After 27 years, the iconic Lone Peak Tram has been decommissioned, making way for its heir, which is also one of the boldest lifts in North America.
The most anticipated development in the North American ski world this winter is the grand opening of the new Lone Peak Tram, which will deliver more skiers (conditions dependent) and sightseers up the hill in faster and more comfortable cabins. The original tram changed the sport of skiing by ushering in a renaissance of steep skiing. The new iteration ensures the tradition lives on, while ramping up the quality of the experience. “When the first tram went in, our messaging was that Lone Peak was America’s Alp,” says Big Sky’s President and COO, Taylor Middleton. “When we took over operations of the Moonlight side, we celebrated the ‘Biggest Skiing in America.’ Both of those visions still hold true, but the new mission is to improve the quality of the ski experience for everyone. Nothing exemplifies that more than the new Lone Peak Tram.”
What it Means to “Manage to Snow Capacity.”
The original tram was small by design. John Kircher, the resort operator at the time, knew that skiers could safely enjoy the hairball terrain off Lone Peak, but he also knew that—in certain conditions—if too many skiers descended the same slopes the snow would bump up, get pushed down the hill, or burnish to a risky glaze under constant edging.
Taylor Middleton, President and COO of Big Sky Resort. Photography by Chris Kamman, Courtesy of Big Sky Resort
John Kircher passed away in 2023 from cancer. But although the new tram’s official capacity is 75 skiers—60 more than the old tram—don’t expect to see that many loading. That’s because the number of skiers allowed in each car moving forward won’t be determined by revenue models or some notion of customer service, but by what Taylor Middleton, Big Sky’s President and Chief Operating Officer calls “Snow Capacity.”
Although the tram’s official capacity is 75 skiers-60 more than the old tram-don’t expect to see that many loading.
Taylor, who is the only current Big Sky employee that was on the ground for the original installation, shares John Kircher’s vision: “When the original tram went in, people told us the terrain was too dangerous, the avalanche hazard too high,” says Middleton. “But working with our patrollers and snow safety teams we quickly figured it out. That management style will not change. We expect to load 25 skiers and 10 scenic riders per cabin on most days.”
Equal parts engineer, rigger, and alpinist, building a tram requires rarified skills by workers. Here, a team from Garaventa, the Swiss subsidiary of Doppelmayr that specializes in aerial trams, feeds a pilot line for the track rope. “That is Cedric and Christoph Hohenegger pulling the pilot rope for the 2nd track rope manually,” says Big Sky Resort’s Construction Project Manager Jas Raczynski. “We were not able to pull the pilot line with the helicopter due to scheduling conflicts that day, but these dudes wanted to stay on schedule.” Photography by Chris Kamman, Courtesy of Big Sky Resort
When the original tram was installed, people in town could see the glow from extreme skier/alpinist/welder Tom Jungst’s torch in town each evening. But technology changes with the times. The new tram was custom engineered and prefabricated in Europe. It went up bolt by bolt on-site like an erector set. Photography byChris Kamman, Courtesy of Big Sky Resort
It’s hard to prove a negative, but it’s a good bet to say that for two years, this was the highest crane operating in the word. The heaviest crane piece for the Chinook helicopter which hauled it up was 9,000 pounds. “Setting up the tower cranes was the most difficult step in the entire installation,” says Chad Wilson, Big Sky’s Vice President of Construction. Photograph byJonathan Stone
“Setting up the tower cranes was the most difficult step in the entire installation.”
Chad Wilson, Big Sky Resort’s Vice President of Construction
At these slope angles, everything must be anchored. These threaded bars will support the power lines. Photography byChris Kamman,Courtesy of Big Sky Resort
The old tram ran on a continuous span—which explained some of the sway in the wind. The new tram sports a stabilizing midway tower, and computer assisted docking to ease the entry. Photography by Chris Kamman,Courtesy ofBig Sky Resort
Installing a track rope for a lift is never easy, but the elevation and exposure on Lone Mountain amplified the difficulties. The first step is for a helicopter to lift a 10mm thick pilot line that gets manually fed through the bogies. That line, in turn, gets spliced into a 16mm cable which is pulled through. The process continues with a 22mm cable pulling a 32mm before the final 48mm track rope is threaded through the system. Each gauge of rope takes five days to wind for what amounts to a 25 day process. A highly skilled helicopter pilot made the pilot line stage go smoothly. Photography by Chris Kamman, Courtesy of Big Sky Resort
Everything depends on mountain weather and mountain snow. If the wind is scouring the alpine, don’t plan on crowding into a full cabin. If winds are calm and the snow is chalky enough not to shear, it might be time to pile in. Tricky avalanche conditions? You’re going to have to wait. “Our team knows how to farm snow using snow fences, the right amount of skier compaction at the right time, and the right amount of avalanche control,” says Middleton. “We will have more skiers on the peak in good conditions, but we’ve accounted for that as well. You would never know it when the snowpack is deep, but we’ve excavated the switchback road in such a way that it will hold snow even in extended dry and windy conditions. The last thing anyone—even ski mountaineers—wants to encounter at these slope angles is what amounts to an icy groomer.”
The cars were built in Austria and traveled by ship, train, and truck to Big Sky. The resort kept them under wraps until the big reveal. At press time, the ski area was planning on a grand opening for the new Tram on December 19th, 2023. Photography byChris Kamman,Courtesy ofBig Sky Resort
A Chinook helicopter’s max external payload is 28,000 pounds. But because thin air reduces lift, that’s not true at 12,000 feet. For a stock Chinook with a full load of gas and crew, the max payload at the top of Lone Mountain drops well under 10,000 pounds. In order to hoist the 13,000 pound generator or even the 9,000 pound tower crane parts shown here, the pilot had to get creative. “We put these former military Chinook CH-47D helicopters on a weight loss program when we receive them,” says PJ Helicopters’ CH-47D Flight Program Manager Brent Keeler. “All nonessential equipment and wiring is removed, which adds up to a significant weight savings. The LZ to the top of the mountain is only about two miles so we plan our fuel load for what is required for the lift—plus reserves. Our crew generally consists of two pilots and a crew chief. So, with the weight savings, careful fuel planning, and only essential crew, we can lift over 13,000 pounds at 11,166 feet on a cold day!”
“A Chinook helicopter’s max external payload is 28,000 pounds. But because thin air reduces lift, that’s not true at 12,000 feet…. We put these former military Chinook CH-47D helicopters on a weight loss program when we receive them.”
Brent Keeler, PJ Helicopters’ CH-47D Flight Program Manager
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