Eugene Buchanan: Working the line
February 23, 2012
Steamboat Springs — With the "Gondola Line Starts Here" sign outside One Steamboat Place, I could tell Monday was going to be a doozy — one that would call upon every lift line negotiating skill I had ever honed.
Fortunately, it's an art form we don't have to practice often in Steamboat. Skiers in Vail are much better versed at it than we are, as are the Euros, who have no problem stubbing their cigarettes out on your helmet as they shuffle over your skis in one-piece suits. But when we do get lines here — say, hypothetically, when a record 27 inches falls the night before Presidents Day — you want to place your best foot forward, cutting for holes like a running back and assessing options like a stockbroker, all while maintaining a modicum of mountain-town politeness.
Luckily, there are ways to milk the system. So while it may jeopardize my own line juggling, here are a few tricks of the trade.
Rule No. 1: Head to where the lines aren't. At the supermarket, you don't head to the cashier with three carts; you pick the short line. So do the same on the slopes. The best way to employ this is to avoid lines from the get-go. Skin up early, sign up for First Tracks or try to persuade your loved one to drop you off at the bottom of Thunderhead Express chairlift. But since I had as fat a chance of that happening as eating a crawfish correctly on Fat Tuesday, I was left to my own line-dodging devices. As part of this tenet, scout out your lower options before committing and always have a Plan B. Line at Storm Peak Express? Head to Pony Express. (Hint: Scout out the Storm line at 4 Points and Pony at Storm). Just know that if you get burned at Pony, you're left with a long slog back to Thunderhead.
Rule No. 2: Embrace the singles line, even if there's more than one skier in your party. I did this with my kids a few days earlier, ushering them into the singles line at the gondola. My youngest, Casey, protested possibly riding alone, but in the end, it all worked out as we were ushered into the same car.
But this, too, requires assessment and quick math. Since the gondola's singles line was gargantuan, we headed over to Christie. Unfortunately, its singles line also was appalling, extending past the magic carpet. So we headed for the shortest-looking line.
Rule No. 3: All else equal, pick the line closest to the loading zone. That way you're that many rows ahead when it comes time to load. By the end of the day (assuming your legs last that long), this could add up to an entire run.
We also employed Rule No. 4: Look for friends ahead of you. That surfaced when I heard a friend call out my name up ahead. So we scootched forward, semi-Euro-style, but with a legitimate alibi ("Uh, excuse us, we're with them," we feebly proffered). We leapfrogged forward a whole two spots this way, which, given the alternations, can add up significantly.
Then, Rule No. 5 played out: Always look to better your position (especially on quads and six-packs), but make sure to pair up ahead of you, not behind. After joining my friend's crew for 10 minutes, we saw a lone foursome farther ahead and quickly jumped ship to slingshot forward. "Thanks for the bump," I said, as we bid my friend adieu.
Up top, Rule No. 6 reared its head: All lines being equal, choose one that lets you ski a run. Figuring the lines at Sundown Express and Storm would be the same, we opted for White Out, where face shots soon faced us with another choice: 4 Points or Storm? Back to Rule No. 1. Since the Storm line looked manageable from our scouting position and earned us more vert, we headed to its far side. There, we got lucky again, sliding in with a couple ahead of us.
Waist-deep snow justified the wait, and we soon found ourselves at a full Sundown maze, where I enacted Rule No 7: While waiting for others in your party, you might as well wait in line. That way, you're killing two birds. Waiting for my brother-in-law, I assessed my options, enacting Rule No. 8: Outside lines are often faster than inside ones. Plus, they let your partner easily join you once he arrives.
Lady Luck shone again. The queue only alternated with one other line the entire way, giving us a good six-to-one time ratio over everyone else. I could tell this from Rule No. 9: Always have an easily recognizable control group or reference point to test your theory. Our mark: that tall guy in the neon green jacket and red helmet one line over, who we passed with his own flying colors.
We managed this four times until a maze technician finally switched things around and threw in a few more merges. But by then, our legs were toast anyway and an empty line at Elkhead ushered us home.
So there you have it. We might not get lines often in Ski Town USA, but when we do, it helps to be prepared. Of course, now that you've read this and with spring break approaching, I might have to change tactics yet again, which brings up Rule No. 10: When it comes to waiting, there are no friends on powder days.