Monday, November 8, 2021

It's all just a little too shiny for me.

By Eino Holm

Riblet Tramway built its first chairlift in 1939. (Some sources say '38, but Riblet's still-standing website says '39.) It wasn't the first chairlift in the world, but 80 years on, it stands out as the beginning of a bit of a dynasty. Maybe not surprisingly, it was built at Timberline Lodge on Wy'east, a short walk or skate to the west of the crowd. Riblet Tramway had its origins in mining trams in the late 19th century in interior British Columbia. Brothers Walter, Royal, and BC (natch) ran the original mining tramway company, and BC founded the final version in 1908. The company was headquartered in Spokane for its entirety, through 2003 after it built its last chair, fittingly also on Wy'east. This time at a small, one chair hill called Cooper Spur. For a time, Riblet was the largest manufacturer of ski area lifts in the world. There are still many running, some over 60 years old. Riblets have cachet, at least among some of us, while frustrating many. They are slow. Riblet never managed to build a detachable lift, something that is anecdotally credited with building--or at least providing the final handful of nails for--their coffin. Riblet has a place in the pantheon of things, though, along with standouts such as Heron, Poma, Lift Engineering, and Doppelmayr. Though ski areas in the Northwest region bought many of their lifts, they surpassed the more acute regionality of such builders as Borvig and Murray-Latta. They built their first quad in '67, long before even triples were considered necessary. Countless ski areas were built around these tireless lifts, to the point where some areas were built entirely of Riblets.
There is a stump in the middle of The Fan at Alpental. For a good portion of the year it is buried, melting out, south facing as Chair 2 is, in the spring. Beard and I are riding up below The Fan, a chair behind Taylor and Catherine's brother John, skis dangling beneath one of the most elemental lifts anywhere. There is a skier standing just above the stump, swaying drunkenly. He steps somewhat gingerly onto the stump, then effectively just falls off and starts sliding through the May slush. There is no danger of injury, but I have to wonder just what is going on upstairs throughout the tableau. He's too drunk to really ski, yet here he is in the middle of a run one can only access if one can ski fairly well. For a moment there, he looked triumphant, as though this stump was a tick on a long list of things he had planned to do, but then he looked crestfallen. It seemed as though he realised his inability, and then just gave up entirely. He slides a few hundred vertical before his skis build up enough slush for a passive self-arrest, then stops as we continue on overhead. Even Beard--legendary for driving up to Deputy Dan in A Lot and telling him "Dan! Gimme a ride! I'm too drunk to be driving!"--is confused by the man's short-lived hubris and subsequent complete withdrawal.
Eino on Chair 5, Bogus Basin, ID

My father helped build Chair 2, as well as Chair 3 and old Chair 1. Summer of '67. All beautiful, if less than unique, Riblets. Matte black finish on everything now, utilitarian. It ages so well, looking old to begin with. Most new lifts feature mountains of galvinised steel and block-colour paint schemes. LPoA likes wood cladding and even weather-bubbles. There is technology for years, none truly necessary. While advances in ski and boot technology, in accurate binding release, and in clothing, make skiing far safer and more comfortable, a fancy lift does nothing beyond cost money. The experience of skiing, the actual ski-snow interface, is unchanged.

He was pretty young that summer, 19, setting charges, cutting runs, whatever it took. It's always sad when something old and full of history is taken away, even if it's outlived any usefulness. Worse, then, when it is still useful. Of course it's nice to ski more runs, to spend more time on snow than on a lift. It's also nice to relax, to take in the view on those rare Cascade days that aren't so Cascady.
Riblet built a Skyride in downtown Spokane that crosses over the Spokane River just below the falls and under the Monroe Street Bridge. While most of its 500 or so lifts were for skiing, a few have been built or repurposed for exactly this sort of tourism use. County fairs and the like. I've always struggled with lifts as amusement rides. I have been skiing and riding chairs for so long that for me the chair is not something to be taken lightly. They are architectural and engineering marvels, even the most rudimentary. They are history and emotion, not just simple conveyance. Those moments, the creaks and rattles and bumping over sheaves, phantom stops where inevitably someone in front of or behind you says "I'll jump here if this takes too long." Even though evacuations happen, or long pauses that seem interminable, usually these moments are just moments. Long enough for someone to discuss rapid egress, say "I could land it," and then feel the drive kick and see the sheaves turn again, and then forget it.
Top terminal, Chair 5, Bogus Basin, ID

