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June Mountain is open; long live "The Chair"

December 17, 2010

The J1 Chair at June Mountain

June Mountain locals refer to it simply as “The Chair.”

It is arguably one of the top carnival rides at either June Mountain or Mammoth, and if you’re going to ski or ride June, “The Chair” is de rigueur.

It is Chair 1, marked on the June Trail Map as J1, and though as slow as molasses in January, it has taken skiers up the hill since 1961. As in straight up.

It’s a throwback to 1961 and recalls the days of John F. Kennedy, “101 Dalmatians,” the construction of the Berlin Wall and the first space flight of Alan Shepard, Jr.

In a recent conversation with June Lake’s John Ellsworth, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger who at the time was a lift operator at “The Chair,” he recalled some of his adventures.

“The ‘stop’ button would be pushed, and the chair would free-wheel,” he said, “then the emergency brake would be pulled.

“Many times people were being flung out of the chair before it could be fully stopped. It was pretty crazy. Totally bizarre.”

Things aren’t as totally bizarre now, because of regular safety checks, but still, it’s a challenge. June Mountain opened this week with $5 lift tickets commemorating 50 years of operation.

June has some of the best terrain parks in the country, and its corduroy, well … the corduroy.

It also has access to some of the best backcountry skiing anyone can imagine. Just slip beneath the ski patrol boundaries at the top, and off you go into another world.

But back to “The Chair.”

If suffering from any kind of vertigo, or whenever the black diamond “The Face” run is closed, or if skiers and boarders just don’t have the nerve or the stamina to take the intermediate road trail to the parking lot, the only way down is to take J1 down the steep slope, skis and boards in hand.

It sometimes feels as if gravity will pull you off the chair and have you tumbling right into Gull Lake, just to the north of the parking lot.

For some, the ride down is more challenging than the ride up.

For a brief time, though, it seemed as if the chair lift would be gone forever. In the early 1990’s June Mountain installed a unique “funitel” gondola. Jan Kuncynski, founder of Lift Engineering, and Yan Lifts, invented it.

It had four separate loops of cable, strung between the upper and lower stations. The gondola cars (think Squaw Valley) were mounted between the cables.

But the funitel was difficult to synchronize and the lift also developed grip problems. Because of the problems, the funitel, a combination of the French words funicular and telepherique, was dismantled in 1997 and “The Chair” once again became the only way up. Or down.

You could argue all day about the best carnival ride at either June or Mammoth.

Chair 23 at Mammoth springs to mind. Ever been on that one on a windy day?

But we’ll take “The Chair” at June probably any day. There’s history there. At the top, there’s great skiing, snowboarding and terrain park fun.

Now that it’s open, we look at it as an old friend, just waiting to frighten the willies out of us again.

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