Big Sky to Build New Lone Peak Tram and Connecting Two-Stage Gondola
New base-to-summit lift network seamlessly knits together Big Sky’s 4,350-foot vertical drop
Big Sky, the Montana flagship of Boyne Resorts’ 10-mountain empire, will build a massive base-to-summit lift network that will transport skiers 4,350 feet to the top of Lone Peak. A two-stage gondola will rise out of the mountain village, stopping at a new mid-mountain beginner center and terminating at an enormous food-and-beverage center near the base of the Powder Seeker six-pack. That building will also act as the base of a new, higher-capacity tram, which will rise approximately 2,100 feet to the top of Lone Peak. Here’s what the whole thing will look like in relation to Big Sky’s current trailmap:
“The new lift system from the base area to the summit of Lone Peak will revolutionize the way we access ‘America’s Matterhorn’ in both winter and summer,” said Big Sky President and COO Taylor Middleton.
The lift additions, which will take several years to complete, will cap off Big Sky’s ambitious 2025 initiative. The gondola-to-tram connection will instantly become one of the great experiences in North American skiing, the crown jewels of a 39-lift system that sprawls nearly 6,000 acres and already includes some of the most sophisticated chairlifts in the world. The spectacular – and no doubt spectacularly expensive – project underscores Boyne’s commitments to mountain modernization and skier experience.
“We couldn’t think of a more significant and emblematic series of initiatives to close out the transformation we’re accomplishing with the Big Sky 2025 vision,” said Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher. “Coupling a truly world-class tram experience with the most architecturally thoughtful on-mountain food and beverage and Mountain Sports facilities will set a new standard for mountain communities in North America.”
Construction will begin this summer. Boyne expects the tram to debut first, for the 2023-24 ski season, with the gondola to follow on a yet-to-be-finalized timeline. While we wait, here’s a look at each element of the plan, and what it means for the future of Big Sky and its skiers.
The yet-to-be named gondola will feature what Kircher describes as “very tall, all-glass” cabins, and will rise looker’s right of the sparkling new Swift Current six-pack, which itself sits near the Ramcharger 8. “It’s going to feel like riding in Willie Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator,” Kircher said. “You’ll have 360-degree views out of the cars.”
Like Ramcharger and Swift Current, the gondola will run on Doppelmayr D-line technology. Combined, the three lifts will give Big Sky an out-of-base capacity of approximately 10,000 skiers per hour, said Kircher.
“Big Sky already has very short liftlines compared to what you’ve been seeing around the country, but this is going to exhume any liftlines that we have for a number of years,” said Kircher. “We’re going to suck all the day visitors out of the base area and cycle them around the mountain.”
The resort will remove Explorer 2, a 1973 Heron-Poma double chair that is the oldest lift left on the mountain. Stage one of the gondola will empty near the top of the Lois Lane run, at a new mid-mountain learning center that will echo the gondola-fed Sweetwater learning area at Jackson Hole. The top of the gondola will sit near the terminus of the long-gone Gondola 1, which the resort retired in 2008. From the gondola terminal, skiers can click in and access the Challenger 3 pod, ride Powder Seeker to the triple blacks lacing off the cirque below, or work their way to the resort’s expansive west-side terrain. They can also lounge in what is expected to be an expansive food-and-beverage center.
Or they can take the tram to the top of the world.
When the Big Sky tram came online in 1995, it re-ordered the calculus of American skiing. By opening Lone Peak – with its halo of elevator shafts etched above the treeline – to the masses, the lift planted Big Sky alongside Jackson Hole, Snowbird, and Palisades Tahoe as an American cathedral of the inbounds extreme. The move also displaced Jackson Hole as the United States’ vertical-drop king, and, for a few years, made Big Sky the tallest skiable mountain in the country. What had long been an intermediates haven had a whole new swagger.
The lift itself was (and is) magnificent, rising 1,450 feet without a single support tower. For sheer drama, it may have no equal in North America.
But Big Sky long ago outgrew this lift, which carries just 15 passengers at a time – 200 skiers per hour. For a resort that blew past half a million skier visits a few years ago and is now an Ikon Pass headliner, that’s no longer good enough. It would be like running 15-passenger propeller planes between New York and Los Angeles, instead of loading people up in 737s. Over the past several years, tram lines grew up to two hours long, and the resort finally, this season, added a stiff daily upcharge to access it. That worked – resort staff say lines have rarely exceeded half an hour all season, and are typically closer to a two- to three-car rotation – but it’s not a long-term solution.
Big Sky needs a bigger tram. While the ski area is not releasing capacity details yet, renderings portray boxy rectangular cars reminiscent of those at Jackson Hole (capacity, 100) or Snowbird (120). The new tram line will be substantially longer than the current one, with a 2,100-foot vertical rise and a much longer cable. Skiers will, for the first time, be able to lap Lone Peak’s south-facing terrain (Lenin, Marx, Tohelluride, etc.), on a single lift ride.
