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Copyright © 2008
Express Publishing Inc
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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free four times a year to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

Photo by Tal Roberts

Fly Squirrel
By Michael Ames

As ski hills go, Baldy is hi-tech. But on our mechanized mountain, classic machinery makes a last stand.

At 36 years old, Flying Squirrel #9 is not Sun Valley’s oldest operating lift—that honor belongs to the Cold Springs double, built in 1970. But Squirrel is certainly the oddest. Nestled in a crook beneath the intersection of the mountain’s spine (College ridge) and its main transverse artery (I-80), it sits in plain sight, yet is distinctly out of place.

Strung down towards the processional boulevard of Lower Warm Springs, Flying Squirrel is silent on all but a handful of days. Alongside its modern counterparts, it might seem a rickety embarrassment. Even among the 70s-era generation of chairs (Exhibition, Sunnyside, the "Chair to Nowhere"), it’s an aberration. Flying Squirrel seems more artifact than useful vehicle.

What endears us to this chair?

In spring, it hangs sunlit on the margins of endless rows of moguls. Its backrests recall comfy beach chairs. But as any rider can attest, Flying Squirrel is Baldy’s most uncomfortable people mover. The sun-bleached pink benches have nothing in common with their rubbery, pool-side counterparts. These are drilled and bolted into solid metal. There is no give.

The safety bar/footrest offers no reprieve. Swung down to give aching dogs a rest, it fits the average adult like a fourth-grade writing desk. Big-boned skiers take note—the restraining bar performs its task with literal efficiency.

To skiers zooming past it, Flying Squirrel’s sprawling lift house looks like an abandoned chalet. But the second story is home to massive engines and the steel-welded history of emergency all-nighters pulled by lift engineers. Photos by Chris Pilaro

Flying Squirrel is one of only two lifts in America engineered by Städeli, a brand common in Finland. (The other American model is Taos’ Maxi’s Chair.) Sun Valley Lift Operations Supervisor Craig Davis thinks his Städeli is "very dependable, like a Swiss watch." The Squirrel control room is all cartoonish buttons and wheels. Manual overrides can meet any electrical snafu. When modern lifts fail, if all of Blaine County falls off the power grid, Flying Squirrel will run.

Loading Squirrel is an exotic experience. You enter a dim, hangar-like structure where speed and noise intimidate. Compared to a modern quad’s sedative pace, this chair whips around its overhead wheel like a midget in a square-dance. The first-time rider stands at the gate befuddled, eyeing the attendant for help as hundreds of pounds of clanging metal fly between them.

But the Squirrel liftie is less elevator man than cattle rustler. He wears thick gloves and sturdy boots and snatches the incoming lift at the apex of its U-turn, just as it reaches maximum velocity. By this point, you have committed to your task and stand on the plastic bar that reads, "Stand Here." You turn round to see the fast-approaching liftie. He is affixed to the chair like the sidecar on a careening motorcycle, determined to deliver your chair gently. His boots have worn a gully into the snow from repeating his maneuver. And still, the frozen bench slams into your calves.

"It’s hard to load," Davis said.

You could ask the liftie to push the "slow" button, the equivalent, for most men, of ordering a cosmo—heavy on the cranberry. The Squirrel virgin feigns expertise at his chair partner’s peril. Many a romantic ski getaway, one imagines, has been ruined by this lift.

Past the rough introduction, Flying Squirrel is a charmer. The days to sit in its rigid embrace are few; there is a feeling of private transport. Hard-charging locals and ski team gangs provide entertainment below as they huck off sequential cat tracks on powder day free-for-alls. No one knows what to call this trail. Resort maps say Picabo’s Street, but many stubbornly stick with the original Plaza. This schizo nature is reflected by a tilted fall-line that brings skiers swooping up under the lift before falling away again in accelerated arcs. As you continue climbing and pass over the obscure cat tracks that connect Baldy’s flanks—Pete’s Lane, Machine Road, Kenny’s, Maiden Lane—a crossroads logic is revealed.

The Flying Squirrel is more than a sentimental curio. It is a vital link between base areas and a crucial contingency for a resort that depends on complex circuitry.

In its simplicity, the Flying Squirrel lift is a fail-safe for Davis’s crew.

"It’s the old standby."