For the first time since their journey across the Atlantic, Jackson Hole’s newest gondola cabins slept inside last night. With a parking and storage facility officially commissioned at Sweetwater‘s Solitude Station, 48 luxury vehicles that cost tens of thousands of dollars each now have a world-class home that brings together the latest lift technology with proven principles.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opened its Bridger Gondola barn in 1998 and 84 cabins have been going inside for twenty years there. The CWA X models are in incredible shape for their age and number of hours, a testament to their quality construction, dedicated maintenance staff and indoor storage.
JHMR launched gondola number two in December 2016 and its CWA Omega IV cabins remained on the line continuously until yesterday. The winter of 2016-17 proved to be a monster in the Tetons and while the cabins performed well, fifty feet of snow often turned to ice on flat roofs. Frozen chunks would bounce up and down, making sounds that mimicked falling metal. Jackson Hole sometimes goes weeks or even months without a thaw and ice would also accumulate on the cabin floors and in ski racks (other fun liquids would freeze too!) Ice storms that can cripple door mechanisms and plague detachable grips thankfully never materialized last year and the days of worrying that storm would come are now over.
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.
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.
Teams from Doppelmayr and Timberline Helicopters put on a show yesterday in Teton Village as they flew 21 towers for JHMR’s new Sweetwater Gondola. The new gondola rises out of the base area with a mid-station at Solitude and tops out next to Casper Restaurant. With each tower flown in 4-6 sections, Brian and his co-pilot completed somewhere around a hundred laps up the hill over six hours using a UH-60 Black Hawk. There’s still a lot of work to go before November 24th but Sweetwater is starting to look like a lift!
A lot has fallen into place since my last update on the new Sweetwater Gondola going in at Jackson Hole, the only new gondola at a North American ski resort for 2016. All three terminal sites required significant excavation and utility relocation which is largely complete. A crane set all of the big steel at the bottom terminal last Thursday and Friday. The station is nowhere near as big as the Bridger Gondola’s, which was designed for a rope speed of 1,200 fpm nearly 20 years ago (Sweetwater has a design speed of 800 fpm.) It is significantly longer and taller than the Teewinot quad next door, however. Sweetwater’s custom bottom terminal skin will arrive from Austria later this summer.
All 21 towers arrived in sections from Salt Lake City in early July and will be flown in place at the end of the month next Wednesday. The lifting frames are the “American style” rather than the Euro-style ones Doppelmayr uses on some large gondolas. All the tower foundations are finished and ready for fly day.
Construction on Jackson Hole’s second gondola is ramping up as the last of the snow melts. The new Sweetwater Gondola will run from the base of the Teewinot high speed quad to the Casper Restaurant with a mid-station unload, boosting out-of-base capacity and providing an improved experience for beginner skiers. As the photos below show, the project is off to a solid start with awesome weather in the last few weeks after a very wet spring.
New lifts are coming to both sides of the Tetons this summer and that means three old lifts are coming down. At Grand Targhee, the Blackfoot double is being replaced with a Doppelmayr fixed-grip quad. All 20 towers have been removed along with the top terminal. Blackfoot had wooden ramps at both ends that will be burned down once all the steel is out of the way.
The sign went up this week at Jackson Hole, which will become the 12th mountain in the United States with the distinction of having two gondolas. The new Sweetwater Gondola will replace the Eagle’s Rest and Sweetwater chairs in two stages. Built by Doppelmayr, it will boost out-of-base capacity by 25% and provide direct access to beginner and intermediate terrain at mid-mountain. In the future, a dedicated learning facility with dining, lessons and rentals will open at the mid-station just north of Sweetwater’s existing bottom station. Though expensive, gondolas have proven to be extremely efficient and less intimidating than chairlifts for people learning to ski and snowboard.
This section of Rendezvous Mountain has an interesting lift history. A Riblet double chair named Crystal Springs served a similar alignment but with no mid-station from 1978 until 1997, when it was removed to make way for the Bridger Center and Bridger Gondola. If you ride Eagle’s Rest today, there is still one Riblet tower where the old Crystal Springs crossed under on its way up. Eagle’s Rest is one of three original lifts opened at Jackson Hole in 1965, even before the first tram. When Eagle’s Rest is retired this spring there will be just six Murray-Latta lifts remaining in service worldwide. The new gondola also replaces Sweetwater, a triple chair that found its way to Jackson in 2005 by way of Winter Park. It was the Zephyr triple from 1983 to 1990 and Eskimo from 1990 to 1999 before sitting in storage for six years. Built by Lift Engineering, it was upgraded over time with Poma chairs/line gear and Doppelmayr CTEC controls. Assuming it gets re-installed somewhere, the equipment will be in its fourth home!