By Mikaela Ruland
The thermometer in the car reads 1°F when I pull up to Copper Mountain. The sun hasn’t yet crested the mountain, leaving the world bathed in icy blue winter dawn. It looks cold. I wonder if maybe you’d have to be just a little bit crazy to go to work in these temperatures every morning.
I survey the parking spot I’d snagged. First row of Alpine One. Not bad. Maybe these lift operators were on to something.
Ivy Matthews, crew leader of lift operations, meets me at the Kokomo Express in West Village. She’s been at the mountain since 7am and has just finished writing her daily joke on the information board. She’s settled on, “What kind of a bagel can fly?” after scrapping two other jokes. On a Saturday, the joke has to be top notch.
I ask her about the coldest conditions she’s ever worked in and she tells me of a day operating the Excelerator lift where the winds were howling, a snow gun was pointing at her all day and the thermometer never inched above 10°F. Brrrr.
Ivy grew up in Michigan, where she got a degree in geology. Three years ago, she had graduated and didn’t have any idea of what was next. A friend of hers worked at Copper Mountain and convinced her to apply to be a lift operator. She had never skied or boarded before.
This year is her third season at Copper. She lives in Silverthorne, dates a patroller and has learned to ski.
“Being a lift operator is not as boring as you’d think.” She tells me, “I love making relationships with regular guests. Once, I was in Austin, Texas and I had a family I’d met here at Copper Mountain buy me dinner.”
We head into the operation hut where we meet the other members of her crew today, Jeremy, Esteban and Valerie, who started as lift operators the day before. The walls are covered in buttons and screens. It turns out running a lift is a bit more complicated than turning it off and on.
The Kokomo Express needs to be turned on from both the base and the top. Earlier in the morning, a mechanic had ridden up on a snowmobile to fire it up. Today the Kokomo is working on a back-up engine so the mechanic will be in the engine room all day.
Through a series of beeps, the top of the lift communicates with the bottom and soon the bell rings and the chair comes to life. Esteban and some employees that work mid-mountain load on the chair as Ivy and the rest of her team begin sweeping each chair of the snow that had fallen the night before, and shoveling snow onto the loading ramp.
Soon, a chair comes down the mountain carrying an orange traffic cone. This was the first chair they had sent up this morning.
Next, the crew methodically tests each “stop”. These are a series of buttons that ensure the chairlift comes to a quick stop when needed. At full speed, the Kokomo goes 4 m/s. If all is working correctly, it can come to a full stop in 17 m.
The team ensure that each and every stop is working properly, at the bottom and the top. They test each zone and ensure that when a stop is hit, the chair behind doesn’t run into the stopped chair.
As they run their tests, I ask Jeremy what his favorite part of being a lift operator is.
“Seeing the ski school kids progress,” he tells me, “sometimes they ask me to slow the chair down, but I have them give it a try at normal speed and they’re so proud of themselves when they get on.”
Ivy chimes in that she loves seeing the kids explain to their parents at the end of the day how to load correctly.
The craziest thing they see on a day-to-day basis?
“People drop a pole and jump off the lift after it. It happens way more than you would think.”
Ivy and I get on the lift and head up to the top. She points out the fresh corduroy. Getting first tracks is a perk of the job. These lift operators definitely are onto something, I decide.
Esteban waves at us from the control room. Once we’re up, Ivy heads up an incredibly steep set of metal stairs into the engine room above the lift’s unloading point. I’m impressed at how quickly she does it in ski boots. I firmly grab the handrails as I go up, making a point not to look down.
In the engine room, it smells like diesel. Matty, the engineer, is working on the machinery. The stops in the engine room get tested and we pause for a moment looking out at the view.
Ivy points the Sky Chutes out to me across the valley, “I love that nature spelled a word across the mountain.”
We say our goodbyes as the chair opens and guests start heading up the mountain. I get on the chair going downhill and am greeted with a totally new view of the mountain.
Ivy and her team have only just begun. In an hour or so, the lines will start to get crazy as ski school starts. They’ll spend the day helping clients load, shoveling snow and making sure the lift runs smoothly. She’ll clock out around 5pm, before coming back tomorrow to do it all again.
I see the joke’s answer on the back of the board as I’m leaving.
“A plain bagel.”