JACKSON, WYO. – Peter Landsman fell in love with chairlifts when he first started skiing as a toddler in Washington.
He started documenting chairlifts — notes on length, age, capacity, with photographs — when he was 10, adding all the chairs from Crystal Mountain, Summit at Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass into a spreadsheet.
Late last month, the now-32-year-old lift supervisor at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort flew to upstate New York, rented a car and visited Hickory ski area. Then he went to Saddleback in Maine and rode the ski area’s new T-bar. Landsman now has documented, ridden and photographed 2,381 chairlifts at about 480 resorts in the U.S.
That is every single chairlift, gondola, tram, platter lift and T-bar in the country.
“Twenty-two years. I can’t quite believe I’m finished,” he said, sipping an IPA at a new brewery at the base of Jackson, Wyoming’s Snow King Mountain ski area, a bit weary after a 12-hour shift down the road at Jackson Hole. “I’ve kind of been too busy to really think about it. Working full-time, living in Jackson, running a website and visiting five to 10 ski resorts a week. It’s been a wild journey.”
Most jet-setting skiers chase powder. They track storms and hop planes to ski deep snow. Landsman skis but he’s chasing chairs.
Landsman grew up with a family that loved skiing. He went to college in Maine, visiting ski areas across New England — where he once visited six ski hills in a day. He’s spent the past decade working four days a week on the lift crew at the family-owned Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The past few years he’s had to move to planes from cars, flying out of Jackson’s airport almost every week. He pays for it with advertising revenue from his wildly popular website, Liftblog.com, where he not only documents each of the country’s lifts, but offers a steady stream of news tracking the country’s vibrant lift industry.
Landsman has become an authority on American skiing. Very few can say they have visited every ski area in the country. That gives weight to his observations on the state of the U.S. resort industry. We had questions. He answered them.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Were you always interested in lifts growing up?
Answer: I would say as soon as I saw a chairlift, I was hooked. I can’t even really remember when I started becoming interested in them, because it’s been forever. When I was really, really little I was more interested in chairlifts than skiing. I started keeping track of all the chairlifts I’ve ridden when I was 10. So this has taken most of my life.
Q: What do you like more, lifts or skiing?
A: I like both. But I would say lifts.
Q: OK, lifts or powder?
A: It’s terrible, but really for what I do, I really don’t want a lot of storms. I have to drive a lot. And I’m trying to take pictures of these lifts. Lifts look a lot better on a bluebird day than on a powder day.
Q: What were the hardest lifts to get to?
A: The Alaska ones. Mount Eyak outside Cordova, which is not an easy place to get in the winter. So I ended up going there in the summer. It took, I think, from here, like, six flights, six airplanes to get there. For one chair. They have one single chairlift.
Q: Did you ever at any point say ‘What are you doing, Peter? Come on?’
A: Oh, at a lot of points, the flight delays and the forced overnights and lack of sleep … sometimes, but yeah, I was always pretty committed.
Q: How did you pay for all this travel?
A: It got easier once I started this blog. So now I have a couple of different advertisers. And then also I have lift companies sponsoring my blog. So like Leitner Poma and Doppelmayr. I spend all of the money that I get from my website on travel to get all these places. I’m not doing it for the money. Certainly, if this was a real business, I’m not doing a great job of it. But I’m doing a good job of running an interesting website.
Q: Yes, you are. Are you surprised by the response to that website? You’ve become one of the more influential watchers of the resort industry.
A: I really like always paying attention to what’s going on. I really do find it genuinely interesting. There’s so much interesting stuff going on right now in the ski industry. The lifts, obviously, what everybody’s doing with technology, but the pass stuff and the consolidation and the crowding and labor issues. All that is just fascinating to me.
Q: You ever marvel at the response and appreciation for what you are doing? You’ve really struck a chord with skiers.
A: I enjoy sharing all this with people. And I really enjoy hearing from people that are interested in what I’m doing. There are a lot of people who don’t work in the ski industry who maybe ski sometimes and maybe aren’t that frequent of a skier, but they are interested in skiing and ski lifts. They send me a lot of emails, saying they enjoyed reading about all these different lifts. I’m always surprised at how many people are reading my blog.
Q: How many?
A: (Pulls out his phone) I can tell you exactly.
Last month, there were 115,800 unique visitors. There were 559,000 page views. That was a big month. It is pretty seasonal. But if you had told me when I started my website that 115,000 people would read it in a month, I would have not believed you.
