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Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher, Big Sky President Taylor Middleton, Big Sky GM Troy Nedved, and Garaventa Chief Rigger Cédric Aellig
Big Sky invited media to attend the opening of their new Lone Peak tram, the first all-new tram at a U.S. ski resort since Jackson Hole opened theirs in 2008.
December 19, 2023
About Big Sky
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Boyne Resorts
Base elevation: 6,800 feet at Madison Base
Summit elevation: 11,166 feet
Vertical drop: 4,350 feet
Skiable Acres: 5,850
Average annual snowfall: 400-plus inches
Trail count: 300 (18% expert, 35% advanced, 25% intermediate, 22% beginner)
Terrain parks: 6
Lift count: 40 (1 75-passenger tram, 1 high-speed eight-pack, 3 high-speed six-packs, 4 high-speed quads, 3 fixed-grip quads, 9 triples, 5 doubles, 3 platters, 2 ropetows, 9 carpet lifts) – View Lift Blog’s inventory of Big Sky’s lift fleet.
About the new Lone Peak Tram
It may seem like the most U.S. American thing ever to spend tens of millions of dollars to replace a lift that was only 28 years old (remember when the Detroit Lions dropped half a billion to replace the 26-year-old Pontiac Silverdome?), but the original tram cost just $1 million to build, and it served a very different ski resort and a very different ski world. It was, besides, a bit of a proof of concept, built against the wishes of the company’s own CEO, Boyne Resorts founder Everett Kircher. If they could just string a lift to the top, it would, the younger Kirchers knew, transform Big Sky forever.
It did. Then all sorts of other things happened. The Ikon Pass. Montana’s transformation into a hipster’s Vermont West. Social media and the quest for something different. The fun slowly draining from Utah and Colorado as both suffocated under their own convenience. Big Sky needed a new tram.
The first thing to understand about the new tram is that it does not simply replace the old tram. It runs on a different line, loading between the top of Swift Current and the bottom of Powder Seeker; the old tram loaded off the top of the latter lift. Here’s the old versus the new line:
The new line boosts the vertical drop from 1,450 feet to 2,135. Larger cabins can accommodate 75 passengers, a 500 percent increase from 15 in the old tram (Big Sky officials insist that the cars will rarely, if ever, carry that many skiers, with capacity metered to conditions and seats set aside for sightseers).
One dramatic difference between the old and the new lines is a tower (the old tram had none), perched dramatically below the summit:
It’s a trip to ride through:
But the most astonishing thing about riding the new Lone Peak tram is the sheer speed. It moves at up to 10 meters per second, which, when I first heard that, meant about as much to me as when my high school chemistry teacher tried to explain the concept of moles with a cigar-box analogy. But then I was riding up and the down-bound cabin passed me like someone just tossed a piano off the roof of a skyscraper:
Here’s the down-bound view:
The top sits at 11,166 feet, which is by no means the highest lift in America, but it is the most prominent point for an amazing distance around, granting you stunning views of three states and two national parks, plus the Yellowstone Club ski area and Big Sky itself:
The peak is fickle as hell though – an hour after I took those photos, I walked into a cloud bank on a second trip to the summit.
Right now, the only way to access the tram is by riding the Swift Current 6 (itself an extraordinary lift, like borrowing someone’s Porsche for a ride around the block), and skiing or walking a few hundred vertical feet down. But a two-stage, 10-passenger gondola is already under construction. This will load where the Explorer double currently does, and will terminate adjacent to the tram, creating an easy pedestrian journey from base to summit. That lift is scheduled to open for the 2025-26 ski season, and will, along with the Ramcharger 8 and Swifty, create an amazing 24 high-speed seats out of the main Big Sky base.
The Lone Peak tram is, in my opinion, the most spectacular new ski lift coming online in America this winter. In a year of big lift projects, with Steamboat’s 3.1-mile-long gondola and 14 new six-packs coming online, that’s saying a lot.
Right now, everyone has to download - it’s been a low-snow year, and there’s no skiing yet off the summit. Big Sky will, however, stay open until late April this season, so we have plenty of tram-ski days ahead.
What we talked about
With Troy and Taylor
Ski town culture; the evolution of Big Sky from Montana backwater to leading North American ski area; why the new tram won’t overload Lone Peak even though its capacity is five times that of the old tram; how much – and how fast – Big Sky changed after the 1995 installation of Tram 1; why Big Sky evolved in a way that other small Montana ski areas never did; wind mitigation for a lift going somewhere as insane as Lone Peak; the new tram’s incredible speed; plans for the old tram’s top and bottom stations; and the switch from pay-per-day to pay-per-ride for the tram.
