Want to Ride First Chair in Colorado? You’ll Have to Beat the Kings.

This article originally appeared on Ski Mag

Nate Nadler awoke in the middle of the night this past Oct. 31 to four inches of snow covering his sleeping bag. Nadler, 41, was camped underneath the bullwheel of the River Run Gondola at Colorado's Keystone Resort. It wasn't the cold that interrupted his fitful sleep, but the drunken reveler clad in a motorcycle helmet blasting "Baby Shark" and dancing the night away.

In mid-October, some skiers and snowboarders will drive up to Keystone or nearby Arapahoe Basin in the middle of the night, hoping to snag the very first chair of ski season. Some of these hearty winter enthusiasts come straight from the bars, believing the booze will keep them warm against the frigid night.

Every year, a few buzzed aspirants are disappointed to find Nate "Dogggg" Nadler, and "Trailer" Tom Miller, 46, already waiting in line. For the last 31 years running they have outfoxed and outmaneuvered any challenger and beaten them to get in line at the base of the chair. On Oct.29, after A-Basin announced an early opening, they nabbed the very first chairlift of the season yet again. Two days later they camped out at Keystone to ride that resort's first chair, too.

"Until I'm riding that first chair, I'm a ball of anxiety," says Nadler. "Then, it's nothing but joy. Every year has a great story."

The ski areas of Summit County are some of the highest in America, and reliably experience early-season snowmaking temperatures and autumn squalls that blanket the region in snow. Keystone Resort, A-Basin, Breckenridge, and Loveland Ski Area are usually the first to open their lifts for the season. But the high altitude also means the resorts are prone to terrible weather in the fall. Nadler and Miller have braved horrific conditions in pursuit of the very first turns of winter. "I remember this one year, powerful winds blew and dropped the temperature to 90 [degrees Fahrenheit] below with the wind chill," said Miller.

In addition to the cold, Nadler and Miller occasionally face late-night confrontations with grumpy skiers who had hoped to be first in line. The Baby Shark enthusiast was one--Nadler said the costumed man yelled at him. "I tried arguing with him but he was too wasted and wouldn't listen to reason," he said. "The joke's on him--we'd had the spot staked out for a week." The man with the shiny metallic helmet was eighth in line when the bullwheel began to spin. Alas, Keystone employees decided he was still too drunk to ride, Nadler added.

How have these two consistently gotten first chair for 31 seasons? Each year, in early October, Nadler and Miller run scouting missions to ski areas across the Front Range. They assess the readiness of the four resorts that are usually in contention to open first. Once they decide which ski area is best prepared to open, they stake out their spot beneath the chair--about a week out from their anticipated opening day.

But resorts don't want people to camp out for that long while employees ready the mountain for winter. That's where Nadler and Miller hold another advantage: the resort staff knows who they are. They will often arrive early and speak with the general managers, the marketing departments, lift operations, and ski patrol to ensure they're out of the way.

Nadler and Miller have built their lives around this annual quest. They both live in Summit County near the ski areas and careers that afford lots of flexibility. Nadler works three jobs: he manages a 34-unit property, drives a hotel shuttle, and operates his own hot tub repair service. Miller makes snowboard films and is a professional pinball player. But camping out for days on end requires more than just a malleable schedule; in Nadler's case, it demands a very patient spouse.

"My wife is a godsend, she's part of our support staff," said Nadler. "But when the temperature starts dropping, I'll take her out to a nice dinner. I try to sweet-talk her a bit. Then I'll sort of drop-in, 'Honey I'm going to go scouting at Keystone tomorrow.'"

Miller isn't married, and his career as a snowboard videographer and professional pinball player allows him to take the time to stake out a spot beneath the bullwheel. His unorthodox job affords another perk: in past years Miller would bring pinball machines to the base of the ski area and run extension cords from a generator to power them, to help him and Nadler pass the time. "A long time ago at Loveland, we'd have a bonfire that would last for three days before lawsuits became a thing," Miller says.

Miller started targeting first chair in 1992, when he was 15 years old. Back then, snowmaking was rare and expensive, so resorts opened later in the season. Because Keystone was the only resort with night skiing infrastructure, it was usually first. When operations managers at Keystone caught wind that another resort was planning to open the next day, they would open on the spot--often at 3 A.M. or 4 A.M., and Miller made sure he was there. "It was a wild time, it'd be totally dark," Miller said., adding he'd work all summer to buy snowboarding gear, and by fall he was always champing at the bit for the season to begin. He'd join a group of friends staking out the lift.

In 2019, Nadler and Miller were camping out at Keystone, convinced that the resort would open in the next 24 hours. Suddenly, A-Basin announced on Instagram that it would open later that afternoon, at 3 P.M., for a single hour of riding. Nadler and Miller packed up as fast as they could and drove the five-and-a-half miles to A-Basin. They arrived before anyone else, but as they were unpacking their camping gear, Nadler realized he left his snowboard sitting under the chair at Keystone. "I drove back in a panic and found my board. It was a miracle that I made it back to A-Basin just moments before other people arrived."

But Miller and his crew never quite got first chair back then. A retired airline pilot named Elmer Mulkins held the unofficial record for scoring the first chair at Loveland for 26 years straight. Mulkins was much older than the teenagers, and Miller says he held a major advantage in the quest for first chair: relationships. Miller says Mulkins would sleep in a heated car the night before opening. Then, resort operators would allow him to slide past the kids to take his spot at the front of the line every year. Miller was outraged.

In 1995 Nadler moved from Minnesota to Breckenridge and joined Miller's crew. Together, they went to war with Mulkins. Each year they would show up earlier to Loveland, partying harder and louder, chanting "Pass the torch!" at Mulkins.

In 2000 Mulkins died of heart failure. Loveland ran an empty chair that year, with a banner that read "Elmer's Chair."

You may have noticed that the timeline of Nadler and Miller's first-chair accolades does not add up to 31 years. Nate Dogggg Nadler and Trailer Tom Miller claim 31 years, but some grumbling Colorado skiers argue it's more like 26. Miller says he got first chairs in Colorado before Nadler arrived. The duo only started going for first chairs together after 1997.

No matter how the math works out, the duo explained that snagging the first chair of the year decade after decade requires another strength: a bladder of steel. The pair eschew food and liquid for much of the days, fasting to keep their spots in line.

"We've been offered money, health care, and sexual favors for our spots in line," said Nadler. "But it's not about the money, it's about the legacy, the fame." Both Nadler and Miller are sponsored snowboarders, but being the kings of first chair has brought the pair more fame than any athletic achievement. Recently, Colorado Public Radio aired an interview with them. Back in 2015 Nadler even scored a profile in Colorado Summit Magazine.

As hard as Nadler and Miller fight for first chair each year, they claim they would never fight dirty. "I wouldn't pay for a first chair, I would concede," said Nadler. "But if you had three people in your group, I'm still getting on that chair."

The duo insists they'll keep at it as long as they're still able (the "First Chair Family" as they're called scored the chair this year despite recovering from a broken leg and a bad back). But if someone ever gets close to their record, you can bet they'll be back. "I'll roll my wheelchair up to that chair to keep my record," said Nadler.

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