The Last Lap Part III: Death, taxes and change
Community rallies around the Lone Peak Tram’s last day
“The Last Lap” is a three-part series commemorating the origins, glory years and final days of a defining era for American skiing.
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
As the gate beeped his 93rd day at Big Sky Resort, Dave Stergar issued a correction to Explore Big Sky: “It’s actually more like 118 total,” he said, adding days at his local Great Divide Ski Area, and occasional Yellowstone Club invitations.
Two weeks before the season’s end, “Stergy” rode the tram with EBS.
A retired middle school science teacher living between Helena and his Big Sky condo, Stergar has held a Big Sky season pass for 33 years.
Nearing the top of Swifty, he offered the adage, “only two things are certain: death and taxes,” before making another correction: “Taxes aren’t even guaranteed,” he said. Change is more certain, he countered. “Death, taxes and change.”
Change looms ahead in the new Lone Peak Tram.
On more than one chairlift, Stergar shared excitement for the new machine. He said there’s no purpose in groaning about change and like fellow pre-tram peak hiker Tom Jungst, Stergar remembers how much good came of change in 1995.
“It’s going to, again, change the way you ski the peak—for the better,” he said. From the base of the bowl, the new tram won’t require Powder Seeker chairlift rides, as the current tram mostly does. Next year, more descents of Lone Mountain’s south face will return to the tram.
“It’s gonna be fun to figure out the new tram and how you ski it,” Stergar said.
By 9:13 a.m., we stood beside the tram’s bottom station in warm shade—the April 10 sun would top 50 degrees mid-mountain, closing the bowl, the gullies, Lenin and Marx. Chunky wet-slide debris rested beneath many south-facing steeps.
Waiting for the tram to open, Stergar leaned against the railing and chatted with two other early birds. By 9:25, we climbed the stairs. Before boarding the tin can, Stergar grinned.
“I think we should ski North Summit Snowfield,” he said, quietly.
Toward the top, he whispered to be ready to move. When the door opened, Stergar led the polite, boot-running charge to the penalty box where we signed our right to descend first.
Stergar applauds John Kircher for his courage, leadership and his vision of the Lone Peak Tram. He said the biggest change since 1995 has been ski patrol’s growth.
“I think Big Sky Ski Patrol is the best in the world,” Stergar said. “That terrain, the snowpack is so funky—our guys and gals are so knowledgeable about the three different aspects they’re working with.”
We skied North Summit Snowfield twice, as slush climbed higher with the rising sun.
By our third long-lap, patrol closed everything besides Liberty Bowl and the Snowfield. Descending the softening North Summit, fate shone clear through the April sky: the winter of 2022-23, marked by consistent cold and snowfall, was melting down.
The Lone Peak Tram’s days were numbered.
April 23, 2023
When the day came, Swifty opened at 8:58 a.m.
“Alright folks, tram’s closed today,” one lifty shouted. “You’ll have to try again next year!”
Swift Current’s first chair disembarked like a Nordic race, as riders skated toward the bowl. The A-Z chutes were golden, sugar-coated beneath a cool bluebird sky.
On the Powder Seeker chairlift, one boy rumored that the new Lone Peak Tram will serve food and drink—but he’s doubtful. His dad joked about piano concerts in the spacious cabin.
After the second leg of the first-tram-scramble, Eli, a regular tram operator, turned down the music and addressed the early tram line through the PA system:
“Alright everybody, this is the last day of the tram. This is the end of the era… We’re gonna keep it goin all day for you…”
By 9:28, the last day’s first tram-lapper returned: George Suehnholz told EBS he “barely missed first bucket,” but because most of that first crew ran for the Big Couloir, Suehnholz scored first descent from First Gully into Cron’s, carving cue-ball corduroy like a cowboy in his full denim, orange boot outfit. He beat the tram back down.
As EBS loaded into the fourth bucket, Eli shouted, “I’m gonna be spinning this thing all day. I’m not stopping until somebody calls me…”
Nearing the peak, a patroller set the stage: “Well heck yeah, folks. Welcome to farewell day here on the summit. Everything is open except the North Summit.”
A few voices responded, among this intimate and fleeting collection of 15.
“Thanks for a great year,” one said.
“Yeah, thanks,” said another, and a few more echoed.
Entering the top station, a speaker blasting Yellowman’s “Morning Ride” filled the quiet, near-motionless tram—a reggae soundtrack for this gleaming April 23 morning.
But if the tram had a soundtrack, it was scored by Terry Stebbins.
‘I’ll ride the tram and ski with you’
Stebbins bummed in Big Sky from 1998 to 2007, chasing waves in the warmer months. To support skiing, he worked as a grocer and picked up regular guitar gigs.
Unfortunately, powder cut into his practice time. Instead of learning new songs, he’d change lyrics and sing about the day’s conditions. Today, his music remains a fixture in local ski edits, like the dirtbags’ 2023 Tram Tribute.
