The chairlift on Ruud Mountain at Sun Valley in 1947 had a very peculiar characteristic. It ran as though it had a mind of its own. If you didn't sit down gently when you started your ride, and jumped on instead, this would start the cable bouncing.

If this happened, you were in for a big surprise as you got closer to the first tower. That first tower had been built just exactly the wrong distance from where you boarded the lift. Through some unique mathematical equation of time versus distance, a very rare type of rapidly increasing, harmonic vibration was set up.

Your small initial bounce was rapidly magnified in height until, just before you got to that "built in the wrong place" first tower, you were thrown unceremoniously and violently out of the chair. You would then land in  the snow 20 feet below.

This would only happen in front of your friends. Even after you learned of this chairlifts mechanical idiosyncrasy, trying to hang on each time you made a mistake getting on was nearly impossible. This was, after all, only the second or third chairlift built in the world and engineering knowledge, mixed with contemporary ski  techniques, weren't all that sophisticated.

The chairlift was invented in 1936. Before that time, one of the few ways you could get a real thrill out of skiing was to be a Nordic ski jumper. For each jump, you would have to spend at least 30 minutes climbing up to the top of the hill, or in-run, with your thick, wide, heavy, eight-foot-long skis over your shoulder.

There, you'd rest a  bit, put them on, and start down the in-run, gaining as much speed as the hill allowed, until you flew, or jumped  off  the lip. Depending on the height of the hill, the object was always to go far enough through the air as possible to come in for a gentle landing at a tangent to the steep landing hill.

Nordic jumping was most popular in the Midwest, where the hills are not very high. At most of the locations, ski clubs would spend every summer weekend building a scaffold for their new, bigger, higher in-run, way up above the top of the landing hill. The agony of climbing, the shakiness of the scaffolds built out of scrounged lumber, and the lack of safety bindings kept most people from ever becoming  ski jumpers. They were smart people.

This began to change when a Union Pacific Railroad engineer invented the chairlift. Skiing immediately began to come of age because, at the same time, the railroad also invented Sun Valley, Idaho. Now, you could finally ski downhill all day long and never have to climb back up. Just sit down in a moving chair and be hauled back up for as many rides as your strength, skill, and money allowed. All of this could be had for only a couple of dollars a day.

When it was decided to build Sun Valley, one of the first memos written by Averill Harriman, President of the railroad, called for "mechanical devices to take people to the tops of the slides." Engineers in Omaha, Neb., home base of the railroad, immediately went to work on variations of the already invented rope tow and the J-Bar.

A young railroad engineer named Jim Curran, who had helped build equipment for loading bananas on fruit boats in the tropics, was a member of the railroad team who were assigned the task. To him, transporting skiers or bunches of bananas, without bruising them, presented much the same problem. The only difference was the temperature in which they were transported.  All Jim did was simply replace the banana hooks that hung from a moving cable, with chairs.

His original drawings were almost overlooked in the first presentation to Averrill Harriman, but former Olympic skier, Dartmouth ski coach, and consultant, Charlie Proctor, spotted the drawings  and sent them on to Harriman with his recommendations.

"Curran's ideas are the best," he wrote. "Let him design and build the whole thing!" 

A mock-up of the chair was built in the bed of a pickup truck in a hot railroad yard in Omaha. A bunch of timbers resembling half of a "T" were hung out over the side of the truck. Hanging from the upside down "L" was a free swinging, two -inch in  diameter piece of pipe. The chair seat was welded to the bottom of the pipe and was the same distance off the ground as a normal chair with legs.

Curran's engineering team  thought they could drive the pickup truck with the chair facing forward and scoop up a waiting-in-line skier. Driving the truck at a variety of speeds, they could eventually decide on which speed was the best, and fastest, to scoop up waiting skiers without injuring them.

Time was beginning to run out by the time they got their contraption built and ready for testing. Whatever uphill device they came up with had to be invented, designed, engineered, built, tested and hauling paying passengers on the side of a hill in the remote wilds of Idaho by Christmas.

Expert skier, John E.P. Morgan, was summoned to Omaha to test this revolutionary new idea. He arrived with skis, boots, poles, and wearing warm, woolen ski clothes. He looked, and had to feel, pretty silly standing around, sweating amidst the steam engines and a handful of engineers involved in a top secret project.

At first, Morgan simply stood on a pile of straw as the truck drove by slowly and tried to scoop him up. Straw proved not to be slippery enough, as John picked himself up from the cinder covered railroad yard a few dozen times.             

At lunch, someone suggested, "Why not add some oil to the straw?" They did, and now John had oily straw stuck to the bottom of his skis and it didn't slide very well either.

A junior engineer suggested, "Let's try a pair of roller skates. There's some concrete out by the roundhouse that we can drive back and forth on."

A couple of hours later, with John E.P. Morgan in his thick woolen, winter  ski clothes, sweating profusely, the maximum speed of  loading live bodies on the, as yet unnamed, tramway was finally decided. A speed, astonishingly, that is still being used in chairlifts all over the world today.

As the Hailey Weekly  newspaper in Idaho reported, the "lift" is built "to carry ski jumpers up to where they will shoot back down."

My first experience with that "first in the world ski lift," according to my diary, was Jan. 27, 1947, when a very attractive young lady invited me for lunch at the Dollar Mountain Cabin. I didn't know it when I accepted the date, but the cabin was at the top of the lift. I couldn't afford a four dollar lift ticket to get up there.

So, I did the next best thing. I arrived at the base of Dollar an hour early, climbed to the top of the mountain and skied over to the sun porch of the Dollar Cabin. I enjoyed the great lunch and my date's Texas drawl.  After lunch, Josephine Abercrombie and her girlfriend, Audrey Beck, seemed to be content to just lean back and soak up the sun, so I took a calculated risk.

I climbed into my skis, waved goodbye for awhile, and skied down the west ridge of the Dollar Bowl in beautiful, untracked powder snow. At the bottom, I skied right up to get back on the lift as though I had been riding it all day.

"May I see your lift ticket please?"

"Oh! I left it on my parka. It's hanging up on the sun deck at the restaurant at the top."

"Be sure to bring it down next time."

"Sure, I will."

I didn't have a parka, so I looked around the sun deck at the top, spotted one with a lift ticket hanging on it, found out who owned it,  and said to the owner,

"I'm really cold; could I borrow your parka and make a few runs wearing it?"

The guy that loaned it to me was  really  busy trying to hustle my date and sipping Dom Perignon, while soaking up the sun's warm rays right alongside the two ladies from Texas. I skied four or five runs with that borrowed season lift ticket.

By the fifth run, that lift operator invited me down to have dinner at his farmhouse some night soon and he knew me so well, he never asked to see my lift ticket again for the rest of the winter. At the top, on the fifth run, II gave the parka back to the man I had borrowed it from and skied free the rest of the day with Josephine and Audrey without a lift ticket.

Warren Miller logo

(Copyright, 2009: WarrenMiller.net).

Click here for more information about Warren, his products and stories and be sure to join his friends on Facebook.