Lift lines are the price skiers pay for skiing with the crowds. The lines are frustrating, chilling, boring and unglamorous, but they are there.
The question for ski managers in the Washington area is: how long a line is too long?
The answer is surprising. A random survey set the "too long" time at 35 minutes. "When the lines get to 30-35 minutes, they stay there; they don't keep going up to 40 or 45 minutes," said Andrew Dearborne, ski area manager at Canaan in West Virginia.
The 30-minute lift lines are fairly rare. "We reach capacity when our parking lot is full," said Hans Geier, manager at Ski Liberty. "That happens about 10 or 11 times a year, out of a season of 110 days -- about 10 percent."
But if you hit one of those days, it can put a dent in your skiing. In the Washington area, the runs are short compared with Vermont or Colorado. If you're a schussboomer, you can ski the longest slopes in about two minutes. If you like to stop and study your path, or talk to your friends, it can take as long as 15 minutes to get down. However, standing in the line 30 minutes means most of your lift ticket price goes toward waiting for the lift, not skiing.
People who operate ski areas realize that these lines -- or the more common, more acceptable 10- to 20-minute lines -- frustrate skiers. Their answer is to increase the number of lifts and the number of slopes so more people can be on the mountain, rather than waiting at the bottom. About half of the local ski areas have expanded in the last year or plan expansion in the next two years.
One ski area, the Wintergreen in Waynesboro, Va., cuts off lift ticket sales when lines get too long -- and at Wintergreen "too long" is 13 minutes."People invest a lot of money to buy homes or rent for the weekend here," said Jim Rankin, assistant ski area manager."It's important that we keep the lines moderate. Skiing is expensive, and we need to give a quality experience to justify the cost."
Rankin suggested that day skiers arrive at Wintergreen by 7 a.m. to be sure of getting on the mountain to ski by 9 a.m. "We had to shut the gate at 6:50 once, and it's often about 7:30 a.m.," Rankin said. The guards at the gate give out phone numbers and maps to other ski areas within 2 1/2 hours of Wintergreen when they turn skiers away.
Most ski area managers agreed that weather has more of an effect on lines than the crowd. When the weather is good, skiers will want to be on the slopes. When it is cold and windy, skiers spend more time inside.
Managers suggest that skiers time their skiing to get the most for their money. Crowding does not usually begin before 10 or 10:30 a.m., so if you are at the ski area when it opens (and many open at 8 a.m. on weekends), you can ski for nearly 2 1/2 hours without having to stand in long lines. You can get in 10 to 15 runs, depending on the area and your ability.
The periods from 11 to 1 and 2 to 3:30 are worst for lines. If the area has twilight or night skiing, you might want to stay off the slopes until after 4 p.m. and rest midday so that you can ski until 10 p.m.
Camelback, in Tannersville, Pa., has reduced rate, morning lift tickets that allow you to ski from 8 a.m. until 12:30 on weekends. Bryce Mountain in Basye, Va., has a twilight ticket that allows you to ski from 1 until 10 p.m.
Alternatively, you can call the ski area in the morning and ask about crowds. But don't be surprised if you can't get a definitive word. "It's hard to predict. One Saturday the crowds were heavy and we anticipated that Sunday would be equally heavy, because that's the way it usually is. But it was a normal crowd. I haven't the faintest idea why," said Canaan Valley's Dearborne.
"Remember, if there are no lines, we are not making money," said Charles Wines, ski area manager at Massanutten. "If we are not making money, we can't expand and improve." And expansion means shorter lines.