COURAGE AND THE LONELY MOUNTAIN
January 12, 2021
By Marc Peruzzi | Above Photograph by Jonathan Finch
How the Lone Peak Tram reimagined Big Sky – and saved skiing.
It helped that John Kircher’s dad owned Big Sky. When the Mountain Manager gig opened up in 1979, Kircher got the nod from his father and drove out from Boyne Falls, Michigan with a suitcase, a public education, and a life’s worth of experience as a ski area operator in the family business. The following year, Big Sky’s General Manager left to start a company and Kircher was promoted to that role—as a 23-year-old.
Each morning young Kircher drove to what was then a sleepy, intermediate ski resort, with a cup of coffee between his legs and Lone Peak filling his windshield. Serious skiers think alike, and as Kircher—he’d skied in the Alps—gazed at the peak he was looking for skiable lines, and wondering what it would take to put a lift to the top. The dream never faded: Ten years later, in the winter of ’88/’89, after a helicopter dropped him off on the summit with the extreme skiing pioneers Scot Schmidt and Tom Jungst, Kircher was digging around in the snow looking for a property marker and openly discussing the idea of a tram. As the threesome prepared to descend, Jungst thought Kircher was kidding.
Kircher, though, was locked-in. What followed, the Lone Peak Tram, was perhaps the boldest lift installation in the history of North American skiing. Twenty-five years ago this winter, that one lift not only transformed Big Sky, it forever altered the sport of skiing. And it only took a crew of minimally supervised, 20-year-old skiers with a penchant for controlled recklessness in still-wild Montana to do it.
To understand why the tram matters, it helps to know some ski history. Back in the dawn of lift-serviced skiing, actual skiers called the shots. At first it was European expats, some of whom—Carl Howelsen of Steamboat is the best example—introduced skiing to the U.S. like carnival acts and later looped ropes around truck wheels for impromptu rope tows. After the war, it was 10th Mountain Division veterans keen to share their love of skiing that built many of the ski areas in the Rockies and beyond. Just as common, though, were strong-willed skiers like Dave McCoy at Mammoth who struggled for years to make his ski area sustainable while flipping burgers, teaching skiing, running lifts, and building day lodges.
Bootstrapping dominated. And when you poured that mentality into the vessel of a skier, it resulted in the alpine skiing boom of the 1960s and early ’70s that saw elaborate trams and simple double chairs servicing challenging terrain. Think Snowbird’s Cirque, Squaw’s KT-22, Bridger Bowl’s Ridge, and the steeps you can ski from Jackon’s Tram. The owner-operators were skiers, and because all serious skiers think alike, the lifts went in first with ski patrol playing catch-up, refining avalanche control and alpine rescue as they went. Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, skiing was bold.
It was a charmed age, but it didn’t last. In the decades that followed, outside of those big mountains, skiing was tamed; not broken, but tamed. The causes were myriad: In the late ’70s, skiing’s mainstream popularity faded with the crowds of socialites and dabblers resulting in smaller revenues that made it tough to justify expansions into expert terrain. The influence of a well-intentioned if aging National Ski Patrol—an idea unique to North America—had also grown undue, with adventurous skiers back East getting their passes pulled for tree skiing; access to the backcountry shuttered out West; and even
the little jumps kids call “booters” cordoned off with bamboo as soon as they went up. In part, patrol’s response was a reaction to America’s litigious culture. From 1984 through 1990, litigation (torts) in the U.S. increased by 25 percent. But perhaps the biggest factor in the taming of skiing was simply the cost of insurance. While claims against ski areas didn’t rise dramatically in the 1980s, the cost of insuring a ski area spiked—artificially Kircher now believes. That insurance crisis, says Big Sky’s COO and President Taylor Middleton, helped push many struggling mom-and-pop resorts out of business.
The chilling effect of those closures, an old guard of ski patrollers, and fears of litigation had produced a skiing nanny state. “I remember being a kid and building a jump to do 360s on and the patrol would tear it down immediately,” says Big Sky skier Dave Stergar. “There’s an entire generation of skiers that can’t jump well because of it—me included.”