Stebbins remembers one morning, when he followed powder from Liberty Bowl to Bavaria and caught the Hippie Highway, while adapting Willie Nelson into what became his favorite parody:
“On the slopes again, like a band of dirtbags we ski the Hippie Highway,” Stebbins hummed. And that’s how he wrote most of his tunes, themed around dirtbags, gapers, patrollers, Bridger Bowl, Jackson Hole, and of course, the tram.
Other favorites include, “I’ll ride the tram and ski with you,” to the tune of Modern English, and his John Denver tributes: “No friends on a pow day,” and “Middle Road.”
“The tram is IT,” he told EBS. “It’s 100% your world. It’s all you think about. It gives you everything. It provides all. It’s like the center of the universe. And, like, the bullwheel… when that thing starts turning, your world is in motion.”
Stebbins said it’s the fountain of youth. The giver of life. In 1999, he met his wife in Big Sky.
“The bullwheel and the tram was our focus then,” Stebbins said. “And here we are, 23 years later, with a family because of the Lone Peak Tram. People fall in love with that tram.”
Stebbins raved that nothing will straighten priorities like skiing the peak, breathing cold air, feeling the earth, being with epic people, moving and being healthy. The tram gives you everything, he said.
Five years into his battle against cancer, Stebbins is unstoppable.
“It woke me up to this world, makes everything epic. I’m more aware of stuff about life. The fact that I’ve worked through [treatment], I see more clearly what matters most to me. These dirtbags are just the greatest people that I know.”
He went vegan, “a Hail Mary pass” that was caught, he said. He’s learning to stay flexible and positive with change.
He wants to be grateful for his amazing memories on the Lone Peak Tram, and not be mad about it changing, but “there is sadness to it. You can’t help it. You get a little choked up thinking about those two trams attached to that cable and bullwheel.”
During a 10-day stint in Big Sky this winter, Stebbins was crowned honorary Dirtbag Royalty—Big Sky’s unofficial monarchy of hard-charging, hard-partying skiers. Visiting dirtbags, Stebbins said, he feels like an elk returning to its herd after being around a pack of wolves.
He added, “I’ve got my knee on cancer’s neck, got it in a serious chokehold.”
Despite health challenges, he returned this winter and skied the Big Couloir. He’s convinced it would not have been possible without the family he’s found on Lone Mountain.
“I’m a dirtbag. I’m never gonna give up,” Stebbins said.
And don’t forget Earl Bang.
He says he used to be Big Sky’s unofficial record keeper. When Luke Stratford ripped 31 tram laps in a day, Bang verified the feat. When Stratford and Shane Coolidge lapped the Big Couloir 18 times in one day, Bang took note.
Still, he’s best known for keeping personal records.
Since the Lone Peak Tram converted him from a 23-year Bridger Bowl regular into a Big Sky legend—and renewed his simmering passion for skiing—Bang has kept track of every tram ride.
He’s got a spreadsheet detailing every last one of his 9,753 rides to the peak.
Nine thousand, seven hundred and fifty-three.
“You know, I always told everyone, ‘I’ll hit 10,000 by the time I’m 70,’” recalled Bang, approaching 69. “But the lift isn’t going to be there anymore… I would have easily made it with one more season.”
He’s been a 100-day-skier most years since graduating from Montana State University in the mid-1970s. He once reached 141 days.
“I wanted to see what my true potential was, and I wanted to see how that would compare to my friends hiking the ridge at Bridger Bowl,” Bang explained. Ironically, he uses Bridger’s annual calendar to keep track of each day’s tram total.
“I have all 27 years of the tram’s history.”
For Bang, 2005 was the biggest.
In January, he rode the tram 167 times; February, 182—his high score; March, 138. He walked onto the peak 576 times that winter. In 2018, he had 574. He averaged about 360 per year.
“The only reason I’m at Big Sky is to ski that tram,” Bang said. “The tram is why I’m up there.”
Another tram-oriented skier, Rob Leipheimer is not shy about his commitment to skiing: Of his 153 days—a perfect season plus employee day—“Switchy” rode the tram on 129 days this winter. Per Jungst, it’s either Stergar or Leipheimer with the most-ever Big Couloir laps.
As a Nordica-Kastle rep, Leipheimer rode the tram with ski patrol on Dec. 21, 1995, two days before it opened to the public. He’ll never forget Valentine’s Day, 2018, when he scored 35 laps in a whiteout—though Bang didn’t verify it. He’s thankful for ski patrol, and for John Kircher.
Laurel Blessley, Mike Buotte and Doppelmayr’s engineers might disagree with Leipheimer, who said this tram could last another 25 years. But he’s ready for a new tram with new capacity, and a new chapter.
In dirtbag memory
In 1995, Bill Hickey was crowned King of the Dirtbags, whom many believe have reigned over local ski glory since 1979. Others want no part of such raw culture.
But John Kircher was fond of dirtbags, Hickey said. That’s why the former GM invited Dirtbag King and Queen, Hickey and Alisa Allgood, to join “all the dignitaries”—directors of ski patrol, ski school, lift operations, marketing—on the Lone Peak Tram’s opening ride, Dec. 23, 1995.
