This story begins in the mid-1930s, when Paul Petzoldt went skiing with two friends, thinking about the future. “Below Buck Mountain, north of Wilson, there was one mountain that stood out,” he wrote in his autobiography, Teton Tales. “It was difficult, and we knew it would be difficult for beginners unless there were places lower on the mountain that would be level enough to teach skiing. We had no money, and we had no connections. We just knew that some day there was going to be a big ski area there.”
That mountain was Peak 10,450, today known as Rendezvous Mountain. Eight decades later, when you board the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram and again upon exiting, a safety message reads, “our mountain is like nothing you have ever skied before…it is huge…with dangerous cliff areas and dangerously variable weather. You could make a mistake and suffer personal injury or death.”
As David Gonzales remarked in his 2002 book, Jackson Hole: On a Grand Scale, “Missing are the hallmarks of a typical American ski area – the wide, artificial swaths of snow streaming down a forested hillside…Instead, Jackson Hole’s trails blend seamlessly with the avalanche paths and scree fields that abound in the Tetons.” In fact, a group of Salt Lake City investors who surveyed the area in the late 1950s regarded the Cache Creek drainage in the Gros Ventre Mountains as the only suitable site for a ski resort in Northwestern Wyoming. They recruited University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler to come to Jackson and survey. He came and went, unimpressed with the mellow terrain in the Gros Ventres. According to Pete Seibert, Schaeffler said the same about about a yet-to-be-developed Vail Mountain.
Retiree Paul McCollister, general contractor Alex Morley, John Gramlich and Ernie Hirsch of the U.S. Forest Service carved their first turns on Rendezvous Mountain on Christmas Day 1962. Three years later, they presided over the opening of three double chairs (two Hall, one Murray-Latta) followed by an aerial tramway in July 1966. “The very ruggedness that attracted Morley and McCollister to the Tetons proved a hurdle,” notes Gonzales. “The mountain was steep, remote and cold. Convincing skiers that these were actually positive attributes would require reserves of determination that the construction of the ski resort had only begun to tap.” Investors came and went over a tumultuous first thirty years of the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation. Mr. Golzales wrote, “Morley suspected the resort would not last more than a couple years. But McCollister endured, recruiting Pepi Stiegler to accompany him to ski shows in order to drum up interest. It was a hard sell. Though many skiers had heard about Jackson Hole, they’s also heard that the Wyoming resort was too remote, too steep and too cold. ‘Everybody told you this,’ Stiegler recalls. ‘It was discouraging.'”
Harry Baxter, marketing director from 1974 to 1995, at one point tried to re-brand The Big One as the Gentle Giant, with trail maps noting, “there is more intermediate skiing on the small mountain, Apres Vous, than 90 percent of America’s best.” When the new Casper high-speed-quad launched, it was marketed as “All new, all blue.” Even today, the summer tram announcement reads, “the aerial tram, together with the Bridger Gondola and a variety of other lifts, offers more expert, intermediate and beginner terrain than most resorts in the United States. Yet many still regard the home of Corbet’s Couloir, Teton Gravity Research, Doug Coombs and the Tram as the wild west of skiing.
From opening in 1965 until the mid-1990s, Jackson Hole added just four new chairlifts. In the same period, Vail built 31 new ones, as the Ski Corp. struggled to even stay afloat. That all changed in 1992, when Jay Kemmerer and his family bought out not only Paul McCollister, but other investors he had taken on in tough times. The Kemmerer Family wanted to reinvest in Wyoming, and they’ve done so to the tune of $130 million. The Thunder Quad in 1994. Wyoming’s first detachable lift, Teewinot, in 1996. Bridger Gondola in 1997. A new Apres Vous in 1999. Moose Creek and Union Pass in 2000. Sweetwater in 2005 and a $32 million aerial tram opening at the height of the Great Recession in 2008. Followed by three new lifts in five years – Marmot, Casper and Teton.
Barely six months ago, one of the original chairlifts from 1965 still stood in the heart of Teton Village. Above it, a franken-lift recycled from Winter Park linked to Casper Restaurant. In their place, the Doppelmayr-built Sweetwater Gondola now rises to serve skiers of all abilities and boost out-of base capacity. After months of hard work by literally hundreds of people, Jackson Hole’s second gondola is almost ready for showtime.
With a slope length of 4,339 feet, Sweetwater is not massive by modern lift standards but does mark a huge change. Beginner and intermediate skiers now have their own dedicated out-of-base lift rising 1,275 vertical feet. A mid-station, tentatively called Solitude Station, forms a base camp for beginners with its own yurt and magic carpet. Eventually, a 12,000 square foot learning center will go up here with rentals, lessons, and a cafeteria.
Sweetwater’s 48 cabins will spin 800 feet per minute and move 1,600 skiers per hour initially. With 12 more cabins, future capacity can climb to 2,000 pph. A trip to the top will last just 7.5 minutes.
In the forward to On a Grand Scale, Pepi Stiegler, director of the Jackson Hole Ski School for 29 years, wrote “Customers told us we should give them a call when we replaced our old lifts.” Pepi is now 79 years old and there are barely any old lifts at Jackson Hole. You can ride the new Sweetwater Gondola beginning Saturday, December 17th.