A foggy peek into summer tram construction
Lone Peak Tram will be the first tram built in the United States since 2008 at Jackson Hole
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
With ski season just receding in the rearview, Big Sky Resort is charging full steam ahead with its construction of the new Lone Peak Tram, planning to open next winter.
Despite a deep and lingering snowpack from this winter’s historic snowfall, construction crews have been hard at work on top and bottom of the incoming 75-person tram. Thanks to plowing and shoveling from the resort’s mountain operations team, workers can now drive rugged vehicles from the resort’s base area to the base of the tram. Around May 8, the Upper Morningstar road was cleared to reach the existing Lone Peak Tram, which is being used to convey workers to the peak.
EBS donned hard hats for a site tour on Friday, May 12, complete with a flurry of graupel at the summit and the piercing sound of jackhammers chipping ice to make way for a concrete pour.
Chad Wilson, vice president of construction and development, answered questions at his 11,166-foot jobsite. He said the project will employ a handful of different helicopter services. On Friday, a chopper carried two or three loads to the peak before fog and snow caused a weather-hold.
“We try to get as much material up here as we can so when the weather does change, we still have work to do,” said Jas Raczynski, project manager. “And it’s a daily struggle… You just gotta work when you can up here.”
Skilled helicopter pilots represent a small share of the few hundred people that Wilson estimates have contributed to this project. The Lone Peak Tram has hired geotechnical engineers and builders from Bozeman, architects from Salt Lake City, structural and civil engineers from Zurich, and foundation experts from the West Coast.
The new tram is contracted through Austria-based Doppelmayr, Big Sky Resort’s go-to company for chairlift upgrades. Switzerland-based Garaventa is the sister company of Doppelmayr which focuses on gondola and tram projects, like this one.
“A few of our future tram maintenance mechanics are actually working on assembling the tram, which is a really neat opportunity to become familiar with the equipment before they have to operate it,” Wilson said.
Raczynski said the next three weeks are about pouring concrete. The next critical milestone comes the week of May 22: an 80-plus-foot tower crane set atop Lone Mountain which will be used to install components of the tram.
“Once we have the tower crane going, we can get the Swiss guys [from] Garaventa up here, and they can start setting the steel for the structure. Once they’re up here, things are really going to start moving,” Raczynski said.
For that massive tower crane, material will be lifted by a Boeing Chinook helicopter that can handle over 10,000 pounds in the thin air above 11,000 feet.
“The engineers back in Switzerland sort of pieced the whole thing together based on a weight limit that we gave them,” Wilson said. “So it was always engineered to be carried by helicopter.”
Coming to Big Sky shortly after working in residential construction in Minnesota, Raczynski said the Lone Peak Tram is his dream job.
“I’m just really excited to see this, and I want to make sure I don’t mess it up… Whatever it takes to get the job done, we want to make sure we’re open on Thanksgiving Day,” Raczynski said.
Wilson said the tram is still on track with that goal.
The project’s groundwork was handled last summer by anchoring foundations into the mountain. With that head start, Raczynski expects to begin installing tram components on the peak by mid-June.
Wilson explained, “When we initially evaluated the project years ago, it was pretty evident that we weren’t going to be able to do it in one season, just because of the number of foundational elements. It was always the plan to get the bottom of the foundation done in year one, and then finish it in year two.”
The previous Lone Peak Tram was constructed in one summer, but it did not include any towers. This time, construction includes a 100-foot tower about 650 feet shy of the peak. The new tram follows a significantly different path, requiring a tower to lift the cable over an upper shoulder of Lone Mountain.
Raczynski said things are getting a little better on the supply-chain front, but electrical equipment has been hard to procure.
“That was a big headache and heartache to get that figured out, but… we kept calling around and we finally found some stuff that will show up in time. We need to be energized in mid-July, so it was a bit of a scramble to get that equipment ordered,” Raczynski said.
The summer of 2022 was short on both ends, so Raczynski said they’re trying to make up for two lost weeks. Weather permitting, workers are on the peak by 7 a.m., and they’ll work until 6 or 7 at night.
On May 10 and 11, each of the “rope saddles” were installed at the bottom terminal.
Bull wheels have arrived, and like much of the heavy equipment, they were transported from Europe by cargo ship and trucked to Big Sky from coastal ports.
Construction-related use of the existing tram will continue until Sept. 18, 2023, if all goes to plan, before deconstruction must begin. Afterwards, there will be a four to six week period with no lift access to the peak before the new tram carries its first passengers—members of the hardworking construction crew.
The resort does not yet have a plan regarding the preservation of the 28-year-old tram cabins when they are lowered from the cable.
A scenic spectacle
The new tram will climb 2,142 vertical feet—an increase over the existing tram by more than 600 feet. It will travel at 10 meters per second, keeping a similar ride time of four minutes.
Next winter, the top terminal will operate without an enclosed building at the peak. But after a third summer of construction, the top terminal will be enclosed by a building that includes a glass-floored viewing platform that overlooks the Big Couloir, opening for winter 2024-25.
Wilson said this project has been “a balancing act” between trying to create a scenic experience, while conquering the geotechnical challenges of Lone Mountain. This all took considerable engineering, he said.
Starting summer 2024, the construction crew will mostly pivot to the next and final phase of Big Sky Resort’s massive lift infrastructure upgrade: bringing a gondola back to Big Sky Resort, expected to open for winter 2025-26.
The gondola will reach the tram’s bottom terminal, creating a base-to-peak lift system.
By 2026, the gondola and tram will open as an ADA-accessible summer attraction to bring tourists to the highest scenic overlook in Montana, according to Big Sky Resort PR Director Stacie Mesuda.