It might be the most madcap carnival ride in all of California.
Chair 23, a fixed-grip triple that recently was named among the “Top Seven Iconic Chairlifts in the World” by a notable ski website, rises to the top of the Mammoth Mountain crest as one of the hairiest rides on any ski hill anywhere.
“It’s definitively a sphincter-tightening ride,” said Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory, who as a young strapper on his way up the chain of command helped build the lift in 1982.
“At the time, it felt like we were doing the impossible,” Gregory said. “It was an unbelievable amount of fun.”
Even today it is hard to imagine the audacity that led ski hill founder Dave McCoy, along with lift builders such as Heimo Ladinig, Philippe Mollard, and Yannick Kunczynski, among many others, to build the lift.
It would start at about 10,000 feet and climb a thousand feet more, splitting the Wipe Out and Drop Out chutes, a a well-established avalanche zone with nasty, unpredictable winds.
Because of the winds and weather, the builders constructed a steel housing that still stands there today, trucking it to the top on flatbed trucks in two pieces, then perching it atop four huge towers that helicopters placed there.
“Any time a helicopter is involved,” Ladinig said in a 2002 interview, “it’s more dangerous than most of the things we do.
“You can’t practice for it. Generally it’s fairly predictable what the helicopter can lift at this altitude, but frequently the helicopters are not perfect, so they come in here thinking they can lift 10,000 pounds at 10,000 feet of altitude, but if the day is hot, if the wind is wrong, if the thing isn’t perfect, things change.”
That’s Heimo-speak for “things can get deadly,” and things got weird almost right away.
First of all, the deep tower holes had to be dug on the side of a steep, pumice mountain.
The towers themselves were stacked in the parking area at the bottom of Chair 2—huge things ordered by Kunczynki, himself a master lift builder who by all accounts genuinely enjoyed building the impossible lifts at Mammoth.
The choppers then would secure a tower and slowly fly over the big holes in the ground and lower them down.
It was risky business.
“It was three very scary trips,” recalled McCoy on the part of his website devoted to the construction of Chair 23.
“We had two guys (Heimo Ladinig and Philippe Mollard) sitting at the base where the tower would land, waiting for it to come in.
“When the helicopter arrived with the towers in tow, they [Ladinig and Mollard] would guide it in and adjust it into the base. When it was set, an operator in the helicopter would release the cable and the tower was set.”
The “finish” work then began, with the choppers flying in load after load of concrete to encompass the base and the tower.
It was in that kind of operation that Gregory said that Ladinig actually saved his life.
Standing on the tower to help guide the concrete buckets, Gregory said a sudden downdraft pushed the helicopter downward, sending a bucket filled with two yards of concrete crashing into the tower, pinning Gregory to the tower while pushing downward at the same time.
“I could tell that the helicopter was losing control,” Ladinig said, “so I jumped off the tower and hung off my safety harness. I could see what was happening and that the helicopter wasn’t able to get the bucket away from him.”
In an instant decision, Ladinig pulled the bucket string, dumping wet concrete over Gregory, but it finally was able to pull away.
“I looked like a mud man,” Gregory said, “but I was still alive.”
There were many more frightening moments in building the lift, such as those times when the helicopter would lower the tower into the base and ping-pong along the sides, knocking Mollard and other workers around in wild circles.
The placement of the housing on top also was dangerous, with one man, usually Gregory, lowering the structure by crane, hoping that workers could somehow weld it into place before the crane itself would topple.
There were other innovations as well.
Jack Copeland, a longtime Mammoth hand, said he still marvels at the understructure of the top housing.
“It’s built high enough off the ground so it wouldn’t be buried by snow in an avalanche,” he said.
Remarkably, it all worked, and stands today pretty much as it did in 1982, with the chairs themselves still a throwback.
Copeland said he agrees that a first ride up Chair 23 is enough to scare the knickers off anybody, “but particularly if you’re in the middle seat.”
The reason is that the two outside seats of the three-seat chair at least have armrests on them, allowing a skier or snowboarder to hang on.
In the middle, though, there is nothing.
The experts at Unofficial Networks.com, who put Chair 23 among their Top Seven in the World, knew what they were talking about.
Other lifts on the list were Silverton Chair in Colorado, KT-22 at Squaw, FourRunner Quad at Stowe, Ts Marte in Argentina, Single Chair at Mad River Glen, and Peak Chair at Whistler.
None of them are imbued with the audacity and daring of Chair 23 at Mammoth—a thrill-seeker’s ride of rides, by any measure.