Active Outdoors: When it’s windy, T-bar is a skier’s best friend

  • Late morning is the perfect time for a break at the cocoa cabin at the Jackson Ski Touring center along the Ellis River. Cross country ski areas rarely get crowded, not even on the holiday weekend. TIM JONES / Courtesy

  • Jackson XC. There was a lot of fresh snow but not many people on the trails at Jackson Ski Touring on a recent Saturday. This was the closest thing I saw to a "crowd" after a morning alone on the trails. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

For the Monitor
Friday, February 17, 2017

Okay, skiers and riders, how long has it been since you were towed up a hill by a standing surface lift? That would be a device with an overhead cable that pulls you up the hill while your skis remain on the snow. Usually, it’s called a T-bar, J-bar, or platter lift. Rope tows, handle tows and carpet lifts are different beasts, these days typically only seen on beginner slopes.

For skiers of a certain age, rope tows and standing surface lifts were what we learned on. J-bars and platters were great, but a T-bar, which could take two skiers at once – snowboards hadn’t been invented yet – was a huge upgrade. The beauty of a standing surface lift for beginners was that you had to learn to keep control of your skis going up the mountain as well as down.

I know, I know, dinosaurs once roamed the earth.

Anyway, there’s still one situation where this “old-fashioned” technology can handily outperform anything modern, and that’s an extremely windy day. The term “wind hold” never entered the skiing lexicon until the chairlift was invented. A high wind can prevent even a gondola or bubble chair from running safely, but “standing surface lifts” and rope tows aren’t affected by wind at all.

I’m reminded of all this because my buddy David and I were at Mount Abram in Greenwood, Maine, on a very windy, cold day after one of the many recent powder storms. As soon as we opened the car doors in the parking lot, we looked at each other and said “wind hold.” Sure enough, the chairlift wasn’t running, but the T-bar was just starting to turn. By the time we got our lift tickets and were suited and booted (in a lot of layers), they were loading the T-bars and sending the first skiers up the hill.

Riding the T-bar was almost a magical experience. It’s quiet enough that you can hear your skis sliding on snow, even on a windy day. Though the wind had pummeled us across the open base area, and was dancing on the tops of the trees, as soon as we started up the hill, the wind at ground level dropped to nothing. We didn’t feel it again until almost the top of the hill where it howled across a cat track carrying a drift of powder with it.

The “Maine” T-bar at Mount Abram is no beginner baby lift. It is 3,350 feet long, rising 935 vertical feet, and accesses almost as much of the mountain as the primary chairlift. Riding it was fun, a blast from the past. But, as I said, T-bars were designed for skiers; they are significantly more challenging for snowboarders who, of course, stand sidewise on their boards. A couple of the snowboarders on the mountain that day had mastered the art of riding a T-bar. Others hadn’t, which was sort of fun to watch in that painful, “I’m glad that’s not me...” kind of way.

The same wind that had shut down the chairlift had also scoured most of the powder from the open trails. Even the woods had places where the powder had disappeared. But on the trails, the trees had acted like a snow fence and piled up deep drifts of what would be called “champagne powder” out west. We spent most of the morning skiing in snow anywhere from a few inches to knee deep.

Mount Abram is only a few miles from Sunday River and attracts an entirely different crew (the word “crowd” really didn’t apply on this cold morning). Check it out sometime. It’s only open Thursday-Sunday and all week next week. Even if the chairlift is running, take a ride on the T-bar if it’s turning. It’s a hoot.

‘Another day, another snowstorm’

That’s how it’s been recently in my neighborhood, at least. The day after our trip to Mount Abram, I took my Nordic gear to Jackson Ski Touring to cruise along in the 4 inches of fresh snow that had fallen since dawn. I was driving one of the first cars in the parking lot and a couple minutes later, I was kicking and gliding along on untouched snow.

It was one of those perfect winter mornings: not too cold, light snow drifting down, skiing through woodlands all by myself. For most of the time I was out, I was able to stay ahead of everyone else and leave my own tracks on in the light, fresh powder. A weasel of some sort had crossed the trail in front of me. I didn’t see it but I did see the tracks. By noon, my legs were shot, but it was a day I won’t soon forget.

If you haven’t been out cross country skiing since all this snow came, you simply have to. Conditions are incredible, and cross country ski areas rarely (okay, never) get crowded, even during the President’s Week holidays.

(Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. He can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)