Q: As someone who’s been on the ground at all these different resorts — literally all of them — I have to think that you have a pretty good perspective on what’s working and what isn’t.
A: Well, I have a couple of perspectives because half the week I’m here working at Jackson Hole and the other half I’m traveling. I do a lot of our hiring. I do a lot of our interviewing and I deal with housing. I assign people to employee housing, so that’s really interesting. And then the other half of the week I go to other resorts. All kinds of resorts. Big ones owned by Vail Resorts and tiny ones.
Q: Let’s start with Vail Resorts and crowding. Probably the hottest topic in U.S. skiing right now. The country’s largest operator has not had a good season in the public square. But other major operators are seeing similar issues with crowding. And, really, crowding is not a problem at most resorts, right?
A: I think, having been to every ski resort in the country, most ski resorts in the country don’t have that much of an issue with crowding and, to be honest, a lot of them would love to have more people. So it’s a relatively small number of resorts near cities that are having these challenges. There are a lot of creative solutions that have been come up with for peak days and peak periods. They’ve tried reservation systems. They’re using a lot of public transportation to the mountain rather than trying to park everybody at the mountain. I think a lot of resorts have done a really good job of incentivizing people with deals to visit on off-peak times.
Q: Who do you think is doing the best job?
A: Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon has done a really good job with a swing shift where you can come at noon instead of coming at 9 a.m. And you get to pay less and you can stay all the way till 9 p.m. I think the problem that I’ve seen with Vail Resorts is that they’ve tried to take a one-size-fits-all approach where, you know, the Epic Pass is unlimited, everywhere. And even the Epic Local pass has very few restrictions.
Q: That’s a foundational aspect of the Vail Resorts business model. A simple pass with few restrictions.
A: And I think they could put a few more restrictions on some of these resorts, the overcrowded resorts. And everybody would have a lot better experience. Both the employees and customers.
A: I think they created an amazing reservation system last year. I was shocked at how well it worked and the technology they created. The technology was flawless. And they came up with it in very little time. It worked at all their resorts. And you could just go direct to lift, you didn’t need to stop anywhere. I think that that probably helped them plan a lot better for their staffing and their busiest days. And I think they probably should have kept that in place this year for certain resorts and certain times.
Q: Do you think we will see reservations return?
A: Maybe. That’s one of a bunch of different ways to manage demand. They can raise the price of the Epic Pass. I hope that they keep the price or keep the price relatively similar. I would like to see them keep the price, but maybe have more restrictions on the cheaper passes. And maybe a reservation system for peak times.
But the biggest thing I think they need to figure out is how to get the lifts open; every single lift on busy days. I mean, they have a resort, Park City, where nine lifts still have not run this entire season. It’s unbelievable that at (Vail Resorts-owned) Attitash in New Hampshire, they have two lifts that have not opened; major chairlifts that have not opened this entire season. And they’re talking about all these new chairlifts next season, which is awesome. I think chairlifts are a great way to move people but they have to staff the mountains in order to run the lifts.
I have respect for Vail Resorts. They have done amazing things. They’re incredibly good at safety protocols and technology. They’ve just definitely had some challenges this year.
Q: What’s a piece of advice you’d give Vail Resorts?
A: What I’ve learned working in the ski industry, particularly at the lower levels, is that people come to work at a ski resort because they want to have fun. And the best thing that you can offer employees in the ski industry is a ski break and powder and a good time. And, you know, the minute you start taking away breaks, you take away the fun. It doesn’t matter what you’re paying, nobody’s going to work for you, if you’re not creating that fun experience that people are seeking in a ski job. The way to staff your ski resort is to make it an attractive place to work. There are a lot of things that go into that — pay, housing — but it’s so important to keep it fun.
Q: So what is one of the more remarkable resorts you have visited?
A: There’s one ski area in Tennessee that stands out quite a bit: Ober Gatlinburg. It’s a ski resort and amusement park. It’s family owned and there are water slides and a grizzly bear exhibit and alpine slides and all sorts of different activities for all sorts of different kinds of people. And one of those is skiing. It’s one of the only ones I’ve been where you’re skiing, but then right next door there’s an ice skating rink and bumper boats and all sorts of other activities going on. All for a clientele in the South that isn’t necessarily only about skiing, you know.