Left: To keep the upper terminal in place, Dave Hamre and his team had to build a concrete keyway into ice-fractured bedrock. Middle-left: The work crew and management including John Kircher (in green) skied every month during the installation. Middle-right: To fly in the heavy equipment the crew hired a Boeing “Heavy” out of Wyoming. (Photographs courtesy of Big Sky Resort) Right: The alpinist and welder Tom Jungst on a wire while Hamre takes a cigarette break. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Jungst)
As unpolished, friendly, and authentic as Big Sky was in the early 1980s, it was a timid place known within Montana for stunning views, but exceedingly gentle pitches. Big Sky was the yin to rowdy, chute-striped Bridger Bowl’s yang. And it was struggling. Annual skier visits hovered around 80,000. The mountain wasn’t on the destination circuit. The business was losing money. Bound up skiing wasn’t working.
It was at this time that the skiing renaissance began. A kid with a camera named Greg Stump started making films about actual skiers—the kind like Kircher that see skiable lines every time they lift their eyes to the mountains. Stump’s films resonated with youth ski culture. Instead of racers on hard- pack, talented all mountain skiers with a penchant for powder and steeps like Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake, Tom Jungst, Doug Coombs, Mike Hattrup, and Kim Reichelm became skiing heroes. It was a misnomer from the start, because the skiers were rarely risking their lives, but the Americanized version of extreme skiing was born. And mountains with big terrain and steep ungroomed snow once again took the limelight.
Now in his 30s, Kircher’s view of skiing had been validated not by the long of tooth ski industry, but by fellow skiers. “I knew Big Sky was starved for expert terrain,” he says. “But I also knew the locals had been hiking to ski expert terrain forever. It was all around us. I thought we could distinguish ourselves from the ski industry at that time which had this ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ mindset. We wanted Big Sky to be unbounded.”
By this point, Kircher had surrounded himself with like-minded skiers on ski patrol and in management. They debated constantly, but they moved forward. Insurance was but one example: The progression of Big Sky would have happened regardless, but Kircher—he’s a contrarian—figured out that if the family business could somehow self-insure its resorts, then it could negotiate directly with the reinsurers that layer protection above the basic policies. It was wonkish stuff, but it worked.
In 1988, the team bought a second-hand chairlift from California’s Mount Rose and strung it up. The Challenger Lift immediately opened up Montana’s steepest lift-serviced skiing. “Challenger cracked expert skiing open for us,” says Middleton. “It was an incredibly aggressive lift installation. The terrain was prone to class A avalanches. When we were talking about doing it there was a lot of skepticism internally and externally, but we did it anyway. And we learned a lot about managing big terrain. We also proved our theory about skiers’ appetites.”
By 1990, with the addition of Challenger and new lodging, skier visits had grown to 200,000 annually. Big Sky was now a destination for better skiers. “Challenger is still my favorite lift at Big Sky,” says Kircher. “Pound for pound you can’t beat it if you want to ski lap after lap. But steep terrain isn’t just for experts in the moment, it gives developing skiers something to aspire to.”
It’s November 1995, and Dave Hamre, the project manager on the installation of the Lone Peak Tram is deep in conversation with the extreme skier Tom Jungst atop Lone Peak. By way of quick bio: Hamre was Alta, Utah’s first Snow Safety Director in the early 1970s, and in addition to contributing a lifetime of work to avalanche science, he was one of a handful of Alaska heli-skiing pioneers. Beyond his ski film career, Jungst is an alpinist, welder, entrepreneur, and a one-time engineering student at MSU. Anyway, there’s a problem at the summit terminal and Jungst and Hamre need to address it. As the tram is nearing completion, it’s time to string the haul rope through the upper bullwheel and back down before they splice the cable together and tension the system from below. To do that they’ve attached a lightweight, quarter inch cable—the end of which they flew up with a helicopter—to the haul rope which is as thick as your arm and will eventually support the tram cars. The plan is to winch the light cable though the works with the haul rope tailing behind on the cliff face. But when the haul rope makes it to the top terminal it won’t align property at the sheave wheels. The Monkey’s Fist Crimp that connects the light cable to the heavy wire rope is blocking it. Thus the intense conversation between the two Montana skiers.
“It’s no problem,” says Jungst. “I’ll just climb down the cable hand over hand, and kick it into place.” Hamre’s face goes still as this would entail Jungst dangling over the cliff. “I can’t let you do that Tom,” he says. But Jungst is insistent. Hamre’s face doesn’t change. “I can’t let you do that Tom. But I’m going to go over by the patrol shack and have a cigarette for about 20 minutes.”
