The Adventure Life with Steve Casimiro: Jackson Hole Launches New Tram



Story and photo by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro

The unveiling of Jackson Hole’s new $31 million aerial tram Friday night was beautifully scripted and masterfully executed. Wrapped in a white gossamer sheet like some Christo installation, it descended from the uphill darkness and coasted to the convergence of five spotlights, where it glowed in a holy light. The cover dropped, Santa rappelled through the bottom of the box, fireworks boomed, the thousand-plus crowd cheered. And then Car 1 glided toward its dock and there was a pause and the kind of silence that comes just after the organ stops playing in church. A moment of reverence. But then a white orb arced through the night, a snowball, and it splattered against the new red paint. Then another and another, snowballs from all quarters, the crowded cheered even louder. Consecration achieved.

If you aren’t are snow person or haven’t been following the drama in the Tetons, know that the arrival of the new tram is the biggest story in U.S. skiing this year. Jackson Hole is the biggest, baddest ski resort in the country, with the largest skiable vertical drop—4,139 feet. The original tram was built in 1966 and it quickly became a legend for delivering skiers to the toughest, tallest terrain in the lower 48 in just 11 minutes. In the early years, when skis were long, mostly wood, and as likely to break your leg as make a turn, only a handful braved the slopes accessed by the big red box but as time went on it became the most iconic ski lift in America, filled with backpack-toting adventurers heading to test themselves both in the ski area and beyond its boundaries.

But as Alex Morley, one of the visionaries who installed the tram, said, “Nothing lasts forever,” and Big Red eventually came to the end of its useful life. Faced with significant maintenance costs—$3 million for a new cable alone—in 2006 Jackson Hole Mountain Resort decommissioned the old one. The uproar was immediate and deafening—not because the old tram was being taken out, but because JHMR announced the removal without having plans for a replacement.

For two years, Jackson rippers heading to the top rode the Bridger gondola to the Thunder chairlift to the Sublette lift to the temporary East Ridge double chair. JHMR considered the options. A gondola could carry eight times as many skiers to the peak, but wouldn’t perform well in the wind. And in the eyes of many, it was an effeminate substitute, a wimpy Euro pod in the face of the broad-backed macho box, Jean Girard to Bobby Ricky. But a new tram could cost more than the resort itself and neither the feds nor the state of Wyoming were willing to ease the burden.

The Kemmerer family that owns Jackson went all in. Initial estimates said a tram would cost $25 million, but the final cost was closer to $31 million. Was there ever really a choice? For Jackson to remain Jackson—a legend, a motherland for experts and aspiring experts alike—no. Jay Kemmerer put it succinctly: “The icon is more important than the bottom line.”

The new box has double the capacity–100 riders instead of 50–and takes just nine minutes from base to summit. On Saturday morning, Connie Kemmerer smashed a magnum of champagne on the side of of Car 1, the governor of Wyoming and other mucketymucks climbed aboard, and Big Red headed skyward, where sub-zero temps and limited visibility reminded that this is, after all, the Tetons. It was barely 50 feet gone from the dock before the first snowball headed its way. Once again, everything is right in Jackson.

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