Ski lifts, like skiers, come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of technical merit, but only a few have the X factor. Whether it’s a revolutionary design, nerve-jangling ride or historic aura, some lifts offer more than just a fast track to the top of the mountain. It might even have more to do with the setting and the terrain they access than the cabled contraptions themselves.
1. Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, France
Grafted onto a thin rock spire towering over the historic mountain town of Chamonix, France, is the cathedral-like top station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car standing sentinel below Mont Blanc. The two-stage lift soars from 1,035 meters to 3,778 meters (3,396 feet to 12,395 feet). It goes over forests, glaciers, ice cliffs and predatory crevasses, offering one of the highest vertical ascents of any lift in the world. The 20-minute journey rewards light-headed tourists with high-altitude panoramas and offers alpinists access to the wilds of the Mont Blanc massif. To reach the famous Vallee Blanche glacier, skiers walk through an ice tunnel and rope up to scramble down a knife-edge before descending 20 kilometers to Chamonix.
2. Skyway Monte Bianco, Courmayeur, Italy
Climbing into thin air from characterful Courmayeur is the slick Skyway Monte Bianco, a 360-degree rotating aerial tramway from valley floor to Punta Helbronner (3,466 meters) in just 10 minutes. The 110 million euro ($131 million) lift, which opened in June 2015 to replace an older gondola, breaks its journey at the Pavillon du Mont Frety (2173 meters) before soaring like a speck of dust through the imposing scenery on the south side of Mont Blanc. The futuristic top station peers across the roof of Europe toward the big “4,000ers” of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn, the Gran Paradiso and the Grand Combin, plus offering high-altitude access for skiers and climbers.
3. Schindlergrat, St. Anton, Austria
At the end of the 2018-2019 season, the mountain’s 40-year-old three-person chairlift was removed and replaced with a work of art that also happens to transport visitors up the mountain. The state-of-the-art gondola can hold up to 10 people and travels further than the lift preceding it. Its 68 cabins have the ability to service 2,800 passengers per hour. The Schindlergrat gondola begins along more or less along the same route as the old lift, but now there’s an intermediate exit point where the former lift ended. Continuing on for another 420 meters, the gondola’s final stop is at a new mountain station near Valluga ski lift.
4. La Grave, France
The lifeblood of the off-piste paradise of La Grave is a creaky old cable car in the shadow of La Meije mountain (3,984 meters) in France’s Ecrins National Park. The quirky lift, more than 40 years old, rises from the 12th-century village at 1,480 meters and trundles, via two intermediary stations, to a high point of 3,200 meters amid a wild and tumbling mountainscape of glaciers, cliffs and crevasses. There’s only one rudimentary run up here, and no ski patrol. This is skiing “sauvage.” Anyone venturing from the cable car station must trust their skills and their mountain guide to get home safely.
5. Peak 2 Peak, Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada
With two iconic mountains and one steep, forested ravine in between, the challenge was connecting the ski areas of Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia without causing environmental damage or creating a long series of lifts going down one side of the valley and back up the other. The answer, opened in 2008, was the record-breaking Peak 2 Peak gondola, a 4.4 kilometers aerial tram that allows skiers and boarders to access both mountains in a single day. The lift was a record-breaker: the longest unsupported span at 3.024 kilometers, and the highest lift above the valley floor at 436 meters.
6. Titlis Rotair Gondola, Engelberg-Titlis, Switzerland
The world’s first fully rotating gondola carries visitors to the 3,208 meters summit of the Klein Titlis mountain far above the town of Engelberg in central Switzerland. The revolving Rotair bubble makes one complete spin during the five-minute ride from the mid station at Stand, offering 360-degree views of steep ice fields, crumbling crevasses and the surrounding Uri Alps. Engelberg-Titlis has 25 lifts in all and 82 kilometers of groomed ski runs on mostly north-facing slopes. Experts flock here for the lengthy off-piste powder runs in a high-alpine setting. From Titlis to town, it is a leg-jellying 12 kilometers, or a 2,000 vertical meter descent.
7. Lessieres Express Chairlift, Val d’Isere, France
It might seem like an ordinary chairlift when you get on, but the Lessieres Express packs a stomach-churning punch. It’s not called the “up and oh-ver” for nothing. When the two-way chair crests the sharp ridge between Solaise and Le Fornet and then plunges down the other side, your stomach tends to end up in your chest. Somehow the sense of exposure is much worse going downhill. Plus, often one side is in the lee of the wind — popping over the top gives you a face-full of spindrift-laden alpine air.
8. Jackson Hole Tram, Wyoming
Nicknamed “Big Red” or the “Red Heli,” the Jackson Hole tram is a skiing institution. The lift, revamped in 2008 after 40 years of service, scoops up 100 people from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and plonks them on top of Rendezvous Peak at 10,465 feet (3,190 meters) in nine minutes. At 41,541 feet, it’s the largest vertical of any ski resort in the United States, with views of the Tetons, Jackson Hole and the Snake River Valley spread out far below. The tram also flies past the infamous Corbet’s Couloir with its mandatory 3-6 meter cliff drop into the chute.
9. Lone Peak Tram, Big Sky, Montana
The Lone Peak Tram revolutionized the expert ski scene at Big Sky when it was built in 1995. The 15-passenger aerial tramway climbs 433 meters up a sheer rock face to land skiers and boarders on the summit of Lone Mountain at 11,164 feet. The tram tripled the amount of expert terrain on offer, and gave the leg-strong the chance to complete a 14,271 vertical feet, six-mile descent in one run. To prevent nerves on the way up, the inside of the two tram cabins were originally painted pink to have a calming effect on passengers.
10. Jungfrau Railway, Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland
What could be more extreme than a train that bores up through the inside of the feared and revered Eiger? The Jungfrau railway, which was completed in 1912, is a rack railway running from Kleine Scheidegg above Wengen and Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch at 3,454 meters, the highest station in Europe. For most of its 9.3-kilometer journey, the railway runs through the Jungfrau tunnel, up through the Eiger and the Monch mountains, to a lofty perch high above the awe-inspiring Aletsch glacier in the Bernese Oberland. The train stops twice in the tunnel for tourists to gaze through windows onto the mountainscape outside, notably the infamous Eiger north wall at Eigerwand station.
11. The American Eagle, Copper Mountain, Colorado
The 1989 high-speed quad, The American Eagle, is now a six-person chair and a gondola. For every one gondola, there are four chairs.
Parties of up to eight people who want to avoid the blustery cold of the open-air chairlift can choose to wait in the gondola line while skiers and riders in a hurry to get up and go down can opt for the chair line. The lift drops pasengers off mid-mountain where a bevy of ski terrain awaits. From green cruisers to increasingly steep blues and blacks, American Eagle accesses a good portion of the Colorado mountain.