Q: So you’ve been to some of the largest ski areas in North America and some of the smallest. Major resorts and rural community hills. What are the biggest similarities you see in those diverse places?
A: It’s amazing how many different business models there are for skiing. There’s the town ski area and there’s the nonprofit ski area. There are ski areas in the United States run by the military for military families. There are destination resorts, there are schools that run ski areas for their racers. But they all have lifts, and they all have snow and they all have people doing the same basic sport.
Q: So what kind of responses do you get when you tell people you travel the country to ride chairlifts?
A: People think it’s kind of crazy when they hear that I fly from Jackson Hole to Minnesota to go skiing for three days. But for me there’s nothing I’d rather do than go explore new ski areas. And I’m a little sad now that I’m running out of places to go that are completely new to me because I’ve been to all of them.
Q: What’s your favorite place for chairlift ogling?
A: Anywhere that I’ve been? Probably Whistler Blackcomb. It’s just so big and they get a lot of snow. The lifts are amazing. They’ve got the Peak to Peak. They have the amazing village. Amazing skiing. They have it all.
Q: What trends are you seeing in the lift world? Obviously we are moving toward higher capacity and this coming season will set a record for ski areas investing in chairlifts. Where do you think it’s going to go in the next decade?
A: Lifts are being up-gauged, I would call it. Triples are becoming quads. Quads are becoming sixes. I think we will see two and three old, low-capacity fixed grips being replaced with one higher capacity lift. When you’re in an era of staffing challenges, it makes a lot more sense to have one lift to maintain and staff rather than two or three next to each other. I would say gondolas are kind of having a boom right now. Bubbles and heated seats are becoming more popular. It took us a while over here. Europe’s had them for a long time.
Q: Do you ever wonder what old-school resort builders were thinking when they installed lifts?
A: I think a lot of things back then were done without a lot of planning. They didn’t really put a lot of research into where they were putting lifts. There were not all these consulting firms doing studies about where to put chairlifts back in the 60s. People were just kind of eyeballing it. Sometimes it works, but there are a lot of places where the new lift doesn’t go where the old lift was. Now they look at loading and unloading, the wind factor and moving people around a larger area. And there’s often a better way. Lifts last a long time. Over 40, 50 years you can find a lot of areas to improve.
Q: I’ve ridden every lift in Colorado. Which ones stand out to you? What about the state impresses you?
A: I love the sunshine there. I love the scenery. There are amazing groomed runs all over Colorado. I love the lifts in Colorado. Colorado is really the epicenter of the nation’s ski lifts. One of the two major lift manufacturers is in Colorado for a reason. On any given year, when I publish my map of the new lifts and I’ve got stuff scattered throughout the country, there’s always so much going on in Colorado, all right next to each other. So you can’t even see the state on the map because there’s all these points with all these new lifts. Colorado is a very reliable state for infrastructure for skiing.
Q: Daren Cole at Leitner Poma says the U.S. is overdue for an urban boom in aerial transportation. Tramways to ballparks. Trams in cities. Even a tram heading up Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City. You see that trend coming?
A: So the rest of the world is already doing it. Europe is doing it. South America is kind of the leader. Mexico is doing it. The technology is there, it makes a ton of sense. It’s good for the environment, it’s efficient. People who don’t ski don’t realize how great of people-movers these lifts are. Maybe they see these pictures of these long lift lines or whatever on Instagram, but they don’t see how quickly a chairlift or a gondola can move huge numbers of people. Whenever I see those pictures of long lifts on social media I want to see a time lapse of an hour showing that crowd being sucked up the mountain. It’s really incredible. I think the United States is unique in the world. It hasn’t caught on here for whatever reason. I don’t know exactly why. I think government here tends to be very wary of spending money on things that are unproven. If you’re a transportation director, you can add a lane or a road, the way it’s been done a million times. Or you can propose a gondola and get a bunch of criticism from people who don’t understand it. But the world is showing us it works. I think it’s only a matter of time before somebody does it here and then the rest of the cities will say ‘Why didn’t we think of this 20 years ago?’
Q: So what are you going to do now that you’ve visited every lift in the country?
A: Well, the good thing is there are a ton of exciting new projects and projects in the pipeline. Vail Resorts had their massive lift upgrade announcement, which is the biggest lift order in a long time, probably ever, dollar-wise, at least in the United States. So I’m going to be busy running around seeing all the new stuff.