Jungst has recently been climbing in Yosemite with the famed alpinist Alex Lowe, and is as strong as hell. He ropes up, shimmies down, kicks the haul rope into place sending shivers through his entire body, and spiders back to the summit. The job continues. “Hamre didn’t smoke,” says Jungst.
For skiers more focused on their own nerves and the imposing terrain than the lift they’re riding in,
it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Lone Peak Tram was and is the most audacious lift in North American skiing history. It was such a bold idea in fact, that John Kircher had to agree to the purchase without the approval of his father, and Boyne Resorts founder, Everett who disapproved vehemently with the project. The audacious claim is not hyperbole. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola in Whistler (it came 20 years later) might sport a longer span, but it was a far more straightforward installation and it’s more of a people mover than a ski lift. The Jackson and Snowbird trams serve serious terrain, but they run over a series of towers like traditional lifts. The Lone Peak Tram is an anomaly. Because it ascends a sheer face, the lift features a continuous span that’s unique in North America. No other design would work. Beyond the challenges of the cliff, the routine 120mph hour winds in the alpine would rip chairs off cables and smash tram cars into towers.
It’s called a Jig-back tram, or reversible aerial gondola, which is a breed apart as lifts go. Invented by the Austrian lift maker Doppelmayr, it’s a simple machine that works like an old-fashioned clothesline on pulleys. There’s one loop of haul rope with two cabins fixed to it. When the up cabin gets to the top, and the down cabin gets to the bottom, the process reverses itself. If you’ve skied in Europe, which historically has been ahead of North America in lift design, you’ve probably seen rougher open-air Jig-backs.
In the 1980s, skiers like Scot Schmidt and Tom Jungst routinely hiked Lone Peak. In this shot, the sketching at the very top designates their intended line, but rotten snow turned them back from the ski width shot. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Jungst)
But while it’s a simple design, the install was anything but. When Hamre—who’d run installations for the Austrian lift maker Doppelmayr on and off for 15 years—arrived on-site, the top terminal looked easy. All they’d have to do was drill into ice fractured bedrock, pour concrete onto rebar, weld steel, and delicately position a wheelhouse on the precipice of a 1,450 foot cliff, at an elevation of 11,166 feet. But when the excavators scratched the surface of the bottom terminal site, Hamre knew that the “nice gravel pad” Big Sky had promised was overstated. “We got two or three feet down and hit ice,” says Hamre. “But to be fair, we had a hunch that would happen.”
Not a glacier and not a rocky moraine of glacial till, the lower terminal would have to sit on what’s known as an “ice core rock glacier.” Hamre describes how they form: “First you take a bunch of rocks left over from the last ice age and throw in a lot of interstitial spaces between them. Then, because the subgrade at that elevation stays below freezing year-long, over time the spaces get filled with ice. After you have enough ice, the entire mass of rock and ice starts deforming under its own weight like a traditional glacier. And just like a glacier, it wants to move downhill, which in this case meant it wanted to move away from the cliff in the same direction as the cables.”
A quick investigation revealed that the rock glacier had been studied by a professor at MSU. (Later, Hamre would write a research paper on it and present
it to an international panel of snow and ice scientists.) But for purposes of the lift install, they just needed to get a handle on how to build a lift terminal on it. The first move was to shift the location to a deposit of rock so as to better align the cables with the swale of the pitch. Then ice cores were drilled—at 90 feet they hit clear ice—and surveys were taken. Finally, Hamre delivered the bad news: The glacier was moving away from the face at a rate of roughly eight inches a year. This could have been a deal breaker for the lift financially, but then came a weird twist of fate: After its initial stretch of two feet in the first year of operations (slack the machinery was more than capable of reining in) the haul rope would stretch at roughly eight inches a year too. The two forces would counteract each other. The haul rope wasn’t doomed to a costly life of annual resplicing. The lift would function safely.
