By Robert Pimm
Financial Times Magazine, March 19 2005
Going up is as good as going down on the slopes this year, as skiers warm to the pleasures of the world’s first heated chair-lifts
It’s -20 deg C and the wind is howling when I first feel the heat. So do my fellow passengers.
“Mmm,” says Maya from Leipzig. “That’s pure pleasure.”
“Comfort,” says her friend, Erika.
“All we need now is coffee and cakes,” says Ilse from the Black Forest.
Silence falls on the chair-lift as dry heat warms our nether regions, rising through our ski suits from the padded seats beneath us.
You don’t have to be too strident a critic of consumerism to view some innovations with scepticism. Nowhere is this truer than on the pistes, where new skis, gadgets and must-have accessories appear more regularly than each new season’s snowfall. Helmets have spread inexorably, from tiny tots to bigger children and adults. Avalanche bleepers are buried under every ski-jacket. Battery-powered foot- warmers are on the march. So it’s a relief to find the chic Austrian resort of Lech introducing an innovation (slogan: “Some Like it Hot”) that it’s impossible to dislike.
Fresh snow in Lech – Photo Robert Pimm
“I need someone who hates the new heated chair-lift seats,” I say. “For balance.”
“You’ll have a job finding anyone who doesn’t like a warm behind,” Maya says.
“Maybe some men won’t like it,” says Carola, from Salzburg. ‘They want to be tough and sporty. But we women, we like it warm and comfortable.”
But Thomas from Zurich can’t help. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s true, at first I didn’t feel anything. The seat seemed cold. But then I felt the warmth coming through. That’s pure luxury. Tip-top.”
“Before we installed heated seats in the first three chair-lifts, a lot of people said, ‘What’s the point?”‘ says Claudia Lengenfelder, from Lech Tourism. “But once they started running at Christmas, everyone loved them. It’s a world first: so far, only Lech and Schrocken, round the corner, have heated seats. But in time, all chair-lifts will be heated.”
I suspect she’s right. When all around is bleak and cold, it’s bliss to sink your stern into a hot seat. Doppelmayr, the company that makes the lifts, says it’s had enquiries from across Europe for the 2005-2006 season. The principle – a heated mat under each seat which is recharged when the lift returns to the base-station – sounds simple. “But it took us a long time to get that ‘Aha!’ effect when you sit down,” a Doppelmayr spokesman says, “because ski-suits are so well insulated.”
Lift-passes in Lech are not noted for their cheapness. Yet this February, as storms sweep the mountain, the heated lifts seem worth every cent. Indeed, by the time you’ve ridden the “Hot 8” on the Steinmahderbahn lift, the “Hot 6” on the Kriegerhorn and the “Hot 4” at the Schlegelkopf, your next trip up a conventional lift can seem a bit of a come-down.
“This one’s not heated,” says Maya, as we settle into the otherwise admirable Seekopf chair-lift in neighbouring Zurs. “Primitive. I miss the glow already.”
I like a warm behind as much as the next guy. And I enjoy the extra skiing which modern, high-capacity chair-lifts make possible. But I have to confess that, for me, it’s the old-fashioned two-person chair-lifts with no protective bubble that deliver the purest chair-lift pleasure. To sit surrounded by fresh air, mountains and not much else as a silent cable carries you gently uphill is one of the sublime joys of ski-ing. A heated whoosh to the summit just isn’t the same.
Most people, though, seem untroubled by the innovation.
“I remember when they introduced the first three-person chair- lifts,” laughs Ilse. “They had posters saying: ‘A quick threesome is the latest thing.’ Now they’re advertising hot foursomes, hot sixes, and hot eights. What will they think of next?”