With Stephen Kircher
The significance of this lift when Boyne is putting in so many lifts; what the tram means for the future of Big Sky; the Kircher family legacy, past and future, at Big Sky; the near-death of Tram 1 before it was even built; who we can thank for Big Sky’s insane lift fleet; what justifies the huge expense of D-Line technology; why Boyne only builds Doppelmayr lifts; European influence; and how America fell behind Europe in lift technology.
What I got wrong
I said that, when Middleton arrived in 1980, Big Sky had just a “handful of lifts off Andesite, nothing on Lone Peak.” While there wasn’t a lift to the top of Lone Peak, Lone Mountain itself had several lifts by 1980:
When I said that “Vail tends to split its lift fleet 50/50,” I meant between Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma, the two major North American lift manufacturers.
On the shift to pay-per-tram ride
This year, Big Sky switched from charging per day for tram access to charging per ride. The price ranges from $20 to $40 for skiers. That seems hefty, but frankly the place is so huge that you can have a great ski week with just a handful of tram laps. Here’s a primer on how to set up your tram access:
On cannister film rolls
Before we lived in the future, photos were scarce and expensive. A two-week family trip may involve two to five rolls of film, with 24 or 36 photos per roll, which you could not see until you deposited the spent cannisters at a photo development emporium and returned, some hours or days later, to retrieve them. Each roll cost between $5 and $7 to purchase, and an equal price to develop. Reprints were expensive and complicated. The rolls themselves were impossibly easy to destroy, and could, like vampires, disintegrate with direct exposure to sunlight. Witnessing the destruction of this system and its displacement by digital photos as limitless as videogame ammunition has been one of the great joys of my life.
Anyway, that’s what Middleton was referring to when he tells the story about the lost film cannister that almost ruined his day.
On D-Line lifts
Kircher talks extensively about “D-Line lifts.” I constantly reference these as well, as though I have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, but all I know is that these are really kick-ass chairlifts, and are better than other sorts of chairlift. While several non-Boyne ski areas (Camelback, Sun Valley, Mammoth), have installed this most advanced lift class, Boyne owns perhaps as many as the rest of North American resorts combined, with two each at Big Sky (Ramcharger 8 and Swift Current 6) and Sunday River (Jordan 8 and Barker 6), and one each at Brighton (Crest 6), Loon (Kanc 8), Boyne Mountain (Disciples 8), and The Highlands (Camelot 6).
On Everett Kircher the elder
Everett Kircher, Stephen Kircher’s father, was a bit of a cowboy entrepreneur, the swaggering sort from America’s black-and-white past. He purchased the land for Boyne Mountain for $1, built an audacious contraption called the Gatlinburg Sky Park that ended up fueling the growth of the whole ski empire, and flew himself between Michigan and Montana after buying the resort in the mid-70s. He built the world’s first triple, quad, and detachable six-person chairlifts and invented all sorts of snowmaking equipment. Boyne has more on their history page.
On John Kircher
Stephen’s brother, John Kircher, was an important figure in the U.S. ski industry in general, and at Big Sky in particular. He passed away on Jan. 28 of this year. From Explore Big Sky:
The oldest son of late Boyne Resorts co-founder Everett Kircher, John will be remembered for his impact in the modern ski industry. After stepping into Big Sky Resort’s GM role in 1980, he became widely known for spearheading the Lone Peak Tram project in the early 1990s. He then spent roughly two decades of his career as president, CEO and, briefly, owner of Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington.
Read the rest of the obit here.
On Kircher Concepts
Stephen Kircher’s son is also named Everett. We discuss his contributions to the tram project, and also allude to a digital design agency he founded, Kircher Concepts. This work, which I find incredibly valuable, essentially visualizes lift projects at their announcement. The gondola rendering above comes from Kircher Concepts, but the agency does not work exclusively with Boyne – Telluride, Sun Valley, and Mount St. Louis Moonstone are also clients. Check out the full portfolio here.
On Big Sky 2025
Kircher refers to Big Sky 2025, which is essentially a masterplan outlining the resort’s rapid evolution since 2015. While the plan has changed quite a bit since its announcement, it has completely transformed the resort with all sorts of lift, employee housing, parking, snowmaking, and other infrastructure upgrades. You can read the latest iteration here.
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