Lifty Life on Mt. Hood

This is the first post of an ongoing series about working as a lifty on Mt. Hood. 

Two years ago, right after I moved to Portland, I was riding the 19 bus over the Ross Island Bridge when I looked out the window and gasped. There was Mt. Hood, looming to the east, its white summit calmly hovering over Douglas Fir-lined hills that seemed to bow to its magnificence. No one besides me noticed – people on the bus surely thought I was a newly arrived Californian. Astonished, I looked back out the window. Did they know there was a mountain there?!

I learned to snowboard when I was in 4th grade on a small local hill in Bloomington, Minnesota. Without serious slopes nearby to shred day-in and day-out, my friends and I took countless laps on teeny runs, winding through darkened tree trails and flirting with risk (not to mention boys). One cold, clear night, I stopped to buckle my bindings when I realized the golden lights of Minneapolis’ skyscrapers were sparkling in the distance, about 30 miles away. I sat for a moment and wondered. How many people were in those buildings? What were they doing? What was happening between me, a little girl sitting on a hill, and the boisterous nightlife of the city?


Mt. Hood is technically a volcano. It’s erupted three or four times in the last 1,800 years, and will erupt again sometime, hopefully without us around. You can smell sulfur from certain parts of Meadows and Timberline, the biggest ski areas up there, and there are glaciers and ice fields flanked by fumaroles.

The Mountain was named for some white British explorer (of course), but the Multnomah tribes called it Wy’east (“why east”). Mt. Hood is 11,239 feet high, which is about 11,000 ft. higher than any hills I rode up growing up, and supposedly the second most-climbed mountain in the world, after Mt. Fuji. People die up there. People go missing and break their legs and get rescued by Black Hawks up there. It is unpredictable, majestic, and the yin to Portland’s yang. So far, it’s my favorite mountain on the planet.

Anyone who goes up to Mt. Hood regularly will tell you – there’s just something about it. The Mountain requires no explanation. The Mountain doesn’t care what your intentions are, or how you look that morning, or if you think you know it better than anyone else. The Mountain is the essence of zen – free-flowing, undisturbed and stoic through its waves of weather and change; the source of life that surrounds it, and the peak of nature at its finest, wild and uninhibited. The Mountain just is.

Sometimes it feels like the Mountain personally decided our human presence here would be OK for a little while. Like when they were cutting down trees and clearing slopes for us yahoo skiers and snowboarders to ravage, the Mountain stirred from a long and dreamless sleep, blinked rocks out of its eyes, looked down, nodded, and returned to its eternal slumber as if nothing had happened at all.


Before last season, I thought about working up there as a “Lifty.” Liftys are a rambunctious group of (usually) young people who work for minimum wage monitoring the lifts, shoveling snow, and playing around all day. After I moved to Portland, I became best friends with several of them.

“You don’t do it for the money,” Marty, a fellow Minnesotan, told me as we rode up on a chair two years ago. “But it’s a fucking blast.”

I couldn’t do it anyway – I went to SE Asia for a few months last winter, then back to Portland and Mt. Hood, then traveled down to California for a bit, then back to Portland again. All the time I was in Cali, the Mountain was calling. I knew the season was approaching, I thought about being a lifty again. But wasn’t I supposed to get a 9-to-5? Working towards something more professional? Use my degree, right?


A couple months ago, following the advice of countless famous authors, I decided to make a “vision board”. Jen and I assembled posters with glued cutout magazine photos and phrases, sprinkled with goals and ideas written in permanent marker. Along with “writing” and “many adventures”, I pasted several images of mountains and trees, along with a picture of a snowboarder on the side of a nameless peak with “Ride!” scribbled in permanent purple ink besides it. I carefully posted the vision board up on my bedroom wall, subconsciously glancing at it every night before bed.

One rainy Friday morning in November, I stood before it adjusting my backpack, about to head to my new full-time gig downtown. I thought of Mt. Hood and longed to go up there. The purple Ride! glared at me, and I quickly zipped my jacket and shut the door.


As a kid, I used to go to summer camp every year. At night, around the campfire while we whispered and giggled, they told us the story of the Stone Cutter, a low-caste man who desperately wanted more power. In his quest to become more powerful, he moved through several forces of nature – first a King, then the sun; the clouds, the wind, then finally the mountain. In the end, he realized the only thing that could conquer the mountain was a stone cutter – so he went back to being the Stone Cutter.


“Why weren’t you at lifty orientation?”

My friend Ben asked me a few weeks ago. I held the phone between my shoulder and ear as I stirred fresh ginger tea.

“Dude, I got a full-time job,” I told him. “I have to work for a while. I can’t be afford to be a lifty.”

“Bummer,” he said. “Marty and I were like ‘where’s Kelsey?’”

“Yeah, it’s all good though,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll be up there a lot.”

I doubted the words even as I said them. Taking a sip of tea, I watched rain droplets slide carefully down the window.


I turned 24 up at Mt. Hood Meadows, then 25 (although a day after my actual birthday). This April, I hope to turn 26 up there on a “bluebird day”, sun beaming on my bare arms, and legs sore from spring riding. I hope to embrace another blink in space/time continuum on the side of Mt. Hood, while the giant stays dormant ’til long after I’m gone.


I stood at the edge of the lodge last weekend, body already tired from lack of sleep but mind racing with anticipation for the day ahead, and stared up at the Mountain’s peak. Warm pink light had washed over it as the sun rose in the east, and pale, thin clouds danced near the summit. The dark trees were silent, white powder basking unsteadily on their limbs. No chairs were running yet. Everything was still. I took a deep breath, cold air stinging my nostrils and filling my lungs. I thought about how excited I was to ride, how it’s just the beginning of the season, about my journey back to Minnesota for Christmas. I thought of the Stone Cutter.

Jana came up behind me, pulling out her iPhone.

“Wow,” she said, snapping a photo. “So gorgeous.”

“Yeah,” I replied, a smile spreading. “It’s mornings like this when I’m like, this is why I work here.”

We looked up at the Mountain again.

“Same,” she said. “Alright, let’s go – we’re already running late.”

About the author:


Kelsey Rains is a writer, editor, world traveler, and entrepreneur mostly based out of Portland, Oregon. Kelsey’s first ventures into writing and traveling started in college when she studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for five months. The experience left her speechless (for once) and she vowed to continue journeying through her 20’s. Kelsey has worked all sorts of jobs, but her main passion is writing and creating. She hopes to encourage others to fearlessly follow their passions and live fully in each moment. Like “Kelsey Rains” on Facebook, or check out her writing here:

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