Jackson Hole: Tram’s last season was ‘skier heaven’
There are two very good reasons to visit Jackson Hole this winter: The mountain has been pummeled with snow, and it’s the last season of the tram.The first is a good enough excuse, in my book, to go just about anywhere within weekend driving distance of Aspen (admittedly Jackson – an eight-hour haul in decent weather – is a stretch). This is a season of northern storms, and while many northern and central Rockies resorts are boasting copious snowfall, the Hole has taken the cake this year. For the third year in a row, Jackson received a bountiful holiday gift; this year’s Christmas/New Year’s storm cycle dumped 60 inches in seven days on the northwest Wyoming resort. It snowed all but two days for more than a month between Christmas Eve and late January. As of the end of February, 413 of the annual average of 435 inches had fallen, with more than a month to go in the season (closing day is April 2).The goods were so good in late January, when I visited, that we were skiing untracked powder right under the gondola late in the morning. Eight inches of fresh overnight was not enough to bring out the hordes – spoiled locals wouldn’t come out for less than a foot. And even I had enough gumption to huck some boulders and cornices, as downy piles of white covered just about everything and made for incredibly soft landings. The whole place was the definition of skier heaven.But the latter reason for venturing to Jackson Hole – the impending last day of the tram – has caused reactions of stunned disbelief and utter puzzlement among those who know the area. The iconic, fire-engine red, totally retro tram is being retired after precisely 40 years of service – without a replacement lift in the immediate future. Recognized as the symbol of the ski area, it’s pictured on the trail map and in much of the resort’s marketing materials. Just about every Teton Gravity Research film segment on Jackson Hole begins with that venerable red box rising into the heavens – usually toward a layer of clouds that tends to dramatically drape itself over the valley.But because it was literally cobbled together by various manufacturers, regulators can’t guarantee its safe long-term operation. It would cost $25 million to replace, a tad steep for the privately owned ski company that still relies on ticket sales for the bulk of its income (and hasn’t jumped on the real estate bandwagon yet).”We’ve shook the trees of the state but nobody’s walked up and offered to buy it for us yet,” said Anna Olson, communications director for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “But we’re on the mission of trying to replace the tram.”
Climbing more than 4,100 vertical feet to Rendezvous Peak in 12 minutes, Jackson’s tram offers a dramatic ride with spectacular views – first the vast, cliff-studded slopes; then, after Tower 3, a nearly 360-degree panorama of the majestic Teton mountain range; and nearing the top, a bird’s-eye view of Corbet’s Couloir, one of the most legendary ski slopes in the country, with its 10- to 30-foot “mandatory air” entrance followed by a 45-degree run pinched tight by towering granite walls.The trip down the mountain can be even wilder. Jackson has the longest continuous vertical rise of any ski area in the country. Hop off the tram and you have your choice of three or four vast, powder-filled bowls, a beeline to the in-bounds, backcountry-like playground of the Hobacks, or the backcountry itself.For many locals, the main reason to take the tram is direct access to the backcountry gates dotting the ski area boundary – leading to heart-in-your-throat thrill rides in Cody Bowl and innumerable lines in Rock Springs Bowl that stay fresh several days after a storm.”The key to access is the top of the mountain,” said 30-year Jackson Hole skier Bill Maloney. “It’s the most extraordinary ski experience in the U.S.; you can ski as far as you can walk in any direction.”
Without the tram, it’ll take a combination of four lifts to get to Rendezous Peak. To handle the additional traffic, 18 cars will be added to the Bridger Gondola, increasing its hourly capacity by more than what the tram carries now. Then you’ll make your way, skier’s right, to the Thunder chair, the Sublette chair and a temporary, two-person chair up Rendezvous Bowl to the peak.Tram devotees are not thrilled at the scenario.”It’ll change the whole character of how you ski the mountain,” said seven-year local Spencer Rank. “All it’s gonna do is move the bottleneck up the mountain.”Resort officials say they’re confident they’ll replace the tram; they’re now deciding between a new tram or a “bi-cable gondola” (whatever that is), both on a similar alignment to the existing tram.
But it’ll take a couple more years to get financing and approvals together, not to mention probably more than a year of construction. In the meantime, the resort is bracing for a 15 percent decrease in skier visits, which will hurt local restaurants and shops as well.This situation is spawning its share of conspiracy theories among frustrated locals: It’s a ploy to get outside financial help (locals joke that the company should tap the resources of Vice President Cheney, a Wyoming resident, and call it the “Halliburton Tram”); officials are marketing the tram’s demise to attract business; they’re trying to attract more wealthy intermediate skiers who might be intimidated by the tram. Even locals who say they don’t need the tram – on busy days the wait can be more than an hour – are miffed. The whole place is just sullen.”I have 34 years on this mountain and I’m thinking Verbier,” said lifetime local Gregory Schnitker, who remembers peering into Corbet’s Couloir from the tram at age 12 before his first foray into the legendary ski run.And it’s not just the locals. During my January visit, I met many visitors, some from as far away as England, who came expressly because it was the tram’s last season.The tram is also important to ski patrollers, whose daily avalanche-control routine starts at the top, well before the mountain opens.
“Without the tram, we’ll probably have to start working at 4:30 a.m.,” said patroller Jim Springer. “In the main area of the mountain the tram is vital to our operations. It’s hard to imagine this area without it.”Finally, all those “ski porn” scenes from Jackson are going to be a little harder to shoot without the tram there to whisk athletes and camera people to the top in 12 minutes.Concludes Theo Meiners, a longtime local guide and instructor, “This is a destination because of the tram, and the tram is key to future of this resort.””Save the tram” stickers and T-shirts are popping up everywhere, and a citizens advisory committee is meeting to help resort officials plan properly. Meanwhile, skiers and boarders who want to be part of Jackson history should make a move soon – all sorts of special events and celebrations are planned for Tram Days, during the final two weeks of the season. For more information, go to http://www.jacksonhole.com.Catherine Lutz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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