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Friday, September 3, 2010
Updated: September 7, 6:50 PM ET
Proof that skiers are too pampered


Too bad it doesn't come with a hot chocolate machine inside: The Canyons, Utah, debuts their new heated chairlift.

Recently, The Canyons ski resort in Park City, Utah, announced some new features the resort will be rolling out this winter: two new chairlifts, a new gondola portal, 300 acres of expanded terrain and some improved snowmaking facilities. Their new bubble chair is what caught my attention. They're calling it the first of its kind in North America, a "marvel of engineering and one of the most technologically advanced chairlifts in the world." What is it, you ask?

Well, it's a chairlift enclosed by an orange bubble. And it has heated seats. Check out this video of the veil-lifting debut of the new chair. The bubble is supposed to protect passengers from weather and offer the "feeling of being inside a pair of ski goggles." It'll transport skiers from the Grand Summit Hotel at the base of the mountain to Lookout Peak at mid-mountain and then continue up to its final destination just south of the current Sun Peak lift.

Sure, I understand that skiing is a luxury sport for a majority of its participants. And that families travel from far away and spend lots of money to visit places like The Canyons for a week of snow-covered vacations filled with hot chocolate, sleigh rides and down mittens. I get it. But they are going to the mountains after all. They didn't book a vacation to Disneyland. Which means, to some degree, they want rugged conditions and untamed wilderness. Right?

At least, that's how skiers used to be. When my mom was a little girl and went on ski vacations to Aspen in the 1950s, she wore a wool sweater and sat on a frozen chairlift for 45 minutes to the get to the top of the mountain. She was eight years old and she loved every minute of it. And when I was a kid, I'd stay out all day in a sleeting blizzard in Tahoe just to schralp Sierra cement. Surviving the elements used to be an integral part of the ski experience. I'd like to think it still is today.

But now, resorts coddle skiers so much, it's like a padded-room version of the mountains, a relaxing, spa-like space in which you can observe the mountains, but not really be in them. Snowbasin, Utah, for example, has elegant bathrooms that look like they belong in Trump Tower. Beaver Creek, Colorado, has escalators that deliver you to the chair lift. California's Northstar-at-Tahoe has a new village with more wine bars than ski shops. Deer Valley, Utah, has a seafood buffet that costs $62 per person. The newest hotel at Snowmass comes with ski valet, in-room milk frothers and poolside cabanas.

What has happened to our sport?

I can't blame the resorts entirely. Clearly, they're responding to what their clients want. Personally, if I wanted heated seats, I'd go to the food court at the mall and snag a chair from under a guy eating a Cinnabon. I go to ski resorts to stuff my face with powder; I couldn't care less about whether or not they serve sushi in the cafeteria. But apparently, destination skiers expect this kind of pampered treatment now.

Powder at The Canyons: Now that's memorable.

I got in touch with The Canyon's PR director, Libby Dowd, and grilled her about why they installed a heated chair. She responded in a cheeky tone, understanding the sarcasm in my line of questioning. "Warming your buns has never been easier at a ski resort. I am not sure how people warmed their buns at ski resorts in the past, but regardless Canyons will non intrusively get your buns warmed," Dowd said. "The bubble is intense, it's literally like being inside a giant pair of goggles and the view of the landscape is amplified."

"Okay. But admittedly, this is pretty plush, no?" I asked her. "I'm assuming this kind of thing helps you attract upscale clientele."

"We attract the core skier who is interested in steeps and bumps but we also have a strong destination skier market," Dowd explained. "For people who take a ski vacation and only ski one week a season this chair will be a memorable experience. Why not pamper guests and make their vacation stand out?"

Here's what I wished I'd answered: Ski vacations should stand out because people challenge themselves and learn something -- about the mountains, about themselves. That is what should make a ski trip memorable. Not some heated orange box that gives you a view of the mountains, but never really lets you experience them first hand.

But there is an up side to all of this. What actually is great about the new bubble chair, in my opinion, is buried rather deep in the press release: The chair will bring skiers to the top of the mountain in a mere nine minutes and will increase uphill capacity by 47 percent. Now we're talking. That translates to less lift lines and more laps on a powder day. Something real skiers actually want.