Now Hamre’s team just needed to figure out how to build a relatively stable bottom terminal. The answer was to go big. The structure you see today is a monolith—think Stonehenge—poured as a single slab on top of eight inches of insulating blueboard meant to help keep the ice below cold. The lower terminal alone consumed 360 cubic yards of concrete (the average cement truck holds 10 yards), and 75 tons of heavy-duty rebar. When you add in the rocks that Hamre added as ballast, plus the mass and the machinery of the tram, the lower terminal is a 1,600 ton boat floating on an ice core rock glacier. The entire project, including the upper terminal, took 3,400 helicopter flights from start to finish. The initial estimate, Doppelmayer had to be conservative given the glacier, was that the bottom terminal would have to be razed and rebuilt in five to ten years. But although it’s moved 25 feet in the last 25 years and now sits slightly off-kilter, the tram is still running flawlessly. The haul rope only needed one splice in year 17. The unique nature of single span lifts allows for the floating lower terminal. The Lone Peak Tram is of course inspected rigorously.
The project wrapped up just before ski season in the winter of ’95/’96 with Jungst riding down in a cabin full of sandbags while the Austrians from Doppelmayr tested the brakes. Not that the ski season ever ended for the crew. Between the hikes, helicopter rides, and eventually the work trams to the top, for the likes of Kircher, Middleton, Hamre, Jungst, and many more, the tram installation was a chance to ski while they worked.
The scattering light from Jungst’s welding torch could be seen from the bar as he labored alone into the night and then skied down the Big Couloir by headlamp to that same watering hole. “In the height of summer we sometimes had to run downhill away from approaching lightning storms,” says Jungst. “Imagine that. We’d often hike to the summit and then do hard physical work all day, before skiing or running downhill. It was a great time in my life. We were strong. And when it got cold, there were only skiers left working up there.”
Before the tram went up, a fit and skilled Big Sky skier like Dave Stergar could ski the Big Couloir maybe three times in a day—Stergar’s personal best. After the tram, Stergar, who just recently retired from his job as a Helena school teacher, once lapped the Couloir 10 times. Many runs stand out— like the time thigh deep powder was pouring over his shoulders with each turn—but then there was that storm cycle followed by a wind event back before fat skis when nobody was on the upper mountain. “The snow and the wind had filled everything in,” he says. “We were skiing between Big Couloir and the Gullies, and Lenin and Marx. We skied the couloir nine times that day. There was so much snow you could ski right in. It was the era of the K2 Four carving ski and the snow was so smooth you could make Super-G turns right down the couloir.”
By 1996, the year the tram opened, the skiing nanny state was crumbling. Snowboarding’s influence meant that even podunk ski areas were building terrain parks with not just jumps and halfpipes, but man-made obstacles like rails and boxes. The generation that had come of age watching the likes of Schmidt, Jungst, and Coombs descend big faces—all Montana skiers during their formative years—now competed in extreme skiing competitions in Alaska, starred in films, and called themselves Big Mountain Freeskiers. With the ski world now in love with steep skiing, it was to be expected that the year after the Lone Peak Tram opened, the skiing community would erupt in rage when Jackson Hole Mountain Resort banned Doug Coombs for skiing the same type of terrain he’d ripped legally a decade before at Bridger and Big Sky. Outside of Montana, the resort industry was slow to catch on, but the sport had already pivoted. It helped that the freeskiing movement coincided with a nationwide drop in litigation: from 1999 to 2008, the frequency of torts fell 25 percent.
At the forefront of this change was the Lone Peak Tram. It changed the mindset of the ski industry. But that change was bigger than the sheer audacity of the lift and the terrain it served—or even the fact that Big Sky’s patrol had figured out how to manage it. The Lone Peak Tram didn’t just make for good skiing, it made good business sense. Whereas Kircher is quick to credit Montana’s frontier culture for the actual construction of the tram, Middleton discounts the cowboy element and insists it was a strategic long-term business play to elevate the ski experience. But two things can be true at the same time, and that’s the case with the Lone Peak Tram.
The skiers pushing the project got the lift they’d been dreaming of for nearly two decades. And the broader skiing public did too. In the first year of the tram, says Kircher, Big Sky increased visits by 60,000 with annual skier visits hitting 300,000. “My dad was disgusted with me the entire season,” he says. “And then I said ‘here are the numbers.’ His only response was ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ That was a compliment. He never said another word about it. We moved on. To be fair, much of the industry had it wrong. People don’t go on hotel vacations in the mountains. They go on ski vacations. Most skiers didn’t even know what they wanted until we showed it to them. I look up there now and I’m like ‘I can’t believe we pulled that off.’”