Perhaps more importantly, the new alignment brings the tram into the resort’s core lift system. The current terminal sits out on the remote mountainside, a ski down from the top of the Powder Seeker lift. When the new lifts are complete, skiers will just walk across a building from the top of the gondola to board the tram.
“For the first time, the gondola and tram are going to be tied together,” Kircher said. Crucially, this gives non-skiers access to the tram. “This is not just about skiing – this is about transforming the four-season access to Lone Peak. There are thousands of people who want to go up there in the winter that don’t ski and they can’t get there now.”
Garaventa, tram division of Doppelmayr, Boyne’s longtime lift partner, will manufacture the tram. In a nod to the sightseers who will make up a large percentage of the lifts passengers, external-facing seats will line the tram boxes. The tram will land slightly higher than the current lift, and guests will emerge onto an observation platform with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains.
“And then there'll be this huge glass box experience on the top of the terminal,” Kircher said, comparing the summit to the Step Into The Void attraction at the top of Chamonix. “So you'll go up there and experience this kinda hanging over two or 3,000 feet straight down on a glass box. It's gonna be quite an Instagram moment for people.”
Big Sky will convert the current tram terminal into a support building for Ski Patrol and other, yet-to-be-finalized uses.
While resort officials confirmed to The Storm Skiing Journal that they would continue to charge skiers extra for tram access as long as the current tram is operating, they declined to specify whether that tiered system would remain when the new machine debuted, saying only that the resort would “continue to preserve the core ski experience off the summit by managing the number of skiers every hour based on current conditions.”
Let’s make the non-skiing parts of skiing less terrible
Taylor’s earlier reference to “America’s Matterhorn” is not a one-off metaphor – it’s part of a deliberate, years-long effort to position Big Sky as singular among North American ski areas, a dramatic sky-scraping monolith housing an exotic experience reminiscent of the Alps.
This summoning of Europe is meant to excite anyone who has skied there. European skiing is different enough from the North American version that it is like another sport altogether. The food tends to be (relatively) inexpensive and delicious – none of the reprocessed cardboard that passes for a $20 sandwich in America. The ski areas are threaded through the mountains and surrounding communities in a less invasive manner. Lifts of all sizes fly everywhere – when Boyne installed North America’s first eight-pack at Big Sky in 2018, Austria already had dozens of them.
“Two core aspects of Big Sky 2025 was to elevate the lift technology like you see in Europe,” said Kircher. “Bubble chairs, heated seats, the most technologically advanced lifts are in Europe. We're bringing them here. The next piece is elevating the on-mountain food and beverage experiences across the mountain, and especially on mountain. Finally, when you look at the architecture of these buildings, it's gonna be as good as anything across the Alps from an aesthetic and a execution perspective, the interior design and everything. And I think it's to be a game-changer from people's perspective of what North American skiing in a holistic viewpoint can be.”
Boyne has been the Kool-Aid Man of American lift-served skiing for decades, always crashing through the wall with this or that new technology. The company debuted North America’s first triple chair, first quad, first high-speed six-pack, and first eight-pack. The world’s first chairlift still stands – in modified form – at Boyne Mountain, Michigan. But over the past several years, Boyne has mastered the art of ski-lift-as-attraction. No surprise there, perhaps, as the company’s longevity has been underwritten in large part by a scenic chairlift in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But it takes a special finesse to infuse something like the recently debuted Kanc 8 at Loon, New Hampshire with a rollercoaster pizzaz worthy of Six Flags. And that’s exactly what Boyne did with the enormous, elaborate bottom terminal building, giant indoor screens, drop-walls leading out to a heated après deck, orange bullwheel, and novel carpet-load station.
When I rode Okemo’s new Quantum Six in December, the experience fell flat. It’s a nice, new lift, but it’s just another lift. The Kanc 8 felt special. Boyne has mastered the art of chairlift-as-performance-piece. In a nation with no shortage of large, well-funded, interesting ski resorts, it’s not easy to set yourself apart. Boyne has found a way to do that. When this new gondola-tram connection debuts, it will be an experience, as much worth riding for the way up as for the ski down.
Not that Big Sky will be anywhere near finished. Late-stages of Big Sky’s 2025 plan still call for replacements or upgrades of the Southern Comfort, Iron Horse, and Lone Moose lifts, as well as lift replacement and terrain expansions off the Madison side of the resort. Renovations will continue for as long as skiing does. But the foundation Big Sky is building will set the resort up to maintain its place near the top of skiing’s food chain for decades to come.
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I think this is absolutely terrific. Cannot wait for it to debut.
Heading to Big Sky in early April so will check this out. I hope there is still snow there that time of year