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

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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!

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19 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

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    • Rene Thoeni January 7, 2019 / 1:43 pm

      Yes Peter, PHB and several other Lift Manufacturers got under license to incorporate the Giovanola grip system that is based on using the gravity of hanger, cabins and passenger weight to exert the clamping force for the grip on to the wire rope. A system ahead of its time in the 1960this. The drawback however where that the gravity system to couple the grip on to the wire rope was unreliable due to different passenger, or none passenger weights of the cabin. After several accidents it became apparent to design that on automatic coupling and uncoupling and movement of the cabin in the station had to be incorporated. The Gondola at Wallowa Lake and Sterling Vineyards where the last two Gondolas built that also used the manual transport of the cabins in the stations. In addition the grip coupling system with the slanted rails used to obtain the grip and cabin speed for coupling where replaced due to the wear and tear on the griping system that was caused by the erratic grip coupling on the wire rope.
      As for the Sterling Vineyard installation the slanted rail system seem to prove adequate as the wire rope speed is slow for the sight seeing customers. The grips on Sterling where obtained from Giovanola where the inner mechanics are slightly different to the Habegger or PHB design.

      I write this because I as much involved with either of these Gondolas and was also the representative for PHB many years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rene Thoeni January 7, 2019 / 5:02 pm

        I like to add that Giovanola grip parts are not interchangeable from different manufacturers. Also Garaventa, Doppelemayr stopped manufacturing parts for its own operating customer that still own Giovanola installations due to the once durable equipment will be phased out in most of European Country’s by the year 2025.

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    • Rene Thoeni April 12, 2019 / 3:11 pm

      Peter I have bin writing way more then intended, but this I belief is news worthy to prevent rope way accidents. Recently there was a test done on a Giovanola grip Gondola that is being replaced with a high speed 10 passenger Gondola installation. The test was to place the rope on to the cable catchers to simulate a wire rope derailment. Then start the lift by bypassing the low voltage system. As the now moving grip carriage with Gondola cabin attached reached the cable catcher the inside rollers on the carriage now ended up riding up on the cable catcher and lifted the wire rope off the cable catcher and derailed wire rope with grip and cabin. Meaning making the wire rope cable catcher useless and failed its purpose.
      This test shows how often critical situations can be overlooked as these lefts have run for years and are lucky no terrible accident did occur as we know of. The wire rope gripping systems now are different then the Giovanola system and are much safer but I still belief a safety switch or sensor should be installed on the front cable catchers so that if contact by a wire rope on the catcher occurs the lift would stop. I am retired after 50 plus years in the ski lift business but it is still my hope and concern to improve safety where ever possible.

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  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

    • Rene Thoeni January 7, 2019 / 5:19 pm

      Larry, your information in regards to PHB is absolutely right. I do might add that yes there was a PHB Gondola at Magic Mountain. It is there where a cabin did not couple right and fell off with 2 young ladies being killed. It is after that accident PHB for several years did not sell Gondola’s again until they had the automatic coupling and station cabin moving system design and operational. In addition on automatic grip clam test is performed once the grip is in a clamped position on the wire rope.

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  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.

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      • Thomas Jett November 4, 2017 / 9:14 pm

        I’ve got to disagree with the assessment that Howard is too steep. It’s not much steeper than many of the resorts in the B.C. or Big Sky. I see the potential for a 4000+ acre ski resort, that with some air service from Portland and Boise, could start as a Silverton-scale operation, and then work itself into full size. If you’d be interested, I could show you a mock up of a lift layout that I’m working on, and you can read through the master plan here:
        https://books.google.com/books?id=4qA2AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

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    • Rene Thoeni January 7, 2019 / 5:33 pm

      Yes JEYTREM I can attest to that as I started to ski that fun mountain slope and often brought a number of people along. At one time we had the snow rangers from Alta checking out the area to see if we could offer something similar for the Powder hounds from Alta. Unfortunately the snow condition on that slope are from fantastic to horrible in particular from the top of the Moraine to the Valley floor. I feel blessed that with quite certainty I was able to carve most miles off that mountain side then anyone and it might stay that way forever.

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  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.

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    • Rene Thoeni March 10, 2019 / 1:42 pm

      From the notice I belief the Gondola will be operating this Summer unless something has changed of late.

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  5. poutine November 5, 2017 / 4:32 pm

    Thomas, I’d love to see your mock up of a lift layout that you are working on.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Peter Landsman November 5, 2017 / 8:33 pm

        Here’s a preview for those without Google Earth. Note little Ferguson Ridge in the upper right!

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      • Thomas Jett November 6, 2017 / 12:37 am

        Thanks, Peter. Funny enough, it was Ferguson Ridge that first drew me to the site, and only then did I notice the gondola. The plan can be though of as equal parts Heavenly, Sun Valley, and Revelstoke, as it focuses on access to long, steep faces while still providing room for families to explore. The eastern and lower northern faces host the intermediate terrain. The rest is probably some of the most intense in the American Northwest, with the 3,800+ feet of vertical on the west face able to compete with the likes of Big Sky and maybe even Jackson Hole.

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  6. Rene Thoeni January 7, 2019 / 5:46 pm

    After skiing a few times at the rope tow the Wallowa lake ski club owned it was obvious that something better and safer was needed. The ski club then bought a used Doppelmayr t-bar and I provided them with the tower and station layout. As I understand all the labor for the installation of the lift was done by ski club members that also maintain the lift and slopes.

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  7. Rene Thoeni March 25, 2019 / 5:53 pm

    Peter a resort of that size at Wallowa lake that would include Ferguson Ridge would be totally unfeasible due to lack of snow in several of the slope area in between. In addition the present Gondola would be out of the equation due to the age of the equipment and design.

    Liked by 1 person

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