Jackson Hole Mountain Resort stunned the ski world June 24, 2005 announcing the iconic aerial tramway up Rendezvous Mountain would carry its final riders in 2006. The Kemmerer Family, owners of the resort since 1992, decided to retire the 40-year old jig-back at the first concerns about safety. “This decision has been extremely difficult and quite honestly a very sad one,” Jay Kemmerer lamented at the announcement. “We know this may impact our business, business to Jackson Hole and the State, but we must move on.”
JHMR did move on but not in the way many feared. After two years of study, the Kemmerers opted to build a new 100-passenger Garaventa tramway at a cost of $31 million. A bi-cable gondola was cheaper and seriously considered but failed to uphold the tradition set by the original tram in 1966. National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said of the 2006 deal with Garaventa, “This huge investment by JHMR ownership to build a new tram stands alone in our industry. The tram at Jackson Hole is recognized around the world as a lift that access some of the most spectacular terrain in North America.” Big Red, as it quickly became known, was the first new tramway built at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort since the Alyeska Tramway in 1992. The next newest tram was Cannon Mountain’s, dating back to 1979. Almost a decade later, only Jackson Hole and Alyeska have built large new aerial tramways in the last 37 years (for this post I’m talking about multi-cable tramways carrying 25+ passengers. Arguably the “beer can” trams at Big Sky and Snowbasin are really reversible gondolas.)
Switzerland is home to 97 large aerial tramways. Italy has 59, Austria 40, France 35 and Germany 18 for a total of 249 in the Alps. Compare that with 21 tramways operating in all of North America: 14 in the United States, 4 in Canada and 3 in Mexico. Only a third of those are directly used for skiing with the rest dedicated to sightseeing or public transportation. More than half the trams operating in North America were built in the 1960s and 1970s with varying degrees of upgrades along the way. As the chart below shows, the aerial tramway staged a slight comeback in the last decade but aside from Jackson Hole and Alyeska, the trend has nothing to do with skiing.
The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in Colorado hinted at the future of tramways in 2013 when it lost its tram to a wildfire. Instead of rebuilding, the park contracted with Leitner-Poma to build a reversible gondola at a fraction of the cost of a new aerial tramway. Even with just six 8-passenger gondola cabins, the new system can move more passengers than the old tram.
There are many other trams that, once retired, are likely to be replaced with a gondola, chairlift or nothing at all. The oldest tram in on the continent at Heavenly could be torn down tomorrow with little impact thanks to the huge new gondola that opened there in 2000. Grouse Mountain, Jay Peak, Snowbird and Gatlinburg could similarly replace their tramways with more efficient and less expensive gondolas. There’s a reason 178 gondolas have been built in North America in the same time as 23 tramways between 1962 and 2016.
The Jay Peak Tram will get $4.9 million in upgrades next spring that could extend its life for a few decades. The project includes new tower saddles, controls, carriages, drives and safety systems. Setting aside tradition, it’s tough to argue this makes financial or technical sense. Because of the increased weight of the new carriages, capacity will drop from 60 to 45 people per cabin, cutting hourly capacity to 550. Jay Peak already has a high speed quad that covers 90 percent of the tram’s route moving five times as many people with a similar ride time. A modern gondola could replace the tram for under $10 million and move as many guests as Jay Peak desired in greater comfort for the next thirty years.
With the advent of the 3S gondola, the set of conditions where an aerial tramway makes sense is getting even narrower. Jig-backs are inherently inefficient at moving large numbers of people. One of the best stickers I’ve seen around Teton Village is of a golden dollar that reads: Bridger Gondola – 4x the capacity, 1/5 the price – Since 1997. Jackson’s new tram cost $31 million, Roosevelt Island’s was $15 million and Portland’s a whopping $57 million. The OHSU tram cost some $5 million more than the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, arguably the most capable lift on the planet with a 1.9 mile span between towers. Its hourly capacity is twice that of Portland’s over four times the distance with 75 percent of the speed and no waiting. Still, aerial trams can make sense where only modest capacity is needed and there are obstacles requiring long spans. Plus they offer that iconic look that Jackson Hole paid a premium to keep.
For these reasons we may never see another big tram built in North America, especially in the ski world. Perhaps the strongest remaining argument for an aerial tramway is that they last a long time. Only Jackson Hole and Roosevelt Island’s trams have ever been completely replaced. But at $30-50 million for a new tram, you could buy a lot of gondolas. Even if a new one never gets built, many of our existing trams will be around for awhile. Snowbird just installed new track ropes, Sandia Peak and Gatlinburg recently purchased new cabins. Ride them while you can because they may never be replaced!