A lift operator doesn't need to clock a co-worker with a chair to get some respect and attention on the hill. Not when there's a competition like the Wasatch Backside Lifty Invitational (WBLI) to help lifties show their stuff. The Utah event, now in its third year, conjures some fierce rivalry among the lift operations of the three Wasatch "backside" ski areas-Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), Deer Valley and Canyons-but it's all for fun. And glory.
The contest spans 12 highly unusual events that emphasize skills the lift crews use every day, but with wacky takes on them. For example: lifties pick up gear all day long; so the contest includes the Gear Return Relay and the Lost & Found Mound, where teams must dig through snow to be the first to find six buried items. Used to spinning around with a ski pole to hand to the lift rider who dropped it? How about spinning on a ski pole? The Ski Pole Spin Relay has team members put their foreheads on the grip, spin around till they're dizzy, then run through slalom gates. The teams of lift operators, maze builders and ticket scanners compete for the challenge, the glory, and the trophy. And thanks to sponsors like Doppelmayr and Leitner Poma, there's also money for banners, prizes, the awards party, and future scholarships.
"We'd like to create an account with the unspent dollars and use it for a local college scholarship for hospitality or resort management," says PCMR Lift Operations Manager Jeff Marzka. A scholarship could help elevate some deserving operators to the next level.
The Games are spread out over three evenings at the end of March, at each of the three resorts. The Invitational culminates in an awards party that might tempt the less-experienced to call in sick for work the next day.
"I heard our team got a little belligerent and were told to tone it down," says Will, a PCMR employee about Day one's Scoop Relay, Return Gear Relay, and the 40-Yard Ski Boot Relay. As the returning champs, PCMR had their eyes on the prize, and they weren't afraid to talk a little smack. But with the WBLI, it's more about friendly competition than all-out gang wars. "We all do the same job, and our goals are safety and the guest experience," says Marzka. "There's no reason to take it beyond the smack talk and bantering."
Camaraderie counts in ski towns, and the WBLI provides a big chance to mingle. "It's cool because I recognize Canyons lifties when they come to our resort and they recognize me when I go to theirs," says Will. "It really brings people together when they realize that we all have the same challenges and experiences regardless of where we work," Hedman adds.
After the fraternity-like scene this past March, PCMR emerged again as the winning team. But based on the grumbles from the other two teams, PCMR'll have to start training now to hold onto the glory next year. There's talk of the Backside taking on the Frontside areas-Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, and Brighton-but for now, the WBLI will continue to be about the Park City community.
More than anything else, the WBLI shows that resort managements recognize the important roles that lifties play in a resort's operations and persona. "Lifties often feel that they aren't respected or their job doesn't mean anything," says Marzka. "But they take the brunt of everyone's bad day, the dropping of gear, the misloading (on lifts). This event is to recognize them for their hard work."
Lifties have a lot to do with a guest's impression of an area's friendliness. Skier visits total about two million between all three Wasatch backside resorts. If each visitor rides 10 times, lifties will have 20 million interactions with skiers and riders. That's a lot of visibility-and responsibility.
Paul Hedman, lift operations manager at Deer Valley Resort, says, "The WBLI really serves as a morale booster for employees at this point in the season."
"Lift operations can really be a thankless job," says Deirdre Riley, lift operations manager at Canyons. "All three resorts have great teams that work hard and play hard. There's no better way to focus all that energy."