A T-bar lift, also called T-bar, is a mechanised system for transporting skiers and snowboarders uphill, along the surface of the slope. In North America it is generally employed for low-capacity slopes in large resorts and small local areas servicing skiers numbered in the dozens rather than in the hundreds or thousands.
It consists of an aerial steel rope loop running over a series of wheels, powered by an engine at one end. Hanging from the rope are a series of vertical recoiling cables, each attached to a T-shaped bar measuring about a metre in both dimensions. The horizontal bar is placed behind the skier's buttocks or in between the snowboarder's legs, pushing against the inside of their forward leg's thigh. This pushes the passengers uphill while they slide across the ground. Skiers sometimes opt to place the T-bar between their legs when riding alone as this increases comfort, though it requires some skill. A single T-bar transports one or two people.
The same basic design principle as the T-bar can be seen in two related, single-passenger surface lifts: the J-bar, effectively a one-sided T-bar, and the platter, which involves the skier straddling the pole as one would a hobby horse and resting the buttocks on a single, usually plastic, platter (or button). The T-bar is considerably more common in North America than either of these related lifts, largely because it offers twice the lift capacity for the same motivator mechanisms. The first T-bar lift in the United States was installed in 1940 at Pico Mountain ski area. It was considered a great improvement over the rope tow. An earlier, potentially home-grown, T-bar was installed at Rib Mountain (now Granite Peak Ski Area), Wisconsin in 1937.
Older T-bars, J-bars and platter lifts employed a spring-loaded pole instead of the recoiling rope mechanism. These have fallen into disuse, as the spring-loading can produce wild swings and possible backlash, causing bruises or other injury if the unwary rider lets it go carelessly when dismounting. The retractable rope systems retract at a slower rate, and so are more tractable.
T-bars and related surface lifts are often misunderstood by beginners who incorrectly believe the objective is to sit down on the bar. This almost always leads to a fall as the T-bar is simply pulled to the ground along with the skier.
T-bars are rarely installed as the primary lift, save on small local slopes such as a golf course doing a seasonal business in local night skiing; generally chairlifts are the preferred, albeit more expensive option at established resorts. T-bars and related surface lifts are mostly found at beginner slopes or in locales where high winds may prevent chairlifts from running, or on in-between terrain to allow a short uphill fork over a ridge into the next valley that skiers would not otherwise be able to reach without climbing. Paradoxically, although T-Bar lifts are common at beginner slopes, many novice and nervous skiers and snowboarders find T-Bars somewhat difficult to use because coordination and physical effort is required during the ascent.
Besides lower expense, T-bars have another advantage over elevated chairlifts: the rider may leave the lift at any point, instead of being forced to wait until they arrive at the designated exit point at the top of the hill. Such mid-track unloadings are often discouraged by ski resorts, as the orange fences in the above photo show.
In France, the T-Bar is known by the more interesting name 'Pioche' which has the meaning in English of 'pick-axe'.
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