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The Last Lap: A legend’s early tracks and tram work

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“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 

Before the Lone Peak Tram, Lone Mountain was tracked by local legends. Tom Jungst is one of them. 

Nine years after Pat Callis, called “the godfather of [Bozeman] area climbing,” made the first ascent of the Lone Mountain face—below the current tram—in 1968, Jungst moved to Montana and began ski racing at Montana State University. In 1977, Jungst began a life of extreme skiing which earned him fame, especially around Bridger Bowl when he rode women’s downhill skis, “210 [centimeters long], nothing less.” 

“The iconic shot in 1984 of me in Deviated Septum at Bridger that was a full page in Rolling Stone,” Jungst wrote to EBS. “Then people knew me.” PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM JUNGST

However, Jungst said he was the only member of his hot-dogging Bridger crew who also spent significant time in Big Sky.  

For years, he would hike up Lone Mountain or the A-Z chutes alone while ski patrol watched with binoculars. In October 1977, he began a “common fall ritual”: a weekend camping in the unlocked, uninsulated shack atop the Lone Peak Triple. That’s when he first skied the Big Couloir—the first lap of hundreds, he said, a small number compared to the “thousands” done by some hardcore locals with help from the tram.

Since Big Sky Resort announced their “long awaited” plan to replace and re-route the iconic Lone Peak Tram, the prospect of Big Sky’s new era has captured international and local attention. However, another reality looms in the hearts of long-time locals, workers and visitors: if all goes according to plan, the winter of 2022-23 will write the final chapter for an iconic machine which revolutionized American in-bounds skiing and denied the impossibility of bringing thousands to the peak of Lone Mountain. In part two, EBS will feature two teams that launched explosives and greased gears to make the whole thing work. 

‘Equal to any European Resort’ 

“People think of me as a Bridger skier, like, only,” Jungst told Explore Big Sky. But Big Sky Resort gave him a free ski pass in his MSU days and he took advantage of it, unlike most of his teammates. 

Jungst gives Bridger credit for creating very technically adept skiers; he was deeply involved with the culture of Bridger’s Ridge. Big Sky is “big skiing,” he said, and Lone Mountain breeds skiers capable of going to bigger mountains. 

Jungst carves a turn on the “cue ball” beneath the Big Couloir. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM JUNGST

In the late ‘80s, Jungst was filming at Big Sky for Warren Miller Entertainment with fellow extreme skiing pioneer Scot Schmidt and “tough as nails” cameraman Gary Nate. After riding a helicopter to Lone Peak, John Kircher, resort general manager, asked Jungst and Schmidt what they thought about a tram. 

They were fascinated. They said it would be amazing. Jungst recalls telling Kircher, ‘it would put Big Sky equal to any European resort.’ 

The tram was well-documented as a preposterous idea. But Jungst credited Kircher—a young Big Sky executive and son of Boyne Resorts owner Everett Kircher—and said he was “a super hard-charging skier” that foresaw the in-bounds potential of Lone Mountain’s terrain. Kircher was also impatient, Jungst said. He didn’t wait around while the Warren Miller crew prepared to shoot. 

“He never even said, ‘Oh, you should film me,’” Jungst recalled. “He would ride in the helicopter and then just rip off and ski somewhere else.”  

Just a few years later, by virtue of Kircher’s persistence, Jungst was working as a surveyor and welder on the incoming Lone Peak Tram. 

PLUS: Now retired, John Kircher spoke on the phone with Joe and Michelle Borden on the Hoary Marmot Podcast, newly partnered with Explore Big Sky and tailored to the Big Sky community. 

Kircher describes Boyne Resorts’ unlikely purchase of Big Sky in 1976, and the ways in which the Lone Peak Tram accelerated the change in skiing experience at Big Sky. He also offered candid thoughts on the new tram. 

A moonlit arc 

“We were the last people to climb it and ski it before construction started,” Jungst said. “We skied the Big Couloir, it was really awesome. The helicopters came up while we were coming down.” 

It was May of 1995. Jungst said construction began slowly because of all the snow on the ground. Then, they faced a summer full of thunderstorms.   

“They would helicopter us [to the job site] a lot of times in the morning. If the weather wasn’t good, you’d have to hike [up, and] you’d have to run down if the lightning was hitting,” Jungst said. The helicopter couldn’t retrieve the workers during a storm.  

