Chairlifts epitomise the ski playgrounds of the Alps, but they were not a Swiss invention.
The machines that heralded the modern era of skiing were devised in the United States. Today’s pampered skiers at Sun Valley, Idaho can see demonstrations of a device that dates back to before World War II.
An American railway engineer, James Curran, came up with a smooth way of getting people to the tops of mountains. The first machine was installed in 1936 at Sun Valley, transforming the remote Idaho resort into North America’s premier ski destination.
Local man Mike Fitzpatrick knows a thing or two about the first chairlift to whirr through the wild northwest of America.
He gets a lot of pleasure from showing Sun Valley visitors the rusty relics of this pioneering method of transporting skiers to mountaintops.
“Come on,” he says with a wave.
He stomps off through the snow to a rectangular winding tower with lots of wheels, pulleys and rusty steel cable. Dangling from the elevated ropeway is a series of hard metal seats.
The originals were much more comfy, Fitzpatrick says with a grin. “Like upholstered kitchen chairs with calf supports.”
The contraption proved to be the making of Sun Valley, acting as a magnet for well-heeled winter sports enthusiasts who didn’t enjoy trudging uphill before every descent.
Gilt-framed portraits of Hollywood stars, millionaires and assorted magnates adorn the long corridors of the Sun Valley Lodge.
Among the images is Jacqueline Kennedy, in a Norwegian-style pullover and woolly cap. Marilyn Monroe wears silk stockings as she teeters through the snow, and Ernest Hemingway poses with a shotgun. Other famous visitors included Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Lucille Ball.
The first chairlift was fashioned from an old conveyor belt that had been used for loading bananas on to cargo ships.
Chairlifts were set up in 1936 on the resort’s Dollar and Proctor mountains. A third went into service two years later on Ruud Mountain.
“It’s the only one left,” says Mike Fitzpatrick.
Since then, 18 modern chairlifts have been installed at Sun Valley. There are also two platter lifts, plus a gondola with eight-seat cars, serving the network of 80 marked descents on two peaks.
The Challenger Quad, the longest vertically rising chairlift in North America, takes just 10 minutes to conquer the 1000 metres up Bald Mountain. The treeless peak lives up to its name, with broad open bowls ranging from the easiest to most difficult.
Two-thirds of the slopes in these parts are classed as being for novice or intermediate skiers. The terrain is varied, with no boring snowfields and some fast super-pistes down to Warm Springs.
Amd the celebrities keep coming to Sun Valley. One of the resort’s more daring descents is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, and US President Barack Obama’s daughters were recently spotted skiing here.