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Ski Resort Life

She’s Baaa-aaack…The Tram Is Here Again

The tram returns, and Jackson Hole is whole again.

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It’s dumping snow, past dark and blowing like hell, but the boisterous crowd at the base of Jackson Hole is hardly fazed.

Outside speakers blast Aerosmith, AC/DC with a little Bob Marley thrown in, while the Jumbotron loops a slideshow heavy on neon skiwear, one piece suits and smiling airborne people. In the background of all these time capsule pictures, somewhere above the cowboy hats, powder turns and Herman Goellner’s “Ski the Outer Limits” front flip into Corbett’s, is the tram. The old tram that is, built in 1966 and decommissioned from public service in 2006, as a 40-year old. I too was built in 1966, and can’t help feeling a little wistfully nostalgic seeing all the pictures of the “old girl.” At least I’m still in working order. If I wasn’t, however, it’s doubtful anyone would pay $32 million to replace me.

The crowd quiets as the screen switches to a short film chronicling the building of Jackson’s new tram. It takes us from the factories in Switzerland where cables are woven and the cars are built, to the Teton outcroppings where 450,000 pounds of steel and concrete are poured into the tower foundations. We see two years of design and construction work, accelerated and compressed into a few minutes. The film ends and the music turns momentous cueing all eyes to gaze back up the mountain, expectantly, into the blackness beyond swirling snowflakes. Since the new tram cars were removed from their crates, they have been encased in a giant red burkha, hidden for this moment. Now, naked beneath a white gossamer shroud that billows in the howling wind, the tram floats down from the void, emerging into a crossfire of spotlights.

“Take it off!” shouts a middle aged man in the crowd who hoists his can of PBR heavenward. The apparition stops, swings, and after a long pause, obliges, revealing her shiny red self. While the crowd erupts with hoots and applause, a hatch at the bottom of the tram opens, and Santa Claus rappels 60 feet to the snowy ground. His bag is empty, his gift to skiers everywhere finally delivered. Fireworks erupt, undaunted by the storm, and the tram makes its way into the dock, under a siege of lovingly lobbed snowballs. For the crowd of revelers there is nothing more to do but wait till morning, and in the meantime reconvene at the Mangy Moose.

Saturday morning dawned blustery and gray. From the tram dock the cables disappear into a bank of clouds, and the weather report from Rendezvous Bowl is of 40 mph winds and –10 degrees. The conditions could not be more appropriate for the occasion. One patroller mused, “Jerry Blann (mountain manager), must have a deal with the devil. Two days ago the bowl was a minefield and they were talking about downloading.” For the past two days snow squalls have been at work doing “God’s grooming,” the only upkeep that happens up there. It might not be pretty but it will be white.

At the base, the national anthem is sung, a blessing is read, comments are made, by the governor of Wyoming and Jackson Hole’s owner Jay Kemmerer. Connie Kemmerer breaks the bottle of champagne on the new red car and the lucky VIP’s pile in to the first car. Moments later the big red bow across the tram dock is broken and the car emerges from the dock to cheers and another round of snowballs. In all six tramfulls will go up before the first public tram. People have been issued yellow passes, aka “golden tickets” to identify which tram they will ride. Tram 1 is for founders and owners. That includes, among others: The Kemmerer family who own the resort; Pepi Stiegler, Jackson’s first ski school director; Alex Morley, the bright-eyed and spry 90-year old who as a retiree started Jackson Hole with Paul McColliser; Gold medalist Tommy Moe, and his wife, Olympian Megan Gerety who is toting their 6-month old daughter. Tram 2 is the Presidents car, for JHMR president Jerry Blann, assorted VIP’s and, I suspect, a few people who paid a lot of money because it’s never too early to start recouping $32 million. I am in Tram 3, along with other media representatives and likely some slightly less big spenders than the ones on Tram 2.

We tromp along the metal grate walkway on the side of the new tram building that has replaced the original stucco clocktower building. This soaring glass structure offers a voyeuristic appreciation of raw technology, and of course a bigger clocktower. Maybe it’s the golden ticket around my neck, or all the glass, or the need to feel something, anything positive in the current environment–but I feel like I am about to step into the elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, into some tangible form of optimism, that will lift us up in every respect.

By using the same tram jockeying techniques I learned on the old tram when I was seven, along with liftline skills honed in Europe’s dog eat dog, free-for-all queues, I scored a spot by the window. She’s as smooth as ever, gliding up the lower faces, and Thunder, and Tensleep Bowl. Before I know it we are over and past Corbett’s, without the dangling pause the old cars made before easing into the dock. “She goes in hot!” remarked a guide beside me. “I like that.” Before I noticed how it worked, the dock had mechanically shifted into place, to a chorus of “oooh” and “cool,” and the doors opened. I shuffled into a whipping wind that frostbites faces on contact, and across the dock for a stair-free exit. This last feature is an unexpected and kind nod to skier comfort. There’s next to no visibility in the bowl, save for the bits of blown-in gravel embedded in the snow underfoot, and the snow in the air feels like tiny ice balls pelting me from every side. It’s perfect. By the time I cross the bowl to where I will descend, I can even see the entire 850 or so vertical feet down the white wall to the bottom of the bowl, and I feel downright indulged. One straight fall-line trip down the bowl, a zing down Rendezvous trail to Sublette, then swooping turns on the lower Gros Ventre and all is right with the world.

By 11 am the public is walking on to the tram, with no line, and the celebrity of the day, the beauty we have waited two years to meet, is settling in for the long job of earning her keep the hard way, 4,139 feet at a time.

To view photos of the day, click here.