The ride on the three-seat chair-lift up to the 2,650m Schindler peak at St Anton in Austria is uneventful for 95 per cent of the journey. The lift simply dips into a valley, and then hauls itself up the Schindler's southern face. Way above the tree-line, the terrain seems too open to provide any surprises, although huge and beautiful stumps of rock - as deeply etched as the lines on W H Auden's face - emerge from the snow towards the lift summit.
Except that it isn't the summit: just as you are thinking about raising the safety bar and dropping off the lift, the ground suddenly disappears beneath you. It's like a stunt sequence from a Bruce Willis movie involving a dozen cameras and two helicopters. What happens is this: just before the journey's end, the lift simultaneously slips across a brow and switches out of a shallow gully into a huge valley to its left. Suddenly, instead of hanging at a comfortable height above a deep snowfield, the lift is flying across the almost sheer rock face of the Valfagehrkar. It's a sensational moment, but only a moment. Before you can get your breath back, the lift reaches its destination.
For those involved in ski-area management, the most important quality of a ski-lift is its "uplift". The term refers to the number of passengers- per-hour it can carry to the summit. Most skiers share the concern with performance, because the quicker they can get off the lift and start skiing, the happier they are. I take a different view of uplift: the best lifts are indeed the most uplifting, but figuratively rather than literally.
Skiers who ride the great chair-lifts merely so that they can ski back down the hill are missing half the pleasure of the round-trip. On a chair- lift, facing the mountains, the panorama in front of you gets bigger and better, while on the way down all you see is the snow blurring in front of your skis. And the more the lift climbs, the closer you get to heaven and the further from civilisation, as manifested by crowds, queues and thumping Euro-disco music.
All this doesn't have much to do with knees. But that's because they're not an issue when you're sitting on a chair-lift. Going up the mountain, you don't have to worry about them; it's on the way they down that they get damaged. The problem is to find the great chair-lifts. There is no end of information in ski books on the best pistes, but so far no guide to chair-lifts. From my research on the subject let me recommend a couple of others in addition to the Schindler lift.
It's obvious from the piste map of Val d'Isere what is unusual about the Les Lessieres lift: it goes down as well as up. But even knowing that hardly prepares you for the moment when the lift, having scaled one face of the Solaise valley, launches itself over the Crete de Lessieres. The thrill of suddenly rising out of one small Alpine valley and being lowered into another, as if on a parachute, is exquisite, although the landing is, perhaps, a little too like a parachute jump.
The trip up to the top of the ski area of Keystone, Colorado is more of a chair-lift expedition than a white-knuckle ride. The sophisticated resort, with its post-modern architectural collage, its cigar bar and micro-brewery, is just three steps away from the wilderness. Two rides and two descents take you across Keystone's lower peaks to the foot of the four-seat Outback Express chair-lift. This hauls you out of the trees, and up to the 3,652m Outback peak. Here the chair-lift dumps you at the outer limit of the pisted area, into a bitter, windswept place where gritty snow is whipped off the ground into your face, and a vast, rolling tundra stretches out towards oblivion. An incredible spot, but not one in which to hang around. Rather, you turn your back on the view, stare at the snow blurring in front of your skis, and escape to "civilisation". Stephen Wood
A handy way to reach St Anton is to fly on Easyjet (0870 6000 000) from Luton to Zurich.