The great thaw may still be a few weeks away, but New Englanders will be able to glimpse the first true signs of spring by glancing down from chairlifts as the ski season winds down: Rocks, grass, and mud patches will sprout from the thinning snowpack — soon to be followed by trash, and for those with a discerning eye, treasure.
Since the dawn of lift-serviced skiing, the chasms between towers that are not part of the trail network have been known as the no-man’s land where single gloves and mittens go to die. Whether launched into the abyss by accident or ignorance, their fate is nearly always the same — never to be reunited with their mates.
But as recreational skiing and snowboarding have evolved, so, too, has the cross-section of detritus dropped from lifts. In a not-at-all scientific poll, the Globe asked representatives from 20 regional resorts to name the most common — and bizarre — items that become unburied as snow melts beneath chairlifts at the end of a typical season.
“Besides lots of beer cans and Red Bull?” asked Magic Mountain vice president of marketing Geoff Hatheway.
He was only being slightly sarcastic, because beverage-related debris topped almost every ski area’s list.
“A lot of weed and weed paraphernalia,” reported Eric Friedman, marketing director at Mad River Glen, echoing another common finding. (Further study is needed to determine whether the prevalence of lost marijuana is attributable to impaired dexterity or a general lack of concentration among chairlift stoners.)
In terms of outright trash, used hand-warmer packs are the most ubiquitous offenders.
Then there’s a gray area of items that weren’t exactly discarded but apparently weren’t worth the trouble to reclaim, either. Goggles, sunglasses, hats, neck warmers, scarves, cigarettes, and lighters fall into this category.
“I know one patroller who is always on a mission for lighters,” said Colin Cascadden, patrol director at Sugarbush. “It started innocently enough but now has become an all-out mission for the guy. Tough lines, muddy spots, a little boot pack, and fast grass is no hindrance. It’s been over a decade since he bought a lighter.”
Several resorts acknowledged finding intimate apparel (both men’s and ladies) after the spring thaw. One explanation involves so-called “Mardi Gras trees” alongside lifts that attract flung objects from Fat Tuesday revelers. Presumably, these folks forgot their carnival beads and had to make do with whatever risqué items were handy.
The most outlandish slopeside find goes to Okemo, where public relations director Bonnie MacPherson reports that an automobile muffler emerged from the snowpack several years back.
But there’s a catch, MacPherson wrote in an e-mail: Such a finding is “not all that odd when you consider that Okemo’s Mountain Road ski trail actually is a road that cars follow to the summit in summer.”
Okemo is one of a number of resorts that host volunteer cleanup days after the ski season, rewarding participants with a barbecue lunch. Some resorts offer a complimentary next-season lift ticket or similar perk.
At last year’s cleanup, Brian Halligan, Okemo’s sales director, happened upon a weather-battered bridal veil underneath the Jackson Gore Express Quad. The oddity of finding a wedding garment where one would least expect did spark jokes among the cleanup crew, but Halligan speculated there was probably a tame explanation.
“We have weddings in all seasons, and sometimes when the bride and groom get married, they take a chairlift down from the summit to make their entrance at the reception,” Halligan said. “The bride probably had her veil on when she was riding down, and a gust of wind blew it off. I just happened to find it, and I laughed.”
Poles and skis are common findings. Following the rule of mittens and gloves, these vanish almost exclusively singly and rarely turn up in pairs.
In general, there’s a correlation between how much a lost object costs and how much time the loser is likely to invest in trying to retrieve it. Over the past few years, no single category of lost valuable items can rival smartphones and high-tech gadgets.
“They’re never in working order,” said MacPherson. “Whether they succumb to the impact of the fall from a chairlift or being out in the elements, we never know.”
Not so fast, said Bill Quigley, marketing director at Gunstock. You just have to know where to look.
Quigley knows a pro snowboarder who is adept at sleuthing out fully functional iPhones and iPods.
“He said sometimes the best place to go searching for stuff is on the back side of mountains,” said Quigley, “because what happens is [searchers] never hike those, they always hike the front side.”
And just as money is the ultimate gift in the broader world, it’s also the ultimate find at ski resorts. Unlike a smartphone or wallet, which can (and should) be traced to its rightful owner, loose bills and coins are considered fair game in the spirit of “finders keepers.”
“The thing that I always see in the spring is those guys with the little metal wands,” said Quigley. “They go around not only underneath the lifts, but at the base areas.”
“The sweet spots are the chairlift load and unload areas, the ski racks, and the steeper sections of the beginner trails,” wrote Pats Peak director of marketing Lori Rowell in an e-mail.
The lore of a blockbuster find can linger for decades. At Jay Peak, communications director J.J. Toland said longtime staffers tell the tale of a woman from Hingham who took off a glove while riding the old Green Chair over Christmas break in 1990 “and her two-carat rock came flying off around Tower 3 or 4.”
The distressed customer reported the loss.
“Five months go by and nothing,” Toland said. “Memorial Day 1991, a guy is hiking up with his dog and sees a big flash in the field between the two towers. Heads over to where he saw it, finds the ring, brings it to customer service, and everyone lives happily ever after — sort of.
“Word is the guy was hoping no one would claim the ring. He was bummed to hear the woman was driving up within an hour or so of us contacting her.”