Here’s part one of Alf’s guide to these essential transports of delight. In this first instalment we are looking at how to get up the mountain with your feet still firmly attached to the ground – Surface lifts:


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Rope tows are the simplest type of ski lift and date back to the 1930s, when they were used to transport skiers uphill at Shawbridge, Quebec and Woodstock, Vermont.

Riding one involves grabbing a cable or rope running through a bullwheel at the bottom and top of the lift, powered by an engine at one end. They’re great for wrecking your gloves and slowly pulling your arm out of its socket.

Variations on the theme involve attaching plastic or metal handles to the rope, which are easier to hold, and the infamous Kiwi ‘nutcracker’ lifts, whereby a device that looks like a nutcracker is attached to the rope, with said nutcracker being worn on a harness and occasionally living up to its name in more ways than one, gentlemen…


A T-bar (for two people) and J-bar (for one person) consists of an aerial cable loop running between a series of small pylons, and powered by an engine at one end; hanging from the rope are vertical recoiling cables, each attached to a T- or J-shaped bar which is placed behind your bum, or in the case of snowboarders (and to the immense smugness of skiers) between your legs.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the earliest J-bars were installed at Charlotte’s Pass, Australia in 1938, and there are plenty of T-bars still around to this day to the annoyance of snowboarders. 


A platter lift is a variation on T- and J-bars, but in this case, hanging from the overhead cable are equally spaced vertical poles attached to a plastic button – or platter – that is placed between a skier’s legs to pull them uphill; snowboarders, however, must perform an intricate and as yet unnamed yoga move to get use a platter lift, or die in the attempt.

Probably the most common type of platter lift is the Poma, named after the company which invented it. Pomas have a detachable grip attached to the tow cable, with the button connected to the grip by a semi-rigid pole. Being detachable means that Pomas can operate almost twice as fast as other platters and T-bars, and although they come with a spring-loaded pole to reduce the acceleration when you set off we’ve all seen lightweight users lifted into the air by particularly rapid or badly maintained Pomas. 

And if you really want a challenge, how about the ‘Roca Jack’ platter lift in Portillo, Chile, which drags five people at a time uphill at a speed of 17mph – getting off can be a really interesting experience…


This is basically a conveyor belt for getting kids up very gentle slopes and if you’re using one regularly there’s no hope left for your ski career…


This is essentially a cab on the back of a grooming machine/snowcat/piste-basher for getting you into the backcountry to rip up the untracked powder and if you’re using one regularly we all hate you…

Snowcats, incidentally, have featured in two of Hollywood’s finest horror movies – ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Thing’.

Next Alf’s guide takes a look at aerial lifts.

Cat-skiing in Whistler