The other day my ski-mad cousin, Piers Forster, told me how he’d got caught up in a rescue operation on the slopes of Hochgurgl this April after a pile-up on a t-bar. The track was icy and steep, and several members of a British family had slipped off, slid backwards and knocked off the next pairs of skiers. And the next. Pylons, I gather, were involved, and at least one person was badly injured.
Piers and his family were nearby, and after calling mountain rescue my cousin himself became an unexpected hero. That morning, he had been up at 5am ski touring to the Langtalereckhuette and still had a rucksack full of gear. While the rescue guys were struggling to reach casualties on the slippery slope, Piers clipped on his crampons and tramped up and down the ice, helping get people to safety.
I have spent a lot of time on t-bars, having done much of my skiing in Anzere, Switzerland, where half the lifts are still t-bars. When I was little my godfather, a beginner, joined our family on a trip there. He headed ambitiously down La Combe, a red run, and while he got to the bottom without mishap, it took him all day to get back up again. A few years later a family friend broke his leg on Les Luys when a classmate fell off and slipped backwards into him. And when I was a ski instructor aged 19, my class of children once scattered on the Tsalan t-bar, some at the top, some at the half-way station and some between the two, after my instructions for disembarking had clearly been unclear.
So, although chair lifts have replaced t-bars in many places, they are still about, and it’s important to know how to go up safely.
1. Go up in pairs. Not only is it infuriating for others in the queue if people go up singly, it can be more difficult, especially on t-bars with a short shaft, which leave a lone rider unbalanced. And it’s more sociable: who knows who you might end up on the lift with?
2. Get on properly. Take off your pole straps as you reach the front of the queue. When it’s your turn, step into the space, being careful not to get tangled up in each other’s skis, and let yourself slide backwards into the wooden stop behind you, if there is one. Have your skis hip width apart. Don’t scrabble forwards – the t-bar will take you there in a minute. Hold both sticks in your outside hand. Face your upper body slightly inwards, towards your partner, turn your head to watch the t-bar approaching and stretch your inside arm behind you to catch it. Then thank the lift man!
3. Take off correctly. After you catch the t-bar, continue to hold the shaft with your inside hand. Hold the outside end of the cross-bar with the outside (stick-holding) hand. Avoid gripping too tightly as this will make you stiffen – just hold on for balance. Do not sit down or stick your bottom out. Let the cross-bar pull you along from behind your bottom, where it should rest on the lower to middle part of the buttocks. Stand upright, knees slightly flexed, upper body leaning slightly towards your partner. Keep your skis in the track, without your two inside skis touching each other.
4. Trouble-shooting. Most problems come from pairs leaning outwards, whereupon the inner skis press against each other, throwing both skiers off balance. If this happens, lean your upper body more actively towards your partner, shoulders pushing together. You can widen your outside ski for balance. On steeper stretches, lean your upper body slightly forwards and inwards. If the track is bumpy or icy, concentrate on leaning in, not holding the shaft too tightly, keeping your inner skis away from each other. And don’t forget to look ahead.
5. Children. It’s fine to put children on together – make sure they stand correctly for take-off (see point one) and they’ll usually just get on with it. Carry their sticks the first few times. To ride beside a child, put the cross-bar behind your knees/thighs to allow for the height difference. For tiny children, as long as you’re a good t-barer yourself, you can take one between your skis: our family used to ascend four to a t-bar like this. Lift the child in place at the start, and keep your knees together when you set off, so the child can lean on them. I’ve seen adults hanging desperately onto hoods or collars to stop tinies slipping back through a hole between their knees.
6. Getting off. Don’t get off until you really are at the top, usually a run-out after a hump. Stand a bit more upright, release the bar from behind your bottom, part company with your partner and throw the t-bar towards the chute. Clear the area – get right out of the way so the next pair has space to get off. If there’s a tiny run-out or a sharp exit, you may need more of a push to get free of it. Some people like to decide who’s going to get off ‘first’, which is fine, too. If you’re riding up with someone less experienced, put them on the ‘easy’ side for dismounting.
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