Old Chair 6 at Crystal had a Riblet drive. Legend has it that there was a fire in the old Hall's drive, probably while it was still at the now-shuttered Yodelin ski area up just north of Stevens Pass, though unresearched hearsay is always part of that sort of lore and I can't be certain. That roof, though, you had to know where to stand. The load board was just shy of the dripping ice, and as a liftie you had to know, too, where that was. The motor room was not wide, so you couldn't go too far in either direction. The best spot to bump the chair put your right shoulder around ten or so inches short of the overhang. If someone needed help or sat back onto your glove and stole it, you had to follow the chair out and hope the roof didn't choose that moment to let go. Nearly every time, regardless, you got a drip or seven down the collar of your work coat. It was a challenge some days to keep the load area shoveled. Bullwheel loading, urgent, impatient skiers, you have six or seven seconds for a shovelful and then another chair bump.

The shack wasn't Riblet-built to my knowledge. It was poorly insulated, tall, in a windy spot, in need of work. The lift was a Hall, but there's something all these centre-pole chairs share, the Thiokol Julie's at the Summit, Yan's Wildcat at Alta, the Murray-Latta-built 3 and 4 at Baker (RIP), or the short-bale Ariel at Mt A from way back when, there's a knowing nod when you first remember to look over your inside shoulder, and a smugness when you see someone turn the wrong way and get it on the noggin.
I was in school while Kevin and the crew tore out old Chair 3 at Crystal. When I started work for the summer after graduation, it was gone, just the vault-style motor room left and that not for long. It was a bit jarring, but I was only 19, just out of college, in need of funds. I just hiked down to whichever footing Kevin told me to and started digging.

The last year for old 3 was a blur. My grandfather passed away, I worked two jobs, finished my AA degree thinking that was the start of something rather than the end. Night school. Dougie and I would turn the clock at the bottom forward a minute or three each day, until one such time we were closing a half hour early. I am surprised we never got caught. One early release day I snuck over to Chair 9 for a last run and damn near killed a couple of snowboarders (or myself, had I lost control) who were hiding under a roller we used to hit at mach stupid and boost for 30 or 40 feet. I split the uprights on one ski, somehow missing both dudes. BP 250/180, pulse 150, palms sweaty, legs shaky. I stopped to swear at the kids, but then thought better of it. It's just a story to tell at work when we're telling stories at work. Last I heard of Dougie, he'd had an ice climbing accident and wasn't the same. I still think he stole my goggles, but I may have forgot them at the bottom of 11, where he could have simply thought "score!" and made them his. Easy come, easy go. I hope he's got shit figured out by now. Dude's probably pushing 50.
Riblets carry the places they've served along with them. Grizzly at Montana Snowbowl came from Big Sky. Ariel at Mt A came from Stevens Pass. The current Tye Mill chair at Stevens moved uphill from Hogsback to replace the old centre-pole double that itself came from Yodelin. I remember the old chair, the way a full line looked from the bottom with so many skis crossed, the chairs swaying, the low gray ceiling absolutely puking. I was pretty young and couldn't really handle the deep day with any skill. The liftline is steep. It tops out on the Crest. To the east, the peaks drain down the Mill Valley and eventually out the Wenatchee into the Columbia. To the west, the melt rolls down the Tye until it meets up with the Foss to create the South fork of the Sky, downstream until the Skykomish and Snoqualmie confluence and the slow, heavy tidal basin at the mouth of the Snohomish. I like to think I can feel these things through these old lifts. I hope that the spirit of Byron runs through the haul rope, hope that he was kind and benevolent rather than some faceless, angsty industrial tycoon.
There is a deer underneath the line on 1. Kenny and I are on tower 6 (or was it 5?) replacing sheaves and greasing bearings. The deer is a 4-point, symmetrical. Beautiful animal. Kenny's interest is prurient, running to venison steak and sausage, jerky and a taxidermied rack on his porch. He talks about his bow, where to shoot for the cleanest kill, how to field-clean, how to butcher at home. I remember the jerky and the sausage, but nothing can replace the beauty of that buck. I nod. I understand his take on things, that he doesn't hunt with a rifle because it conveys the hunter too much unearned prowess, that he only hunts for food. I also wish that buck could have lived to whatever ripe old age he could have. I know it isn't long, that five years is pushing it. I am sitting here on the tower, a bit unsteady due to Riblet's insistence that its towers be near right angles to the haul rope. Holding on tight with my legs, untethered these 35 or 40 feet up. Todd and Bob don't believe in fall protection, I guess. As we talk, I mention a cycle in '94 where we got almost 100" in two days. Where Pa looked down from his cat pushing snow and realised he was on top of a car. Where Aram and I tried, and tried, and tried, but just couldn't ski through the weight of all that snow, warmed up in the late February sun that blew in on the back of the cycle. Where Baugher's team dropped shots out of a heli onto lines that almost never slide and are skier compacted day in and day out for five or six months each year. Our last run was on 1, hoping that Lower E was steep enough to push our 12 year old weight down the fall line. I remember the way those skis looked the couple chairs above us, same as Tye Mill, or Seventh Heaven, or any chair you like that accesses real goods, the steep, funky, utilitarian, the beautiful.

