WORDS — David Steele
It’s not often in skiing that being so wrong feels so right. Especially about something that doesn’t involve the weather. Expansion, in the world of ski lifts, brings images of sitting on a fast-moving, seven-seater with a bubble covering you from the elements, and maybe even a heated seat as you scream up the hill towards another lap. “Improvement” can perhaps be tangibly expanded resort boundaries, where moguls crop up in what used to be your former backcountry haunt. But when Chair 5 at Whitefish moved in the fall of 2017, none of these typical things occurred.
A little-used triple seater, Chair 5 had spent its winters caked in the rime of Ptarmigan Bowl since it was first installed in 1981, but was relocated to cut a straight line up the East Rim, a zone full of chutes, rocky “pepper” and sneaky traverse connections. The cliffs, now below the swaying chairs, remained unchanged; the glades were altered, but only slightly, the lift line now cutting through them. With this lift relocation, it was as if a patch of the familiar somehow moved closer to home, like the workshop out back had moved into the middle of the living room. A favorite zone of many locals, the East Rim could now be lapped with ease.
The trail map fails to portray the somewhat confusing joys of Chair 5 on paper. So, to get a better sense of the terrain while you’re reading this story, let’s do a little exercise: Put your left arm out in front of you with your fingers pointing slightly downward.
Imagine your forearm as the ridgeline of East Rim, as viewed from across the valley. Chair 5 runs a straight line from your ring finger up to your elbow. Along the ridge (your forearm), it is noticeably flat—it looks the same in-person—but off both sides the ridge, the mountain drops away into precarious, demanding and fun-to-ski black diamonds.
Where your arm hair lies, imagine the dense trees of First Creek and Don’s Descent off to the left. At your wrist, pinky side, moguls and the odd patch of ice reflect the bomb-tram line strung over the tube of North Bowl Chute (NBC), and your index finger points to the top of The Nose. Shelves of trees peppered with cliff bands are the signature taste of this spicy dish, but to get across the flats and out to the scratchy drop—which is worth a send—requires a bit of skating. From here, the trees lead to a step, flowing into the aprons of Whitey’s below. Lastly, following your wrist back toward your elbow, the right side of your arm represents the East Rim Face, a zone known for its smattering of big-mountain, gladed terrain.
SKIER: Corey Seeman
PHOTO: Craig Moore
LOCATION: Whitefish, MT
You can put your arm away now, but with this visual still fresh in your mind, take note that some of the runs I’ve just mentioned aren’t actually labeled on the trail map; to find your way around the bounty off of Chair 5, I recommend you make nice with the locals and (fingers crossed) they’ll point you in the right direction.
All said, the sneaky, backwards charm of the relocated Chair 5 carries more than just being an old lift in new digs. Nothing about this lift is “high-speed” or “detachable.” Plus, Chair 5 finishes not at the summit, where you could access every other aspect of the mountain, but on a saddle 200 feet below it.
This last part left many grousing in overtones of skepticism when the decision to move the lift was announced. It seemed odd to willingly take an old chair, pay to move it and not even point it back to the top. The usual complaints you’d expect flowed, but then a glorious thing happened: All those whiners, myself included, went and actually rode Chair 5 on its new course. And we realized that, though an island it had become, we could get happily marooned there.
For those willing to commit to this relatively small but fully loaded zone, you’ll find none of the hoopla like back at the base area. Those accustomed to skiing at Whitefish are used to unloading directly into the flow of traffic from the Ant Hill giving it the occasional, Frogger-esque thrill. But, on Chair 5, no longer did you have to live or die by the long road of Russ’ Street to connect back to a lift. Three laps later, most of the people cringing about the new limelight brought to East Rim were still there, and the grins on their faces said that they might even be enjoying themselves.
Apparently, Whitefish brass knew what they were doing. There’s a magic to being sure in your salty bones that some form of change is downright wrong—and then being forced to admit that you’re actually the one who’s incorrect. Chair 8, in Hellroaring Basin, got a course change of its own during summer 2021. And, this time, I look forward to discovering how much fun it will be.