Few lifts in the world are as iconic as the Snowbird Tram with its 125 passenger red and blue cabins rising from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Hidden Peak. When it opened in 1971, the tram was one of the longest, largest and most powerful aerial tramways in the world and remains so today. In his 168-page book dedicated to this machine, Walt McConnell said of the tram, “It was loaded with innovative features and immediately became the symbol of Snowbird.” A timeless style combined with recent upgrades mean the tram is sure to remain an icon of the Wasatch for years to come.
Decades after the founding of nearby Alta, Ted Johnson envisioned a carefully-designed, 40-acre resort village with modern American design anchored by a tramway. After a trip over from Vail, Dick Bass agreed to join team Snowbird and provide financial backing. Ted quietly began buying mining claims in Little Cottonwood Canyon while still working at Alta. In Ted’s mind, a tram was the only lift to build and the route to Hidden Peak was clear. “The awesome massiveness of the tramway and its terminal buildings-to-be set the stage for the bold architectural statements of all of Snowbird,” he declared. He went public with the Snowbird development in 1966, forming Snowbird Design Group.
Ted and Dick visited other trams including Squaw Valley’s, built by Hans Burkhart, who would later oversee construction of Snowbird’s tramway. After visiting Europe, Bass and Johnson selected Garaventa as the manufacturer over several other European companies. Garaventa and Snowbird signed a $3 million contract after intense negotiation – an amount unheard of at the time for a single ski lift. The cabins would be able to carry 125 passengers, more than any other tram in the world at the time. Garaventa later designed other iconic tramways in America including the Grouse Mountain Skyride and Jackson Hole Aerial Tram.
Construction commenced in the spring of 1969 with road-building, logging and forming of foundations for the tram stations and towers. Garaventa’s crew arrived from Goldau in May of 1971 and Cannon Construction of Salt Lake was tasked with building the terminals and plaza. The Swiss workers quickly nicknamed Snowbird “snow hell” as the Wasatch received heavy snows all spring and again the next fall. By all accounts, those at Snowbird were impressed with the work ethic of the Garaventa employees in harsh conditions at extreme heights. In The Snowbird Tram, McConnell notes, “Hans estimates 200 gallons of schnapps were shipped from Switzerland hidden within crates containing tram parts in barrels labelled “cable grease” to fuel the workers.”
Garaventa shipped four 54 mm track cables, each 8,395 feet long and weighing 99,440 lbs., to Vancouver, BC and further by train to Salt Lake. Two 38 mm haul ropes were much lighter, 30,310 lbs., and arrived via Galveston, Texas. The ropes were placed on concrete pads and winched up Hidden Peak one at a time by progressively larger ropes. Snowbird’s red and blue tram cars took their first public flights December 23, 1971. Inaugural season lift tickets cost $7.
The tram dock inside the Snowbird Center is impeccably designed, with the Tram Club flanking the motor room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The system is powered by a 1,750 horsepower DC electric motor, which at the time of installation was the largest in the world for any ropeway. Like most lifts, the tram has redundant service brakes and emergency brakes that are continuously monitored. An auxiliary engine can run the tram cars at reduced speed, 1.6 m/s versus the maximum 10 m/s. A rescue system with its own rope is housed on the fourth floor with a yellow 15-passenger basket below. This system takes approximately and hour and a half to setup on top of the track ropes and has never been used for a real-world evacuation. If all three systems fail, tram operators can evacuate riders by rope. This has also never happened at Snowbird.
Four line towers range in height from 70 to 140 feet and feature some of the largest saddles Garaventa has ever built. Tram cars can travel over them without slowing down, yielding a possible hourly capacity of 1,000 skiers per hour. Today, winter trips usually ascend at 8 m/s, summer ones at 6 meters. The longest span is 3,580 feet between towers 3 and 4 over the Cirque where, at their highest point, cabins soar 370-400 feet above depending on loads.
The classic tram cars with manual doors are the largest in the Americas, 14 feet by 23 feet. Snowbird was also among the first to pioneer doors on both sides for efficient loading. The combined carriage, hanger, and cabin weigh 18,400 lbs. and can carry another 21,420 lbs. On windy days, operators add barrels filled with water to reduce swing. The tram cabins are rated for 125 plus an operator. These days, Snowbird generally caps capacity at 100 passengers.
Although nearing 46 years old, the tram has been continually upgraded. The system is on its fourth set of haul ropes from years of passing through 11 different bullwheels. Despite having seven different wire ropes, Snowbird’s tram has no splices. One haul rope passes through the top station and the other the bottom and both are permanently affixed to the carriages. Each carriage has 16 sheaves and four brass-shoed track rope brakes designed to apply in the event the haul rope fails. The carriages are overhauled regularly.
In 2000, Frey AG Stans installed a $600,000 PLC control system, only the fifth in the world, to replace the original mechanical control system by Gfellier. The new setup transmits information via the haul rope between the towers, cabins and stations. Trips run more smoothly and can be set to any speed between zero and ten meters per second. Snowbird replaced all four track ropes earlier this year after more than 300,000 trips, a project that took two months.
In December 2015, Snowbird opened The Summit, a 23,000 square foot lodge to match the grandeur of the tram at 11,000 feet. Now under majority ownership of the Cumming Family, Snowbird’s latest upgrades are the beginning of a new era. Hidden Peak is the future launchpad of a two-stage gondola to Mary Ellen Gulch, where additional lifts and 500 acres of new terrain will open in the coming years.
Great article Peter! There is one splice in the rope system-the rescue rope.
The Snowbird tram was installed in the same year as Squaw Valleys. They are both Garaventas.
No, the Squaw Valley installation was first – and was Garaventa’s first installation in North America – opening in 1968. Snowbird followed and opened in 1972.
I was fortunate to be one of the first tram riders back in 1971 and I was a beginner skier with some expert friends.
I remember a sign on the tram saying beginners should not be on this tram. Am I correct about the sign?
My son is out there now and said there was no sign
It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life!
I had been skiing Snowbird the first week it opened. We spent $5.50/day for an all-area. I didn’t make it up to ski on the Dec. 23 (the Tram opening day), but did make it on the 24th. It was great. I was trying to upload some photos from the top that day but don’t see an upload option.
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Interesting. The tensioning for the track ropes are at the bottom termial. While the tensioning for the haul rope is up top.