Onward. Big Sky stuck to its careful planning to operate the tram and manage Lone Peak. Which is emphatically not to say that they tamed the high alpine. But the calculus that Kircher, Middleton, and storied patrollers like Bob Dixon and Jon “Yunce” Ueland decided on has worked. The tram itself was part of that equation. Back in the planning days the team decided that the mountain and patrol could keep track of 350 skiers per hour up top. Any more than that, they knew, would both scrape off too much snow exposing rock, while at the same overly compacting the snow that remained, morphing it from chalky and edgeable packed powder to dangerous hardpack.
“Because the industry was telling us that we couldn’t do this, we developed the mindset that we could,” says current Snow Safety Director Mike Buotte who was part of the original Lone Peak team. “We knew it would take a lot. We knew we would have to be willing and aggressive. We knew that day after day after day we’d have to get out on those slopes. But we thought we were progressing things, not just at Big Sky, but with the sport. Looking back, I feel glad that I was there when we were figuring it out.”
In the years after the Lone Peak Tram opened, expansion into steep terrain became commonplace again. Sunshine Village’s Delirium Dive opened in 1998. Then came the hike-to terrain of Aspen Highlands’ Highland Bowl; Crystal Mountain’s “inbounds sidecountry” in the Southback zone, and its 2007 Northway expansion; and more recently Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico finally strung a lift to Kachina Peak, which as with Lone Peak had been hiked for years. Any skier worth their weight would add the Headwaters at Moonlight to that list.
Accidents happen on all these big peaks. And sometimes they end in tragedy. That’s the nature of mountains. But overall, skier’s tend to carefully self-select the terrain they ski. On Lone Peak it helps that would-be skiers get a look at the truly hairball terrain on the lift ride up. To ski much of Lone Peak requires ski mountaineering moves and a mountain sense. There are places where you simply cannot fall. Kircher and the team knew all this going in. But although they didn’t know with certainty how skiers would respond to the trust they placed in them, they’ve been rewarded for their faith. Injuries don’t occur with any greater frequency off the summit. The terrain filters out the weak. And it conditions the strong: When the tram first opened in 1996, helmet use was still quite rare in the U.S., but within a few years, says Kircher, most of the skiers in the tram had adopted them.
Skiers on those trams included Dave Stergar. “Before the tram went in I took personal responsibility for my safety on that terrain. But that didn’t change after they put in the lift. The lack of personal responsibility in skiing has always bothered me. You don’t see it in other outdoor sports. And for years it hampered what we were able to do. To a certain type of skier, the chutes and couloirs on Lone Peak are just like terrain parks are to freeskiers now. The tram made Big Sky into a mountain that’s as close as North America gets to Europe. That’s why I love it.” In 1997, a Skiing magazine cover story dubbed Lone Peak “America’s Alp.”
It’s fitting that two of the primary beneficiaries of the Lone Peak Tram are the skier Lonnie Ball and his wife Mary. Lonnie’s life story is for another day, but briefly he was a patroller at Alta when avalanche control was in its infancy. He also earned perpetual bragging rights (although Lonnie doesn’t brag) as the first person to ski Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson. Later, he guided heli-skiing in Montana in a life spent pioneering and documenting the sport. He’s skied Big Sky since 1975, but he’s more than a local legend, he’s just a legend. As such, he’s skied long enough to have witnessed the rise and fall and rise again, of steep skiing.
Lonnie and Mary were two of the first members of the public to ski Lone Peak from the new tram. A friend on Hamre’s crew flagged them over for a few runs before it opened. In the 25 years since, they’ve skied the tram 4,000 to 5,000 times. Every day that they skied it they felt as though they were getting some of the best skiing in North America—and who could challenge them?
Lonnie never fails to appreciate the gear, the patrollers, and the lift that allow him to keep skiing Lone Peak. Human beings need to strive like that.
“One year, probably in ’91 or ’92, we were taking some early snowboarders up the peak hiking,” says Lonnie. “I knew better, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself that hardly anybody had ever been up there to ski before. As I was thinking that, I looked down and saw an old leather and aluminum pole basket on a broken bamboo shaft wedged down in a rock. It was covered with lichen. It could have been decades old. We weren’t the first, and we won’t be the last. Skiers have always wanted to ski that terrain.”