Kenny was killed in a motorcycle wreck some time ago, and Kircher and them pulled Chair 1 out when they built the gondola.  Just a little bit ironic for a guy who was literally the inspiration for the first triple chair.  A Riblet, natch.
No matter how durable these things are, they are unpopular, replaced by shiny galvinised towers and blue bubbles and computer power. Every summer more stories are lost to the steady march, affordability and egalitarianism out the door with the peeling matte black paint. Chair 1 at Lookout, Chair 2 at Bogus, Brooks at Stevens, Teocalli at CB. The stories are just what we tell each other over our bike stands, or over coffee in the break room, or in the bar under the tram dock, or exchanging texts now that none of us call our families anymore. Starting with "I remember. . ." or "Do you remember. . ." or "How deep was it that one time?" We're all getting older, just like those chairs. We're being replaced, too, by another new generation, better margins, by the medieval idea that nostalgia is a disease. Better, faster, stronger, something that makes terrible lyrics in terrible dance music, and worse humanity.
Amy and her dad on Chair 4, Bogus Basin, ID

If pressed to decide, my favourite chair is 2 at Alpental. I avoid absolutes, and as such don't call much of anything my favourite.

There was one day--I say, wishing we were sipping doppelbock around a bonfire--that is irreplaceable. Underneath 4 and 5 at Baker, parallel doubles, Murray-Latta and Riblet respectively. One day. I put it together. I was on that one guy's skis, John something, from PA. Hurricane Ridge. He was buddies with Sam Lobet? Yeah, Sam's running the patrol there still. We never really got along. Becker, I think. Anyway, Becker was cool. Yeah, Becker at Baker. Shut up. Lemme talk. I finally put it together.
They were Supermountains. Supersoftmountains, more like it. Becker let me ski 'em while I saved money to pay him. I sold 'em to Dustin and then he moved to the midwest. They're the biggest mountains he'll see out there. Anyway, as I was saying, I finally put it together. You slide your tails out to the right, just above the first nob on Gabl's. Then you just take your hands off the brakes and give 'er. One big left-footer directly under the line of 4, you're into the Saturday Chute under 5. Make that your right-footer, a trebuchet, then on your next left-footer on the bench above tower 4, make sure you dump some speed and look up Chute 4. There's no one there. Slarve that right-footer easy, down into the last pitch, straightline that and you're out onto the flat gliding past the bottom of 4. 4 turns, 1000 vertical.

No, it wasn't blue, it wasn't 17 new. In fact, I don't think it had snowed at all. It certainly wasn't perfect. Which means it was perfect. I don't know if anyone saw it, but no one needed to. There'll be more days, but that one, man, that one, you know. . .

Title from Zoe Muth's "Too Shiny"

Suggested local history YouTubing, if you've the time:

Suggested reading:
- Tramway Titan by Martin J Wells (2011), Trafford Publishing.
- Byron Riblet: Forgotten Engineering Genius by Ty Brown (2022), Little Spokane Bookworks.
- The "Lift Blog" Comments Sections. (Not joking. There's some good info there. Also some absurdity. Also lots of complaints about footrests and safety bars, too, also.)