As we put to bed another ski season, #42 in the life of Northstar, it is fun to look back at how the mountain looked in the early years and consider the remarkable transformation that has occurred to deliver the world-class resort we enjoy today as well as contemplate the bright future apparent when considering the many facets of the Mountain Master Plan.
Those who can accurately recite the original lift configuration along with the titular letter that adorned each bears the highest level of street credibility at Northstar.
From the Village, the primary access to mid-mountain was the T-chair, a very slow double left that followed the alignment of the present day Big Springs Gondola. Keeping in mind that every person wishing to access mid-mountain whether skiing or catching a glimpse of a loved one in a lesson had to ride this chair that seemed impossibly high off the ground with a suspect bar in place for safety. Stories of watching newborns and elderly grandparents ride this lift caused 15 breathless minutes until reaching the top and having to maneuver a dismount from a still moving, fixed-grip chair down the slope to safety.
Eventually the “E” chair joined “T” as an access point out of the Village along the alignment currently used for the Village Express Quad. “E”, later renamed “Echo” was a triple chair that moved at a slightly higher cadence and delivered skiers about 500 vertical feet higher up for an intermediate cruiser run down to mid-mountain.
“B”, later “Bear Paw” was the beginner chair whose beginning was in the place of today’s Big Easy but ran about half as far and half as fast. Many a Northstar enthusiast will remember B as their learning ground.
Contrary to conventional logic, upon graduating from B Chair one would progress to A. Just below the terminus of the T-chair on a landing area a few hundred feet down Village Run as the “A” lift. Terminating above and to the left of the present base area for Comstock Express, A offered a little more vertical for novice skiers or access to the top of Mt. Pluto via the next lift. For a period of time, “A” was extended to the plateau area currently occupied by Rendezvous. This was ultimately abandoned in favor of the current Arrow chair, presumably because the leap for a beginner to Cascade was a bit too steep for most.
Returning to the mid-mountain hub, “F” Chair followed the alignment currently known as Vista. In between names, this lift went by “Forest” for a period of time. Similarly the area currently occupied by Zephyr was quite a hub of activity. Lockers, basket check and a building with uses ranging from a wine and cheese shop to a Dynastar Performance Center flanked the base of a chair that would go be a multitude of names before finally being replaced only a few years ago. Born as “D” Chair, the resort opted against possible D-names including “Danger” or “Downhill” upon changing their convention and ultimately decided upon Lookout. The most notable characteristic of this base area was the short but incredibly steep face that required aggressive side-stepping or duck-walking immediately after lunch to access. On busier days, this lift line would extend up the hill sufficiently far to require perpendicular stance across the fall line. The lift ran farther to the north than the present day Zephyr lift delivering skier to what was once thought to be among the most difficult runs on the mountain, The Face. When Northstar introduced new terrain on Lookout Mountain in the 1999-2000 season, this lift was renamed “Pioneer” to allow the Lookout title to live on its actual peak.
Moving up the mountain in a notably non-alphabetic fashion, “C” Chair was in the place of the present day Comstock Express. As the only access to the top of Mt. Pluto, this lift was immensely popular as its successor is today.
The lone remnant from the original lift configurations is Rendezvous; originally “L” Chair. Accessing terrific terrain as well as the prime views of Lake Tahoe off of East Ridge, this chair generally functioned then as it does today, as a compliment to Comstock. The fixed-grip triple made a unique statement as the lone deviant from Northstar’s signature blue, presenting with an ominous black.
Years later, it may have been the opening of the new Backside lift that triggered the shift away from single-letter titles. A regional tradition seems to be the recycling of the same names with as many different applications as possible. Borrowing from the restaurant in the Village, and later the title of Tahoe Mountain Club’s private on-mountain dining facility as well as the community in Martis Valley, this lift became Schaffer’s Camp for a period of time before being re-christened as a more pragmatic “Backside Express.” Curiously, a mid-station was constructed about halfway up this lift that always served as a cautionary beacon for low-snow years or other doomsday scenarios that never materialized.
As Northstar has gown exponentially over four decades, the question often arises as to how the mountain can handle the rapidly growing demand for the resort. Most of those inquiring expect an answer that has to do with expanded ski terrain. However, Vail Resorts has shown in their brief tenure of ownership that a well-conceived lift configuration coupled with improving chairlift technology can move people around the mountain with remarkable efficiency.
Take for example the entire quarter of the mountain once access almost exclusively by the lift alternately known as D, Lookout and Pioneer. As the resort upgraded to hyper-efficient detachable-quad chairlifts at Arrow, Comstock, Backside and elsewhere, this lift languished a slow-fixed grip. The obvious result was a lack of traffic which concentrated skiers on these other, busier runs. Upon completion the Zephyr Express 6-pack and moving it several hundred vertical feet up the mountain, 25% of the skiable terrain opened up alleviating lift line congestion throughout the resort.
The next time someone waxes nostalgic about the good old days at Northstar, ask if they were the one yelling “single” in the 25-minute lift line in hopes of moving up a little faster or finding something else entirely…