Let me start by noting this post, like all others here, is my own and not an official account of my employer, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Tuesday nights are my Sunday nights at home before I start my work week every Wednesday. I was watching the news last Tuesday when our risk manager casually posted on Facebook that the power was out in Teton Village. I didn’t think much of it on a day when the roof of the local bowling alley had collapsed due to snow and with both a Winter Storm Warning and Flood Watch in effect. Unlike at some ski areas, losing power is a rarity for Jackson Hole (Crystal Mountain, where I grew up skiing, has its own dedicated power plant for such occasions; Kirkwood and Mt. Baker run without grid power every day.)
Seven minutes after the initial Facebook post, another employee wrote, “the power poles along the village road totally toppled,” just as thousands of workers and guests were headed home. We later learned seventeen 75-foot steel transmission poles had indeed fallen to the snow along ‘the windy mile,’ that last stretch of Wyoming 390 before Teton Village. The time was 6:05 pm, the stamp that would grace the webcams on jacksonhole.com for days. It was no doubt howling that night, but the poles had withstood forty years of fierce winds Wyoming is known for.
Lower Valley Energy is the electricity provider in Teton County. It’s a co-op, owned by 15,000 members like myself. While our tiny utility got to work recruiting much-needed regional help, ski area employees who could make it rallied first thing Wednesday morning. Instead of heading up, cat operators headed out to push ten feet of snow away from the power corridor. Lower Valley conceded at 9:40 am to “expect Teton Village to be out of power for 5-7 days,” and the resort announced it would not open until at least the following Monday. The internet thought it was crazy, we knew it was not.
Complicating matters, Teton Pass has closed earlier that day and ended up staying closed for almost five days amid the biggest storm cycle since 1986. WYDOT also closed the two canyon routes leading into Jackson Hole due to avalanches relentlessly coming down across them. The Teton Village substation also serves the Jackson Hole Airport and all Tuesday night flights were canceled. Whether it was workers, generators or fuel, it became tough to get anything we needed. The mountain was able to buy every available 2000-watt generator from a Honda dealer in Afton, Wyoming.
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.
A winter weather advisory is in effect all week for Teton Village and the top of the Jackson Hole Tram is already buried under feet of snow. Luckily the Sweetwater Gondola project lies mostly below the snow line, where the Doppelmayr crew is working on final assembly of America’s only new gondola for 2016. All three terminals now have roofs and local resident Norm Duke presided over a splice of the 45mm haul rope Sept. 20th. This week, the team is finishing the final, giant enclosure at Solitude Station. The mid-station also got its maintenance/parking rail last week, which will eventually link to a storage barn on the south (downhill) side. JHMR has always parked Bridger’s cabins inside on winter nights but Sweetwater’s will remain on the line this winter.
An eagle-eyed reader, Charles Von Stade, advised me the other day that Sweetwater’s rounded UNI-G enclosure at the return station is not the first in the world after all. Doppelmayr designed a similar enclosure for the top station of a 2009 six-pack in Austria called Kettingbahn that looks just as sweet as Sweetwater’s.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opens for skiing 76 days from today and the new Sweetwater Gondola will open for business in mid-December. Since my last update, the Doppelmayr crew finished the enclosure at the bottom terminal and erected the entire drive station up top. Doppelmayr custom-designed the lower station skin in Austria for JHMR with a round end to mimic the shape of Teewinot and Bridger. After some initial skepticism, the consensus around here is it looks awesome and we will have to see if Doppelmayr offers the design to anyone else going forward. The UNI-G is Doppelmayr’s standard detachable terminal worldwide but the new, boxier D-Line will be offered as an option in North America beginning next year.
The drive platform was hauled up the hill in the back of a dump truck and includes an electric motor along with CAT auxiliary and evacuation drives. Operator houses for the mid-station and summit arrived from Salt Lake last week along with the haul rope from France. 48 cabins from CWA will follow next week to meet their hangers and grips which are already here. Doppelmayr’s supply chain is fascinating – Sweetwater includes key components built in the USA, Canada, Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland.
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.
When riders on the tram ask about the construction going on at JHMR this summer, they rarely believe an entire gondola can be built in one summer. “That’s going to be done this winter?!,” they say. The answer of course is yes, and after a few months of work you can start to see why. Since Doppelmayr flew the new gondola’s towers in late July, work has shifted to the mid and top terminals. Over four days last week, a crane set the steel beams and tunnels for the Solitude mid-station. This station is huge and will eventually serve a beginner complex with magic carpets, a rental center, cafeteria and more. It will also be the site of the gondola’s cabin storage and maintenance facility, to be built next summer.
Not much has changed at the bottom station, where steel was set in early July. The top/drive terminal is now the center of the action, where the last concrete for the masts will be poured this week.