(Illustration: Eren Wilson)

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Chairlift

How my mom, infant son, and I accidentally crashed a wedding at the local ski hill


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

It was early October in Santa Fe, peak season for leaf-peeping the aspen trees that grow at higher elevations here, and to celebrate my mom’s 72nd birthday, I drove her and my infant son up to the local ski hill, which has a base elevation of 10,350 feet. On weekends from September 17 through October 9, Ski Santa Fe runs its Super Chile quad chair up the mountain, dropping you at nearly 11,200 feet on a big and mostly flat patch of grassy terrain, with great views of peaks and forests in every direction. Just $20 a pop ($15 for seniors!) to see the yellow groves in all their glory.

My mom, my seven-month-old, Beckett, and I arrived early, 15 minutes after first chair, but the line was already long. No big deal, we decided, enjoying the crisp breeze and sun while we waited, my baby playing in the grass beside us. A game of cornhole was going on to our right, and to our left we saw a large photo of a smiling couple, with the tagline: “Our Adventure Begins Here.” I thought to myself, “That sure is a weird VISIT NEW MEXICO ad campaign.”

Then came a warning that I would think back to many times that day. “The lift is running a little slow today,” a Ski Santa Fe employee told a few dozen of us standing in line. 

And so we waited, chatting and playing with the baby until it was our turn to jump on. My mom, who suffered a few painful falls while negotiating ski lifts several decades ago, fretted about how she would get on and off, but she was relieved when she saw that the lift operators were bringing every other chair to a stop to let people safely sit down and get settled. We boarded without a hitch.

The lift (Photo: Abigail Wise)

Of course, stopping chairs meant that the entire lift came to a standstill every 20 seconds, mid-air. But the temperature was comfortable—high 60s—and there was plenty of great people-watching available, of all the hikers going up and down the mountain. A man with graying hair and bulging calves, wearing ultralight gear, was jogging up the steepest part of the run we were over, a long, straight-shot trail called Broadway. A cute family in puffies was cutting across a catwalk that serves as a green run during ski season. We even saw a woman hiking down, dressed in a brightly patterned, floor-length skirt.

About two-thirds of the way up, Beckett started to fuss. He needed a diaper change, which seemed unsafe on a moving lift, so I bounced him up and down until my arms were sore. My mom sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (with hand motions!) on repeat. We were both relieved when the top came into view.

After getting off and changing Beckett’s diaper, the three of us looked around, snapped a couple of photos, and got in line to ride back down. But the line up here was even longer than it had been below: 75 people or so. “Wow, there were a lot of early risers today,” I thought. 

We waited. Dark, ominous clouds rolled in, threatening rain. A cold wind picked up and the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. “It’s so funny,” a woman in line behind us said to her friend. “We’ve been standing here for an hour, but we’re still at the end of the line.”

My mom has had two hips and one knee replaced, and, to help preserve her only original knee, we couldn’t walk down the mountain. So we watched a little kid stack rocks in front of us, and shooed away bees buzzing around while we made small talk. We were also starting to wonder what the heck was going on.

Then came a warning that I would think back to many times that day. “The lift is running a little slow today.”

“I saw a sign about someone’s adventure down below,” Mom said of the sign I noticed earlier. “I thought it was a tribute to somebody who’d died.” We looked around. Some women were in heels, with their hair and makeup all done up. Many were wearing Native American skirts and lots of bright, beaded jewelry. I thought back to the woman hiking down in formal wear. Then it clicked: a wedding. The ceremony had obviously just wrapped up, and the guests were heading down.

Right then, the same ski patroller who’d given us the initial warning about a slow-moving line appeared with a ride for members of the wedding party, on an ATV he’d driven up on the cat track. “We can take five right now,” he said, as I stared wistfully at the guests piling in. “Don’t worry, there will be more.” I heard him on a two-way radio, telling colleagues below that they needed to bring a few trucks up to shuttle guests or “We’ll be here all day.”

As I watched trucks come and go, loaded with people, I found myself wishing we could bum a ride. But then I saw an SUV going down with “Just Married” painted on the back window. That, I figured, was the last gasp for wheeled transport.

We waited. The temperature continued to drop. The ski hill employees packed up folding chairs and tables. I got goosebumps and held my son’s hands to keep them warm. My hips ached from standing and my back hurt from wearing a baby carrier for so long. Beckett started to fuss again, getting hungry after such a long wait.

I spent a lot of time over the last year planning my own wedding, which my husband and I hosted in early September on our farm. I’m not a professional, by any means, but—

Hold it: hell yes, I am. Our wedding was big and complicated and it took a lot of work. When people left our reception party—after the police came by around 11 P.M. and told us our neighbors were complaining, wheeee!—nobody got stuck waiting in our driveway. Given my vast experience, I have a tip of two to offer Ski Santa Fe, for the next time they host one of these.

First off, line management and exit strategies are crucial. I went to great lengths to avoid—you guessed it—lines, and it worked. I opted for a brisk, buffet-style dinner with plenty of servers to keep things moving, and to help make sure my guests didn’t stack up, I also had caterers passing out snacks, butler-style. To eliminate the drink line, we had one station manned by traditional wedding bartenders and a DIY drink station, where guests could pour their own wine, beer, and liquor.

So how would I have solved the ski hill wedding snarl? By using a simple triage strategy, dividing us line-dwellers into people who didn’t mind waiting, people who solved the problem by walking down, and people like us, who needed a ride, too. All they had to do was keep those ATVs and SUVs rolling until everybody was served.

We got down eventually, of course: after more than two hours of waiting. We walked up the stairs, boarded the lift, and I sat down with a sigh of relief and began to nurse my son. Shortly after our chair pulled away from the station, we passed a group on the opposite side, nearing the top.

“We’re almost there,” said a woman on the other side of the lift. “Yeah, just another 20 minutes or so,” replied her friend. Little did they know!

The author, her mom, and her son on the way up (Photo: Abigail Wise)
Lead Illustration: Eren Wilson