The Tram That Single-Handedly Changed Skiing is About to Be Upgraded
When Big Sky, Montana, installed a tiny tram to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Peak back in 1995, it opened up a world of inbounds steep skiing not seen before in North America. In fall 2023, a new tram will bring Big Sky into the next era.
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John Kircher had a vision. He wanted to build a tram to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Mountain, the iconic, cone-shaped peak that towers over Big Sky Resort, in Montana. The only problem? His dad, Everett Kircher, then the owner of Big Sky Resort and the founder of Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, thought it was a preposterous idea.
This was the late 1980s and sending skiers into that kind of steep terrain inbounds was bold and risky. Nobody knew if it was even possible to mitigate the slopes for avalanches. But John, an avid and adventurous skier, saw the potential. He’d traveled around Europe and he knew tram technology existed that could deliver skiers to the top of that peak.
“My dad at the time was president of the company and was not really in favor of the project,” John, who was general manager of Big Sky Resort from 1982 to 1997, said in a 25th anniversary of the tram video. “I had quite a few heated discussions with him about this and truth be told, I ended up ordering that lift without his OK … There was a tirade about that, but he didn’t make us stop. So, the project went forward.”
It was one of the most ambitious lift-construction projects in American ski-resort history. It took two years and over 3,000 helicopter deliveries of tons of steel and concrete to construct. In December 1995, the 15-passenger Lone Peak Tram—a tiny box to a massive summit—opened to the public. Next fall, a new tram at Big Sky will replace the original one, now built 28 years ago.
“We went from being known as not having much lift-accessed steeps to having the gnarliest lift-accessed terrain overnight as soon as we hit the green button on the tram,” says Mike Buotte, now the director of snow safety at Big Sky Resort. Buotte began patrolling at the age of 26 in 1995, the winter the tram first opened. “That tram changed the reputation of the ski area in one season.”
Patrolling Lone Mountain’s terrain was daunting and experimental. In the 1990s, Montana’s Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center was a new two-person outfit and no ski resort patrol team had dealt with terrain quite like Lone Mountain. “We were making it up as we went,” Buotte admits.
The tram didn’t just change Big Sky; it altered the sport of skiing in America. “I remember feeling so excited about the possibility of being able to get to the top of that mountain that easily and what that was going to mean for skiing,” Buotte says. “Frankly, it was a whole new world of possibility.”
Before the tram existed, Big Sky had the Bowl—the expansive apron near the base of Lone Mountain—and the varied terrain off the Challenger lift, which was installed in 1988, but if you wanted true steeps, you went to Bridger Bowl, down the road in Bozeman.
Or, Long before there was a tram to the top of the peak, hardy locals would skin up and ski from the summit. “Patrol would look the other way. It was the good old days. You had to pick your way down,” says extreme skiing pioneer Scot Schmidt, who skied the peak many times in the pre-tram era.
Once the tram was in, it changed everything. Schmidt likened the tram to a mini Aiguille du Midi, the famous cable car that ascends Mont-Blanc from the ski mecca of Chamonix, France. “The tram was responsible for getting you up the mountain. It was your responsibility to get down,” Schmidt says. “The elements kept the timid away. It’s windy, cold, and rocky up there. It’s not easy. It’s not safe. It’s raw. It keeps it real. That’s the best part.”
It took a while for word to trickle out that Big Sky now had the kind of puckering terrain you’d find at places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or Snowbird, Utah. But even in the first year of the tram, skier visits to Big Sky spiked. “My dad was disgusted with me the entire season,” John once told writer Marc Peruzzi. “And then I said, ‘Here are the numbers.’ His only response was, ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ That was a compliment. He never said another word about it … Most skiers didn’t even know what they wanted until we showed it to them. I look up there now and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we pulled that off.’”
