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ChairliftChairlifts. We rarely give them a second thought. They get us up pointy mountain and then are instantly forgotten as now the fun bit starts!

But who invented them?

Those of you who watched Michael Portillo’s recent series on the Railroads of America will recall a familiar theme; as railways were built linking the East Coast to the West Coast so railways owners needed to provide a reason for people to travel. Attractions, natural wonders, state fairs and the like all drew crowds from near and far and generated revenue for the railway companies. But they needed more – particularly to stimulate travel in winter.

In 1937, the President of Union Pacific – a railway company that ran trains through some of the most mountainous and scenic landscape of the American Mid-West - saw that skiing had become popular in Europe and thought that people would travel by rail to a brand-new ski resort in the Mid-West if they had the right infrastructure to carry the skiers uphill.

In the early decades of the 1900’s ski lifts were rudimentary affairs. Horses, water mills and ropes around car wheel drums were all used as a means of hauling skiers up the mountain. Union Pacific figured that no one would travel far to hold on to a wet, greasy rope that ran along the ground to pull them uphill. Something better was needed.

Step forward Jim Curran.

Curran was an industrial designer who was now working for Union Pacific. However, a previous job had seen him design an elevated moving ropeway that transported bananas from the plantations where they grew to railheads. Hooks were attached to the rope and a bunch of the aforesaid bananas mounted on each hook. With no contact with anything during the journey, bruising to the delicate fruit was avoided. Replace the hooks for chairs Curran suggested, and you have a chairlift – perfect for transporting skiers uphill.

Tests were carried out to determine if a skier could be scooped up from a moving chair (we know the answer to that one) and the optimum chair speed at point of “scoop” – just short of 6 kmh – which even now is the speed that fixed seat chairlifts operate at.

The tests were carried out with a chair mounted on the side of a pickup truck and ultimately with the skier on roller skates to mimic the effect of snow underfoot. There are some fabulous pictures of all this in the Union Pacific Museum.

The surface infrastructure for the first lift was built by mining engineers in less than five months and the first chairlift opened in December 1936 at the Sun Valley Resort, Idaho – owned by Pacific Union.

Remarkably the design of the chairlift has changed little over the years. Pictures of the running gear of the third chairlift ever built are entirely similar to the items we see today a full 80 years later!

Some development has occurred though. We now have moving floors (carpet lifts) that skiers wait on prior to embarkation and chairlifts with plastic covers (Bubble Chairs) and even some with heated seats.

Nowadays we all love the detachable seat chair lifts that are easier to get on and transport you up the mountain faster. Such lifts are able to run at 12 kmh – double the speed of fixed seat lifts.

So, next time you get scooped up by a chair lift, sit back, relax and remember you owe it all to the humble banana!

Monsieur Mogul


Monsieur Mogul – Our man in La Plagne

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author

alone and not those of Ice and Fire Ski and Snowboard Holidays

RacletteWhilst the fondue has somewhat usurped the raclette as the iconic “meal of the mountains”, it is, in fact, the latter that is the historic repas of mountain folk - the fondue was reserved for the lowland softies.

Arguably, raclette was the first industrial cheese – a cheese made to serve a purpose; namely, to feed the itinerant shepherds as they roamed the mountains with their herds in the summer months. And there were many shepherds. Archive footage of La Plagne in the 1950’s & 60’s reveals half a dozen shepherds sat on stools with a bucket between their legs, hand milking their herd as the cows grazed the summer pastures.

For the shepherds evening meal, a simple wheel of cheese was cut in half and placed close to a modest fire - as the cheese softened and melted it was scraped over dried bread to provide an instant, edible and nutritious feast.

Raclette wheels are never brine washed, wrapped in vine leaves and stored in a marmot’s cave for 18 months. It’s simply a cheese made for immediate consumption.

Today, raclette is hugely popular and is served in a variety of ways.

The traditional way is for half or a quarter cheese to be mounted in front of an infrared grill and melted cheese scraped onto boiled potatoes. It is usually accompanied by a green salad, cornichons and cold cuts of mountain ham. This combination is an absolute feast.

The downside is that everyone close to the grill gets lightly toasted for two hours.

The more modern way is for slices of raclette to be placed in a small tray and slid under a table top grill to melt. That noise? Shepherd’s turning in their grave.

Most of the mountain restaurants have raclette on their menus, so on chalet staff night off, why not treat yourselves to a local feast?

Monsieur Mogul


Monsieur Mogul – Our man in La Plagne

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author

alone and not those of Ice and Fire Ski and Snowboard Holidays

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