Snow Bowl Lift Operations: A Family Affair

By Hye-Jin Kim

Getting on and off the chairlift for the first time can be terrifying. It can also be quality comedy. There is even a short film by Warren Miller, an iconic action sports filmmaker, solely devoted to the potentially traumatic experience: “Chairlift-Funny Disasters” – check it out on YouTube.

But the lift operators at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl work hard to prevent any real trauma to skiiers and boarders. Some, like Tim Kerr of Brandon, Vt. have over 20 years of experience.

“We’re kind of unique, in that in bigger areas, they have lift operators who are lift operators and snowmakers who are snowmakers,” said Snow Bowl ski-area manager Peter Mackey. “[Here], one of our operators will be making snow at night and a couple days later, working on a lift.”

According to 23-year old lift operator Stephan Kerr, snow-making is the more difficult part of his job.

“It can be dangerous,” he said. “The air hydrant can hit you with up to 500 lbs of pressure if you discharge the line incorrectly.”

Despite the inherent dangers, there is very little turnover among Snow Bowl employees according to Mackey. He explained this is likely due to the ski area’s small size and family atmosphere. Many of the lift operators also work together at the Bread Loaf campus in the summer.

In the case of Tim and his son Stephan, operating Worth Lift on a “chausty” (a hybridization of ‘chilly’ and ‘frosty’ made popular by Snow Bowl manager Peter Mackey) Sunday afternoon is quite literally a family affair.

“We have some days we like each other, some days we don’t,” chuckled Stephan. “We ride in together, so if we fight, some days are long days. But what I love about my job, especially this ski area, is how much of a family we are.”

Stephan Kerr started working at the Snow Bowl when he was 16, and has been snowboarding here since he was eight. He recalled planning his runs to rotate between lift huts to hang out with different lift operators. “I grew up here,” he said.

Given the cost of lift tickets, gear and travel, skiing and snowboarding is an ironically difficult sport to access for some Vermont residents. Foster Provencher, a Sheehan lift operator, has never skied or snowboarded in his life. Asked if he ever considered it, he replied without hesitation: “nope.”

Stephan Kerr said most of his high school friends were more into riding snowmobiles than chairlifts. “If my dad didn’t work here, I never would’ve gotten into [snowboarding]. Because he worked here, I got to take lessons for free,” he said

Stephan was an avid snowboarder until he had a snowboarding accident at the bottom of Allen in 2011.

“I went to stop and caught an edge,” he said of the accident. “My face hit the ground, my board came up over the top of my head and flipped me on my back. I did a scorpion.” He ended up with two compressed vertebrae and a month of rehab. “[My mobility for snowboarding] is pretty limited now,” he said. “Plus my dad told me if I even grabbed my board from the closet, he’s going to stuff it up no man’s land.”

While Stephan admits to feeling a little jealous watching snowboarders shred down Allen on powder days, he’s happily taken up ice-fishing and hunting with his dad. On slow days, Stephan plays games on his Kindle (especially Game of War) or completes crossword puzzles and reads daily comics as a distraction. The lift huts also conveniently have Wi-Fi.

As for the cold, it doesn’t faze him. “We work in shifts,” he said. “Thirty minutes on, then thirty minutes off,” Stephan said. “We dress for it.” While some skiers swear by hand and toe-warmers on single-digit days, Stephan relies on steel-toed boots and his hardy local upbringing. “It’s very rare that I wear hand warmers or toe warmers. I’ve kind of known what to wear just over years of growing up here in Vermont.”

Provencher, like my shivering self, is not so immune to the feels-like-negative-22-degrees wind-chill.

“There’s a lot of nice days, but also a lot of cold days,” he said, pausing to secure the chair for me. I clumsily plopped down. As the lift begins to lurch forward, he sent me off with a little wisdom in his slow and unwavering Canadian drawl. “But you gotta take the good with the bad.”