T-Bars Aren’t A Relic Of the Past, They’re The Future

This article originally appeared on Ski Mag

We're only halfway up the Red Lift when Al starts whining. I have empathy. He's a snowboarder and yesterday we lapped North America's longest T-bar, the 1,700-foot-long main lift at Murray Ridge, a little-known community hill in the middle of British Columbia. Today we're two hours south, sliding up the second-longest T-bar in North America. And while Troll Mountain's Red Lift may be a little shorter, its track is steeper and more sustained.

I ask Al which one is harder. "It hurts," is all he can whimper.

While Al is wishing we were riding a chairlift, I'm thinking this is exactly what skiing needs more of. Most ski hills have replaced their surface lifts with chairs, or are looking forward to the day they can. Of the 2,400 ski lifts in the country, only 88 are T-bars and North American hills only installed a handful of Ts in the last three years, compared to 140 other lifts. But no matter how desirable the high-speed chair might be, the humble T is going to save skiing.

Related: These 10 resorts have the best lift systems in the West

The owner of Troll Mountain (and daughter of the founder), Hildur Sinclair, agrees. If T-bars had a lobbyist, it would be Sinclair.

"Only optimists like T-bars," Sinclair says. "They weed out the complainers and the snobs."

She's such a devotee she won't even consider installing a chair. Troll only has surface lifts: three T-bars. The Red is the same one that Sinclair's father, Lars Fossberg, started the ski area on in 1972. And Sinclair already has a secondhand T-bar in the resort's parking lot, ready for an install as soon as she has the money to expand. Affording a chairlift, even a used one, isn't an option.

"T-bars are the future," she says. "We need more of them if we're going to keep lift passes affordable, community ski hills alive, and the ski industry going." Plus, they help Troll's Yelp rating, she adds.

The volunteers behind Ascutney ski hill have a similar attitude. The ski resort sold off its five chairlifts, including a high-speed quad when it closed in 2009 due to poor snow and mismanagement. When the town of West Windsor and the volunteer Ascutney Outdoors reopened a smaller version of ski hill in 2015, they started with a rope tow and added a T-bar in 2020. There are no plans to splurge on another chairlift.

Also read: The humble rope tow is the heart of skiing

A new high-speed chair would cost at least $10 million, while a fixed-grip might go for half that, according to Peter Landsman, the editor of Lift Blog, a website that tracks lift installations. A new T-bar is a bargain in comparison at about $1 million. Used ones are even cheaper. Of the other recently installed T-bars several were used lifts bought by small community hills from destination resorts. New or old, they cost much less to run with lower safety and back up power demands; If they break down, riders can just ski away.

"There's a lot of ski areas where there's no way they could afford anything other than a surface lift," Landsman says.

T Bar ski lift
T-Bars are still a mainstay at many European ski resorts that are classified as world-class skiing destination. Pictured here: a T-Bar at Italy’s Cortina d’Ampezzo ski resort in the Dolomites.

That matters for everyone who loves skiing--even Al--because, news flash, our sport has an affordability problem. Paying $150 for a day pass, plus gear, food, transportation, etc., is out of reach of many people. Multi-area passes help make the sport a little more affordable, but they cater to the converted, not the curious. And while it may seem to the curmudgeonly diehards that fewer new skiers would be a good thing, they drive upgrades and expansions at destination hills and will care about the future of the sport when my peers, Generation X, go soft and turn to pickleball.

"Just about everyone learns to ski near their home and most people don't live near a large resort," notes Landsman. "You're not going to go on a ski vacation to Whistler Blackcomb, Breckenridge, or Vail if you don't ski. Local ski areas keep the entire industry going."

Alternatively, an adult day pass at Troll costs $60, and only $25 for a child (7 to 13 years old) and $40 for a teen or senior. It's still a pricey day for a family, but not the equivalent of a weeklong holiday. There's no Starbucks or a boutique village, but there are homemade cinnamon buns and $5 beers. Without a magic carpet, rookies might struggle to ride the beginner T-bar the first few times. But the challenge builds independence, problem solving, and resilience, figures Sinclair. Society could always use a little more of that, she says.

Related: These are the most affordable ski resorts in the West

Personally, I like them because, tucked out of the wind, muscles engaged, it's usually warmer riding a surface lift. And I never finish a day at a hill like Troll with energy to spare. Whether that's from standing all day or from not waiting in line, is debatable. But after riding two of the longest T-bars in the world, at two of the most underrated ski areas in British Columbia, I say let's build more T-bars.

Nearing the top of the Red Chair, Al isn't interested in my propaganda. But he's also not ready to quit for the day.

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Let's do another lap."

Recent T-Bar Installs

2021

  • Le Massif de Charlevoix, Quebec: New short T-bar on beginner terrain as a shuttle lift to the new Club Med hotel

  • Nitehawk, Alberta: Small community hill is getting a used T-bar.

  • Saddleback, Maine: Replaced old T-bar with a new one.

2020

  • Eastlink Park, Alberta: Small community hill, replaced rope tow with used T-bar.

  • Sugarbush, Vermont: New T-bar replaced old poma lift in same place.

  • Ascutney Outdoors, Vermont: Revival of defunct ski area that once had high-speed quad. Small town-owned hill installed a T-bar instead of expensive chairlifts.

2019

  • Copper, Colorado: Terrain expansion, new T-bar.

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