Jackson Hole Resort's Tram Retires this Weekend

After forty years in operation, the aerial tram at Jackson Hole Resort in Wyoming makes the final run of its final ski season this weekend. Next year, skiers will ride chair lifts to the summit. Corky Ward, the ski patrol director in Jackson Hole, talks with Melissa block about the end of an era.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been called the chariot of the gods. More often, to locals, it's the big red box. After 40 years in operation, the aerial tram at Jackson Hole Resort in Wyoming makes the final run of its final ski season this weekend. It carries about 50 people at a time, up 4,139 vertical feet in a single ride over the towering jagged slopes of the Tetons. The tram has the highest rise of any ski lift in America, but it's aging and would need expensive repairs.

Last week, we asked Renny McKay, of Wyoming Public Radio, to take a ride. He sent us the sounds of the tram.

SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE ON THE TRAM

BLOCK: These days, the tram is packed with skiers like Nick Anderson, taking in the views and wondering what will replace it.

Mr. NICK ANDERSON (Skiier): And we're on one of the last trams to go up Rendezvous Mountain. Kinda sad. We're looking to the north here to the incredible view, and the first thing we see there is the Grand Teton, the middle Teton in (unintelligible). As we move a little to the left that's Buck Mountain. That's all in Grand Teton National Park. Buck Mountain is critical mountain sheep habitat.

As we get just a little higher here we'll be able to look at the Idaho side. There's Fossil Mountain just coming into view, that's still in Wyoming but close to the line. It's called Fossil Mountain because those layers in it are filled with fossils from a previous ocean. They're mainly shells and coral. Pretty spectacular.

We're going to miss the tram. I'm pretty sure there'll be another one here in a few years. Who knows what the solution will be. But I'd put money on five years, but, we'll miss it. Over 4,000 feet in eleven minutes.

BLOCK: Nick Anderson used to be the race director at Jackson Hole.

The tram was part of a vision back in the late 1950's to build a ski resort that would rival those in the Alps. The resort opened in 1965. The tram was quite an engineering feat for the time. One company went bankrupt trying to build it. It opened a year late, in 1966. Total cost, two and a half million dollars. And the tram turned Jackson from a sleepy mountain town south of Yellowstone National Park into a bustling tourist destination.

Corky Ward signed on to work with the ski school a few years later. He's not the resort's ski patrol director. He rides the tram every day.

Mr. CORKY WARD (Jackson Hole Ski Resort): It's a huge part of the character of Jackson Hole. It's a year-round icon of the valley.

BLOCK: And you're looking at that tram from where you are right now.

Mr. WARD: Yes, we're standing at the top dock, and if you can hear the hum in the background, that's the cables going around the return shivs, and there, as one car comes up there's another one going down at the same speed. And they do call it a double reversible jig-back, which means when one's at the bottom, the other one better be at the top.

BLOCK: Or something is wrong.

Mr. WARD: Or something is very wrong, yes.

BLOCK: Will you miss it, yourself?

Mr. WARD: Oh, absolutely. You know, I've been riding it since 1971, and then a first-year employee in '72, and I'm absolutely spoiled with the tram. And I know that the (unintelligible) are going to do it right and they will put in a new lift to the top, be it a bi-cable, gondola, or a new tram, of which I hope it's a tram.

BLOCK: You think it might go all the way up?

Mr. WARD: Absolutely. I believe so.

BLOCK: That'll cost a lot of money.

Mr. WARD: Yes, it's going to be twenty-plus million dollars to do the entire installation, and I would imagine at least a year's worth of construction.

BLOCK: Do you figure when the tram does come down, will there be people who want a piece of it? I mean, when they take subway cars out of service, sometimes there are subway buffs who want to hang on to a car or a seat.

Mr. WARD: I'm sure there may be some public auctions of pieces and parts of the tram cables, carriers, carriages, wheels. There's some pretty cool pieces and parts in here.

BLOCK: Do you think you'd want one, yourself?

Mr. WARD: I would hope they would give me one, as a memento of my living and working here for so many years. But, yeah, I'd take a tram car and put it in my backyard, you bet.

Mr. WARD: Have it as a barbeque pit.

BLOCK: Mr. Ward, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. WARD: You betcha.

BLOCK: That's Corky Ward, ski patrol director at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His retirement this year just happens to coincide with the closing of the resort's aerial tram. The tram's last ski season run will be this Sunday. Next year, skiers will ride a series of chair lifts to the summit. The tram will reopen this summer for sightseers before it closes for good in the fall.

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