“We weren’t exactly welcome by everyone in the tram,” Hickey recalled. “They were all wondering why we were there.”
In the early afternoon on closing day, 2023, Hickey and his dignitaries camped uphill from the bustling line, waiting for last tram. They sat in folding thrones, sipping royal ales.
Stebbins’ parody of “The Gambler” describes waiting for the tram to open, even when operators or patrol insisted it wouldn’t.
“You always waited, no matter what,” Stebbins remembered. “And you heard that chain being pulled off, and you’re marching up the stairs…”
Stu Butterworth is the Gambler. He was King in 1996, “the best year ever,” he said. Butterworth will miss the location, watching skiers up close in the Gullies, the A-Z’s and the Big.
Harry didn’t give a last name, only “hairball” and “hair loss.” Like Butterworth, he came to Big Sky as a lifty in 1989-90 and was crowned in 2004. Harry remembers John Kircher standing at the top of the Lone Peak Triple, inviting people down to the tram’s grand opening.
2011 Queen Kenzie Goff will miss the tram’s smallness. She remembers when Kings and Queens could cut the whole line. ‘Here you are, Queen,’ they’d say as she climbed the back stairs.
“It’s a lot to think about,” she said. “It’s the end of an era.”
Like many of these dirtbags, Dave Goff remembers hiking before the tram. In 1995, the tram opened all that terrain at once, and Dave said it was a rodeo.
PLUS: Explore Big Sky’s official podcast offers up some unfiltered tram memories with celebrated dirtbags Brandon Bang, Justin Nett and Dave Stergar.
Colleen McNeilly is celebrating 30 years in Big Sky. The 2002 Queen isn’t very sentimental, but she’ll miss the camaraderie, the occasional tram full of locals.
Jim Holstein is called “G1 Jim” for his days operating Gondola One after moving to Big Sky in 1987. He remembers hiking up the Big Couloir.
“This tram changed everything. It put this place on the map,” Holstein said, adding his confidence that dirtbags will grow to love the new tram.
Heidi Connor, 2000 Queen, will miss “the smallness, the closeness, the community.”
Her husband Chris Connor, 1999 King, said his favorite memories are “tram islands”: when the Lone Peak Triple stopped, nobody could reach the tram—except those already there. Chris lapped the Big Couloir eight times with zero-visibility, before descending Marx with friends and patrollers as the sun emerged.
Stergar said he once scored 25 laps on tram island.
Chris will miss “standing right here in the belly of the dragon.” He thanked John Kircher.
The last lap
By 2:20 p.m., a line of locals extended up the hill. Warm chunks rolled down the A-Z chutes. With the tram closing at 3:00, it was a matter of time before the line would be cut off.
At 2:40, the gate was dragged out. It sat idle and crooked for five minutes as if to say, “last call,” before being pulled into place.
As the line shrunk 15-at-a-time, cell phone cameras panned above the crowd and out the tram windows. Big Sky captured this moment on screens that nobody imagined in 1995.
The line was halved by 3:10, but still long. A cloudy haze dimmed the sun.
At 3:18, the legendary 2003 Dirtbag Queen Julie Towle entered the tram dock, preparing for her last ride. She leaned over the railing, facing the crowd.
Queen Towle cheered, and everyone roared. The spirit echoed for 30 seconds, before Towle rose 1,450 vertical feet.
Longtime visitors from Seattle, father and son Cary and Jeff Kopczynski told EBS they were in Jackson Hole in 2006 when their original 1966 tram was retired. They remembered fireworks.
As they contemplated sneaking into the dwindling tram line—EBS warned they would hear it from patient dirtbags—they asked if any fanfare was planned.
“So it’s gonna go quietly in the night,” one said.
“It’s kind of sad,” said the other.
But with community in lieu of showy display, this tram did not go quietly. Like a reverse hourglass trickling uphill, the buzzing crowd at the bottom of the lift was carried to the peak, where they waited until last tram.
Legend will tell of that crowded Liberty Bowl descent.
By 3:29, the blue cabin loaded and the line approached the gate. The tram-ops’ speaker played “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and for the first time all day, the space felt calm.
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” followed. The orange car loaded and lifted off by 3:36.
As Stu Butterworth, the Gambler, inched toward the stairs, he told EBS he was the person who rode this tram the most. He added that sadly, that won’t be true for the next one, before shuffling through the gate.
Bill Hickey—that unwelcome ‘95 Dirtbag King on first tram—paused. He uncapped a black sharpie.
The Rolling Stones joined the farewell soundtrack, adding “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and Bill scribbled.
“We gotta go, Bill,” Butterworth shouted from the top of the stairs. But they didn’t.
Two dirtbags couldn’t squeeze into the last tram: one who rode it the most, and another who rode it first.
As the Stones’ seven-minute tune reached its climax, the orange tram returned.
Hickey and Butterworth climbed in, joined by resort officials and ski patrol, and the big sky burned blue to retire the Lone Peak Tram.
Notes: The tram remained open for employee skiing the next day. Big Sky Resort provided EBS with tram-passes used to report parts of this series.