Today, Big Sky is well known as a true bucket-list destination for skiers of all kinds. Despite being at the top of a ski resort that now has luxuries like heated eight-person chairlifts and an all-glass umbrella bar, the peak is a wildly rugged place, like only Montana could deliver. It’s not uncommon to see mountain goats or wolves roaming the flanks, and you can ski entire runs off the tram without seeing another human. Standing in the tram line feels like a queue to the promised land. From the top of the cone-shaped Lone Mountain on a clear day, you can see into three states: Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. You’ll be lucky to score a clear day up here. Wind notoriously whips into the peak, creating what locals call wind grooming. Colossal terrain spreads out in plain view, beckoning with a come-hither stare. Front and center sits the Big Couloir, the classic test piece. The Big is an elbow-shaped chute that drops a harrowing 50 degrees at the entrance and descends 1,400 vertical feet into the bowl below. To ski it, you need serious skills, plus a beacon, a partner, and a time slot from the ski patrol shack up top.
Lines off the south face like Lenin, Marx, and Liberty Bowl are slightly more palatable, but they’re still among the steepest inbounds skiing you’ll find anywhere in the U.S. Off the north side, the North Summit Snowfield drops into a series of rocky, precipitous chutes into what was once the Moonlight Basin side of the peak, before Moonlight and Big Sky joined forces in 2013, creating one of the biggest ski areas in North America at 5,850 skiable acres.
A few years ago, the resort had to introduce triple black diamond ratings, just to indicate how challenging this terrain really was. They also launched an up-charge fee to ride the tram in order to help reduce lengthy tram lines. Still, tram culture remains strong at Big Sky. It’s the heart of the mountain. Laurel Blessley, the resort’s director of lift maintenance, even has a tram tattoo on her right arm.
The new tram, which broke ground last summer and is expected to be completed in fall 2023, will be larger in size—with a maximum passenger load of 75 people, though resort managers say they will likely only load it at less than half capacity to keep the number of people on the summit at one time to a minimum.
It’ll also be longer by about 600 vertical feet and have a new alignment up the peak, with a tram base that starts lower down and whisks riders to the top in a stunningly beautiful five-minute ride, roughly the same time as the current tram. The tram’s bottom terminal will now be accessible from the base area via a new gondola, meaning foot traffic and scenic passengers will now be able to see the view from the top of Lone Mountain without skis on
John Kircher died on January 28, at the age of 64, after a hard-fought battle with cancer. He won’t see the new tram when it opens next fall, but his legacy will be there for everyone who gets a chance to ski off the top. “That tram will always be a monument to John,” says Scot Schmidt. “It took a lot of fortitude to get that done. You’ve got to hand it to him.”
[The Inside Scoop]
Stay Here: The recently remodeled Summit Hotel at the base of the mountain has single rooms and condo-style suites. Drop your skis with the ski valet near the base of the Swift Current and Ramcharger lifts, and don’t miss the complimentary alpine aperitif at the Carabiner bar when you check in.
Best Spot For Après-Ski: Locals congregate at the no-frills Scissorbills Saloon, upstairs of a ski shop across the parking lot from the resort. For a fancier scene, head to Westward Social in the main village for shareable plates and craft cocktails.
Nicest On-Mountain Lunch: You cannot beat the cozy vibe at Everett’s 8800, a fine-dining experience in a mountaintop hut atop the Ramcharger lift and named after resort owner Everett Kircher, who died in 2002. Order elk chili and truffle fries, and make a reservation to secure your midday spot.
Hire a Guide: Before you go dropping into the Big Couloir without any clue where you’re headed, consider hiring a Big Sky Guide to show you the way responsibly and find you the best snow on the mountain. For something novel, you can also book a guide for headlamp night skiing on the Ramcharger lift after hours.
Don’t Miss: For a quick power-up snack, grab a ski-up chocolate chip cookie from the window at Uncle Dan’s Cookies at the base of the Six Shooter lift near the Madison base area. Need a quick breakfast? There are ready-to-go breakfast burritos at the Hungry Moose Market in the Mountain Village base area.
Need to Know: Be sure to read the FAQs on how to access the tram with your lift ticket or pass. If you have an Ikon Pass, you get access to up to seven days of skiing at Big Sky, but you’ll need a reservation on your pass before you go.