The tram slows to a crawl at the top of Rendezvous Bowl, and the operator, resplendent in wraparound glasses and Elvis lamb chops, turns the volume down on Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself. Strong winds rock the box, as locals call it, and deform the small trees that grip the slope into twisted shadows. "Rendezvous Mountain from the tram is recommended for skiers of expert ability only… the operator bleats over the loudspeaker, beginning a speech I've heard at least a thousand times, "…and visibility in Rendezvous Bowl is good.
Between a black-jacketed shoulder so close I'm tempted to wipe my nose on it and my own skis wedged against my face, I can barely see out the window. The tram thuds into the snow-crusted dock, and 100 boots scrape their way across the metal deck and onto the windblown summit. The tram, which for 40 years has carted skiers up 4,139 vertical feet, past the skull-smashing cliffs and ravines Jackson Hole calls runs, has made the resort exactly what the warning sign at its base says it is: like no mountain you've ever skied before. And I've just ridden it for the last time.
Not even resort cofounder Paul McCollister could have guessed what a presence this old tin box would someday be when he looked up at Rendezvous Mountain for the first time. An ebullient man with an optimistic eye, McCollister saw a skier's wonderland, with every possible terrain off a single lift. That lift, he decided, would be a tram. "He wanted to build it because he felt no one else would, says resort communications director Anna Olson.
It's morning on the day that will end with my very last tram ride, and the skies are spitting gray as we ride up Thunder chair. We unload, and I follow Olson's lilting turns through powder pillows in the Mushroom Chutes.
After two years of construction and $2.5 million, the tram opened in the winter of 1966, and a resort on par with the giants of the Alps was born. There, however, lay the rub: The mountain was so big, so steep, so isolated that McCollister couldn't convince anyone to ski it. "Nobody believed he would pull it off, says Olson. "Then he got it open and no one came. Nevertheless, the tram quickly became a ski-world icon, as recognizable as the Matterhorn. Now, at season's end, it will be retired due to safety concerns.
Locals' reactions to the news have been predictably volatile, and conspiracy theories abound. Some are convinced that the tram's been unsafe for years; others think this is the resort's Machiavellian way of gentrifying one of the Village's last original buildings. "It's a political move, says local Ben Krasnow. "The tram doesn't have to come down.
The truth is far less captivating. Engineers decreed the tram would be unsafe in two to three years, and the Kemmerer family—the resort's current owners—"took the conservative route to shut it down and work on the replacement plan, Olson says. The preferred plan is another tram. But until the Kemmerers can secure either state tourism money or private donations—$20 million dollars of it (they've pledged $5 million of their own)—the future is, well, up in the air. In the meantime, the resort awaits permits for a surface lift from Sublette chair to the summit that will access terrain served by the tram. It will also add 14 eight-person cabins to Bridger Gondola. The tram's signature building, however, will remain untouched.
Before last tram, I head into the new 6311 Barista in the Bridger Center to refuel. The cafe is in keeping with the Kemmerers' strategy to broaden the resort's appeal: They've added the upscale Four Seasons and a new chairlift, the Sweetwater, which accesses intermediintermediate terrain. And construction is underway on a new restaurant, at the top of Bridger Gondola, for the '06—'07 season. True, $15 burgers won't replace the tram. But the resort is giving it a stylish sendoff with Tram Days, a celebration of the box's faithful service (see Signpost).
Around 3:30, I ttake my place in the tram maze for my own salute to the old girl. Dates, like those on a tombstone, painted in white on the rear of the tram get larger as it glides down the cables: 1966—2006. The doors slide open, people back in, and I have 12 minutes to ponder the "first boxes I waited for on powder days, the time the wind blew out the tram windows, the snowball fights as the last tram of the year unloaded at the summit. "Rendezvous Bowl from the tram is recommended for skiers of expert ability only… recites the operator. I pull on my hat and shuffle off for the last time. It's been quite a ride, indeed.