Cheryl Varner won’t say what time she gets to the mountain on a powder day. But she will tell you it’s still dark and it’s earlier than you think. “I’m an early riser,” she said. “We’ll leave it at that.” Varner has been skiing Squaw Valley, California, for 30 years. She regularly logs well over 100 ski days a season. Her favorite lift on the mountain is KT-22, the 2,000-vertical-foot quad that rises from the bottom of the mountain. She’s earned the nickname “KT Cheryl” over the decades because she always manages to score first chair on KT-22 on a powder day—not an easy feat at an iconic ski resort known for its powder-hungry crowds.
“If you’ve skied KT before, you know it’s like a mountain of its own,” said Varner, who is 68 years old and works as a freelance bookkeeper.
How she does it is pretty simple: Wake up very early, walk to the ski area (she lives nearby) and stand in line until the chair opens. While she waits, she chats with others who show up pre-sunrise—there’s a solid crew who makes a powder-day habit of early arrivals at KT-22. “It’s become a huge social event,” she said.
Her tips? Leave way early. “Hit the road sooner than you think. There’s more traffic out there than you’d ever imagine,” she said. Dress warm, since you’ll be standing around in chilly temperatures. Hand or toe warmers can help you stay warm. You can always ditch a layer once you start skiing, Varner added. And respect the etiquette of queuing up—no saving spots for friends who aren’t there yet, no leaving your skis and running to grab breakfast or going to warm up inside and, most important, be patient and enjoy the process. “Getting angry about the wait defeats the purpose,” Varner said.
When that rope finally drops and the lift starts turning, you’ll be in the number one spot. “It’s just heaven. There’s nothing like rising up the mountain on the lift and not seeing a single track down it,” Varner said. “Knowing that you’re going to be one of the first people down all that—it’s absolutely worth the wait.”
If arriving at the mountain before untold hours on powder days isn’t your thing, there are other, perhaps easier ways to beat the crowds and avoid standing in long lines. You could skip the morning rush entirely, sleep in and show up at the mountain after lunchtime to snag a less-expensive afternoon lift ticket (most resorts sell a cheaper ticket that starts around 12:30pm). You’ll miss some first tracks, but you’ll rarely find lift lines after 2pm even at the busiest resorts, and most lifts run until 4pm.
Or, you could choose a mountain that’s known for having zero crowds. That might mean visiting a smaller, more off-the-radar ski area or one that’s not on one of the two popular mega passes currently on offer, the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass. Often times, near a larger, more popular ski area, you’ll find a smaller one without as many people.
For example, instead of standing in the tram line at the legendary Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, head over Teton Pass to ski the less packed Grand Targhee, or stay in the town of Jackson to ride the locals’ favorite hill at Snow King. If you’re in Colorado on a busy weekend, you’ll most likely find queues at Vail, Keystone and Copper Mountain, but a less busy scene at smaller hills like Eldora, Ski Cooper or Loveland. On the East Coast, Killington and Stowe may be jammed on a Saturday midwinter, but Mad River Glen, Pico or Bolton Valley may not. Skip the lines at Mammoth Mountain, in California, and veer toward nearby, less busy June Mountain instead.
A few ski resorts even limit the number of lift tickets and season passes they sell in order to keep masses to a minimum. Deer Valley, in Utah, limits daily skiers to between 7,500 and 8,500, and they’ll stop selling lift tickets if they reach capacity. Powder Mountain, also in Utah, restricts season pass sales to 1,500 adult passes and 3,000 total passes per season, and they limit daily lift tickets to 1,500 as well. Magic Mountain, in Vermont, has a daily ticket cap—even on busy holiday weekends, you won’t find much of a crowd here.
Technology at some ski resorts has helped improve communications about lift lines, too. The innovations haven’t necessarily reduced the line itself, but at least they help notify skiers and snowboarders when and where a line exists so they can steer clear. Vail Resorts debuted its EpicMix Time feature in 2015, which lets guests view and compare current lift wait times at its Colorado resorts while using the EpicMix app. The technology is now available at a dozen Vail Resorts-owned properties. At many Vail Resorts properties, riders can also text Emma, an AI-powered digital assistant, to ask for the wait times at various chairlifts.
Mont Tremblant, in Quebec, Canada, has a large electronic board at the top of the mountain, which shows the average current wait time at each lift alongside a trail map, so you can make a more educated decision about where to ski or ride next.
At Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, where Varner skis, the mountain operations team manages a Twitter account that delivers up-to-the-minute details on lift status on powder days. The updates also appear as notifications on the resort’s app. The tweets don’t exactly say: “There’s a massive lift line at Granite Chief. Go elsewhere.” But they will tell you when a lift is expected to open, so you can get a jumpstart on everyone else.
Or almost everyone else, that is. Varner will be there before you—guaranteed. She has no plans to give up her early morning first-chair ritual anytime soon. “I hope to be doing this as long as I’m still skiing,” she said.