The Biggest Gondola You’ve Never Heard of is in Oregon’s Wallowas

IMG_0776

You probably don’t know about this lift, even though it has the largest vertical rise of any gondola in North America.  Yes, more vertical than if Vail had a top-to-bottom lift and more than the (much newer) gondolas at Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Silver Mountain and Aspen.  You wouldn’t know how cool this lift is from the tiny ticket booth and parking lot, or from the tramway’s Facebook page, which lists it as “permanently closed.”  Despite all signs pointing to a lackluster roadside attraction, the Wallowa Lake Tramway, as it’s known, is incredible.

Situated at the far shore of its namesake, past the end of an abandoned railroad and at the dead-end of a 13-mile road, it feels like a trip to the Alps with high mountain peaks all around.  Opened in 1970 after two years of construction at a cost of $700,000, the tramway was conceived as the launch point for a large ski area, so the cabins have ski racks.  Although skiing never materialized, nearly fifty years later the gondola serves as a scenic throwback for the lucky few who venture six hours from Portland or 4.5 from Spokane or Boise (the local Lions Club opened a ski area nearby called Ferguson Ridge in 1983.) Those who trek to the Wallowas are rewarded with a 3,700′ vertical lift to 8,256′ Mt. Howard with monster mountain views along the way and a shimmering blue lake below.

Then there’s the lift itself.  Built by PHB Hall, 21 original Skycruiser cabins have been swapped for classic CWA ones that came from a Mueller gondola.  I’m thinking the one up Mt. Hays in British Columbia, which closed in 1995.  West German company Pohlig-Heckel-Bleichert entered into a marketing agreement with Hall of Watertown, NY in 1966, two years before construction began.  The Wallowa tramway’s double PHB grips are completely unique in North America and sail along the line at 690 feet per minute (Lutsen formerly Loon’s gondola also used them until it was removed in 2015.)  PHB also supplied tower sheaves while everything else is Hall.  Operators turn around and launch a cabin by hand every minute and 45 seconds, yielding a capacity of only 140 passengers per hour.  Even on Memorial Day weekend, I got my own cabin for the 9,650-foot, 13.9 minute journey.

Some of the 25 towers feature cool tramway-like saddles, and the huge 1,200′ cabin spacing makes the gondola feel like a tram.  Just about everything is still original, from the General Electric drive to Continental auxiliary engine, controls and 150-HP electric motor.  There is no motor room; everything is sandwiched just below the drive bullwheel like on many Hall chairlifts.  One newer addition: a countdown clock that alerts operators to launch the next cabin using a black handle in each station.  The rope was replaced in 2003.

Co-owners Mike Lockhart and Bill Whittemore host some 35,000 riders annually.  The lift is impeccably maintained and the entire operation is clearly a labor of love.  The tram has had a few hiccups over the years, including heli-assisted rope evac in 1992, a 4.5 hour evacuation of the mountain by truck in 2008 and a wildfire scare.  Tickets to the Wallowa Lake Tramway run $33 and the lift operates daily from late-May through September.  In the time it took me to drive there, I could have flown to the actual Alps, but it was totally worth it to ride this gem!

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “The Biggest Gondola You’ve Never Heard of is in Oregon’s Wallowas

  1. Peter Landsman May 30, 2017 / 10:45 am

    Apparently the grips are from Giovanola supplied by PHB under license. It looks like Doppelmayr USA still stocks parts for them because Doppelmayr bought VonRoll, which bought Hall.

    The Hall gondola at Sterling Vineyards, CA uses a very similar grip but according to Chairlift.org, those were manufactured by a different company. Other PHB Hall gondolas were located at Loon/Lutsen, Stowe, Angel Fire and Ski Apache.
    http://www.chairlift.org/hall.html

    Like

  2. Larry Wollum May 30, 2017 / 12:27 pm

    Peter, Hall was only involved with the PHB gondolas at Loon Mountain, Quincy(Illinois), Stowe, and High Wallowas. There were several others that PHB did with Constam, including Squaw Valley, Park City (2 sections), Sugarloaf (ME), and as you mention; Ski Apache and Angel Fire (didn’t know about that one). Also, I believe there was one at Magic Mountain Amusement park in California.

    The one at Sterling Vineyards was built entirely by Hall, using grips from Giavanola of Switzerland, which was the original designer of the grip design, and which Habegger/Von Roll absorbed in years since. Only those grips are serviced by Doppelmayr.

    The original PHB grips have no source of parts, except for standard parts like bearings and such. That is a problem for anyone using the PHB system.

    I had the pleasure of riding this lift a couple of years ago; it was on my wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jaytrem May 30, 2017 / 3:14 pm

    Ohhh, made me jealous this time. Definitely a place I always wanted to get to. Here’s an old trail map on skimap.org, I seem to recall seeing a more detailed one once too…

    I also notice on their website they mention using the gondola to ski the east side and occasionally they’ll tow you back up with a snowmobile. Had no clue they were doing anything at all. Anyway, thanks for another great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Landsman May 30, 2017 / 3:37 pm

      Great find! High Wallowas went bankrupt and the base lodge on that map is still there but all boarded up. A Skiing Magazine article from 2002 says the tramway opened on Saturdays in the winter back then: http://www.skiingmag.com/skiing-adventure/the-inside-line-wallowa-or

      After seeing the terrain and amount of snow left this May I have no doubt the place could be another Silverton with guided expert skiing if the owners so desired. Mt. Howard is probably too steep for a traditional chairlift operation at the top and too far from any real population to ever host a “normal” ski operation.

      Like

  4. julestheshiba May 30, 2017 / 9:25 pm

    I first herd about this lift from skilifts.org a while ago but when I saw it labeled as closed permanently I thought this classic was gone.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s