By September, Jungst said he was working every day—the resort provided lodging, food and handsome daily pay. He took only one break in mid-October, visiting Yosemite National Park for a 13-day climb of El Capitan via the Tempest, and got right back to work. 

Tom Jungst rappels from the tram in October 1995, trying to yank “a mess of cable” around the bull wheel. About a week later, they fastened cars onto the cable, and Jungst was one of the first riders. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM JUNGST

By the time ski season arrived in late November—the tram would eventually open on Dec. 23—Jungst had a routine. He was doing detail welding alone; the more highly-certified welder had already finished the tram’s most critical joints and departed from Big Sky. 

“I would get up in the morning,” Jungst said. “I would go down and have free breakfast at the lodge. I’d ski for a few hours, have a [free] massage, then lunch. Then I would ride the lifts up [to the bowl], and I would hike up top with my skis and work ‘til about midnight.” 

Surprisingly, Jungst wasn’t working alone in the moonlight. Engineers from Doppelmayr worked into the night to communicate with counterparts in Austria. 

“I’ve met people that remember seeing [my welding] arc up there at night. It was super bright. And then I would usually ski down the Big Couloir alone, by headlamp, and ski to Whiskey Jack’s and close it down. 

“I’m 65-years-old now, and I think, ‘Oh my god,’” Jungst said, laughing.  

On that day in December when the tram opened, Jungst said he was still welding handrails on the high catwalk of the lower terminal, trying not to let sparks fall down on skiers as they waited in line.  

Another engineering feat 

Jungst said Big Sky’s new tram will be just as dramatic as the original one.  

“To me, it’s an engineering feat that they’re going to put that size tram up there,” he said. “I look at the rendering… It’s crazy.” 

In 1995, Jungst knew his experience on Lone Mountain was going to change.  

With tram access, he would seldom hike to the silent peak, straight up the ridge from the triple chair with “First Gully” on his left. After 1995, the peak would be crowded and common, a much less daring place to ski.  

A few years after the tram took in-bounds resort skiing to the next level, continued ski area development made “Three Forks” the crown jewel of Moonlight Basin’s headwaters. In the early 80s, though, Jungst remembers that nobody would ever ski down the north side. It was another frontier to explore. 

One day, Jungst and Doug Coombs—another ski legend—went for it. They reached the bottom and spent hours hiking out through a mess of fallen lodgepole pines. Jungst said it was a perfect day. Now it’s in bounds, skied most winter days by ridge hikers.  

Jungst and legend Doug Coombs skied this line (marked in red) down the face in 1988. They were forced to down-climb the rocky “ramp” near the top, and Jungst said that every time he rides the tram, he looks down at the rocks and wishes they could have skied the route continuously. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM JUNGST

“It feels like a lifetime has passed when I look at these photos,” Jungst said. 

Jungst could have rejected the change and bailed on Big Sky, especially after patrol began enforcing strict boundaries on his favorite terrain—one friend was “busted” for snowboarding a line under the tram, and access to the Big Couloir became controlled. But when the Lone Peak Tram opened, Jungst said it simply replaced his need to visit Europe. And when the tram line is too long, he said he just heads to Challenger—another special area for Jungst. 

“My favorite thing is to get out of the tram and not rush. I take three minutes more, and everyone’s gone—like it’s a race,” said Jungst, who also enjoys wind and whiteout conditions for the short tram line. “I like that moment when everyone’s gone.” 

We skied the Big Couloir, it was really awesome. The helicopters came up while we were coming down.” 

TOM JUNGST

Big Sky Resort will soon cut the ribbon on a new tram designed to increase cabin capacity from 15 to an undisclosed number—renderings suggest more than 75 riders. Jungst knows the experience will change again with so many skiers at the top. 

“I don’t feel like I’ll have that moment again. That private moment that I love about all mountains,” he said. “Unless it’s a really bad day. So bad that nobody will go. [I’ll] be there.” 

Jungst said it’s a lot easier to be “the last” to do something than it is to be first. He was proud to be the last to descend the Big Couloir before tram construction. He attempted to ride the last chair of the Lone Peak Triple in April 2016, but another guy nabbed it. 

With regards to the last lap of the old tin can, Jungst said, “we’ll see.” 

Jungst carves into Challenger chalk in 2016. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM JUNGST

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