The oldest chairlift at Alaska's biggest ski area is being removed from the mountain, and going with it is a piece of history.
Alyeska Resort's Chair 1, which spans the mountain's front side and long served as the ski area's workhorse, is being dismantled after years of disuse.
The last of the lift's 140 chairs were collected Wednesday. Later this summer, the cables and the towers will come down, the latter to be hauled away by helicopter, a resort spokesman said. In September, if all goes according to plan, the shacks at the onloading and offloading areas will be dismantled and removed.
In the days before the use of high-speed quads and fast trams, including those that now whisk skiers up Alyeska, Chair 1 was the main access route up the mountain. In the resort's earliest days — when skiers sporting stretch pants and bouffant hairdos carved stem-christie turns on wooden boards attached to their leather boots using cables — it was the only chairlift.
For many longtime Alyeska skiers, the demise of the now-superfluous Chair 1 is bittersweet.
"I'm sad because it sort of marks the end of an era," said Alex von Wichman, a former ski racer who spent much of her childhood on and around the chairlift. She remembers long lines, snaking past the day lodge, of skiers waiting to get on Chair 1, rides on it through thick "pea-soup" fog, and early morning Easter sunrise service rides to the top in "rain, sleet, snow or shine." She recalls kids annoying or alarming adults by jumping off Chair 1 at strategic spots, and she has other memories.
"I'm not sure that some of them should be printed," she said.
Sentimentality aside, it no longer makes sense to try to keep Chair 1 and its decades-old technology operating, the resort has determined.
"It's old. It needs a lot of replacement parts that they don't make anymore," said Ben Napolitano, Alyeska's mountain marketing manager. "Every replacement bolt and nut would have had to be custom-made, and that's really expensive."
Ski resorts routinely modernize and replace chairlifts, and Alyeska is no exception, having updated and expanded its lift system periodically over its half-century lifespan. But the removal of Chair 1 is a special case because of the lift's place in Alaska ski history.
"When you think of the mountain, you think of Chair 1 because it's been there so long," said Carol Makar, a part-time Girdwood resident since 1984 and a full-time Girdwoodian since 1999.
Its removal is an event so momentous that Alyeska is holding a "celebration of life" for the doomed chairlift this Saturday night. The resort plans to sell off or donate the lift's chairs — one of them is the prize in a photo contest collecting votes on Facebook. Remnants of the chairlift are expected to be prized as antiques, much as the mountain's Roundhouse, the one-time Chair 1 upper terminal, has been converted into a museum.
Chair 1 provided much of the impetus for Alyeska's transformation from one among a sea of snowy Alaska mountains into a resort of international stature. Over the years, Alyeska has become famous for its abundant snowfall and its challenging on- and off-piste terrain. It has hosted collegiate, national and international championships, and was at one point considered as a site for Olympic ski races. It has produced U.S. Ski Team members, including Makar's son Mike and 1994 Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe.
The chairlift being dismantled is actually a second version of Chair 1. The first chair opened on Christmas Day of 1960, but it was carted away in favor of the current Chair 1, a double-seater Riblet lift installed in 1979 at the same place.
The ride up could be a cold, wet journey that took 12 minutes, three times as long as Alyeska's modern lifts — and that was if all went well. Often, it did not. Makar remembers being evacuated twice, once in the rain. She also remembers that it was a scary ride for some, especially because it had no safety bar.
"If you had a fear of heights, you would put your poles across," she said.
Chair 1 did offer a shorter ride, thanks to a convenient midway loading site that allowed skiers to make fast laps at the top, above the low-elevation rain that can sometimes soak Alyeska's sea-level base.
Not everyone is sorry to see Chair 1 go.
"It was always cold and windy and slow. It stopped once in a while. I won't miss it a bit," said John Horey, a former ski coach. "I haven't ridden it in years."
For those Alaska skiers seeking retro rides, some post-Chair 1 options remain.
Some are at Arctic Valley, the tiny nonprofit ski area in the mountains on the northern outskirts of Anchorage. There, an aged T-bar that dates back to 1961 is the main upslope conveyance. The two chairlifts at Arctic Valley are not much younger.
In the Prince William Sound town of Cordova, skiers can plant their derrieres on North America's oldest operating chairlift. A single-seater chairlift originally erected at Sun Valley in Idaho — one of the first chairlifts ever built — was transported to Alaska and installed at Cordova's Mount Eyak Ski Area in 1974. It remains the sole chairlift at the tiny and quirky ski area.