slide which blocked the road following the same storm cycle.

Sometimes we can’t have our powder cake and eat it too, at least not without delay.

So what’s your patience-to-get-at-pow limit? And what can you do if (like us!) it’s a short limit?

Rusutsu is an Epic Pass resort now and the queues are reflecting that © Peter Wunder

Huge Front Range resort queues on pow days generally and most good weekends/holidays have been the norm for years. The I-70 Freeway up from Denver becomes a virtual parking lot from Denver to Summit County. If you are flying in time your arrival/departure to avoid that at all costs. Or fly into Eagle Vail.

Most of us would wait as long as it took if we had forked out $USD 200 / $A270 for a day pass and spent several hours driving up before even hitting the lift queue.

Lift line at Revelstoke
Sure, the Ikon Pass has made the bottom line longer at Revelstoke, but it’s worth it © Dave Windsor

But with an Epic or Ikon Pass per day costs are slashed the more you ski, so you will likely hang in there for longer. In fact since the Aussie dollar tanked the Epic Australia Pass is hand’s down the World’s best value ski pass.

The Ikon Pass is not too shabby value either, and thanks to it even resorts like formerly exclusive Deer Valley or harder to get to Taos, that were never crowded, get day tripping Ikoneers in force.

In Japan the likes of Rusutsu, Hakuba (Epic) and Niseko (Ikon) are getting more North Americans than ever intent on using their passes there too.

No use complaining about it. It’s like the Jumbo Jet allowed riff raff to fly, and suddenly the exclusive Jet Set lifestyle was accessible to the masses.

Same with skiing, sorry rich dudes, but riff raff like us are making those lines because we CAN afford to.

Empty lift lines at Vail
Vail on a more normal day – scoot around and you can easily find empty lifts © Owain Price

Yes, it’s getting busy out there. It’s not just a Northern Hemisphere problem of course. Across the Southern Hemisphere there are far less resorts and less infrastructure, over a shorter season. But the same Epic and Ikon pass price cuts and their knock on effects incentivising more skiing have had the same effects in Australia and New Zealand.

Lift line at Thredbo
Pow day line up at Thredbo; the new Merrits Gondola will offer 2 viable options out of the village on pow days in 2020 © Peter Wunder

What can you do about long lift lines?

Earn-your-turns is the obvious answer, but even that’s not the guaranteed escape from the hordes it once was: join the queue stomping up The Peak at Niseko for example, never mind a lot of places in Europe. In North America Uphilling has exploded in popularity, causing its own set of problems for safety around groomers and avi control, never mind uphillers trashing the lines those paying for the lift ride up want to use.

Still hiking, skinning or splitboarding remain the best option, short of heliski if you can afford it.

But not everyone has the gear, the skill set, or the fitness for that, so timing, research and luck are your best hopes. And of course the classic cheat is a lesson with lift priority – don’t just assume you get that with a lesson anywhere, though check first.

Hiking up The Peak at Niseko
The Peak pilgamage line at Niseko © Owain Price

In Australia choices are limited, more so if weekends and/or school holidays are you only options. Best wait till the resorts are nearly fully open so at least you can spread around. Or move closer to the snow and go midweeks.. Or go out back.

In New Zealand the main South Island areas only have one or a couple of good lifts, so you have to cop queues when you find them. Which you will on pow days. So get up there as early as you can. Or give the rope tow equipped club fields a shot (although it doesn’t take many to make a lift line for a rope tow).

In South America Portillo in Chile is exclusive enough with limits on daytrippers to never have queues in a normal season. You pay for that, but get it when it’s on and you wont complain.

Argentina’s main resorts get crowded, have ageing lift networks, and can take forever to open on even small powder days. So being first in line is no guarantee of not having to wait – at least you wait less than those who arrive after you. It’s usually worth it. Stay on snow/in the village – the rush up from Bariloche to Cerro Catedral is crazy for example.

Shizukuishi Ropeway no queue required © Owain Price

In Japan there are still plenty of places where long lines are the exception, not the rule. I have shared the Shizukuishi tram with just Mrs Snow Action on a pow day for example, lapped powder at Shimokura, not seen anyone else at Ani Ski Resort and in Niseko always book in for First Tracks with HPG at Hanazono.

In North America try and go somewhere further afield on weekends at least. Midweeks the big resorts have good enough lift networks you can spread around with almost no waiting. Even on weekends it’s amazing how you can get away from crowds – at Breckenridge on a hugely busy Saturday we had empty chairs on Peak 6 and did the hike up the ridge there before it closed, so got that to ourselves too.

At Jackson Hole there is only one tram. It gets busy. You may wait an hour or more. If you don’t want to, go explore the alternative terrain off chairs. And make the Tram line earlier next day.

Worst case scenario, some places are so big a wait at the bottom doesn’t really matter – you will end up getting enough lines in to be totally smashed anyway, like at Revelstoke.

In Europe to cope with the numbers top resorts have invested heavily in lifts, with 6 and even 8 seater chairs all over the place, not too mention some incredible cable cars and rack railways at areas like Zermatt and the Jungfrau.

Skiing with instructor at Breckenridge
Sign up with ski school for lift priority and where to avoid crowds – worked for us Saturday at Breck © Owain Price

Here we are at the end and we didn’t answer the question. For mine it’s as short a time as possible – that time extendable according to effort (financial/time/travel) to get there and hoped for benefit from the conditions. It surely sucks when you finally get up there and it’s trashed and/or crappy anyway. Such is the skiing life.