Having spent half a century traveling an estimated 800,000 miles, Snowbird’s distinguished red and blue aerial tram cars finally reached the end of their haul rope on Sunday, April 3, 2022.
The cars dutifully deposited their last boatloads of guests atop 11,000-foot Hidden Peak before sailing into a well-earned retirement. What’s next for Snowbird’s most iconic people mover?
Installed with heroic effort under a punishing timeline clear back in 1970, the Snowbird aerial tramway was a feat of engineering that brought a marvel of modernity to quiet Little Cottonwood Canyon. Alta had been steadily spinning lifts since 1939 and the arrival of Snowbird Resort and its cutting-edge tramway would forever change the landscape and the history of skiing in Utah. It is a testament to Swiss manufacturing and Snowbird's dedicated mountain operators that the tramway and its components were able to capably serve Snowbird’s staff and guests for over 50 winters.
The Snowbird Tram—then and now—is a jig-back tramway; as one car ascends, the other descends. A drive system located at the bottom terminal houses all the electrical components and mobilizes the system as each car climbs or plunges downhill. From the base of the Snowbird Center where the tram terminal is housed, the cars travel just over one mile to reach the top terminal on the summit of Hidden Peak, climbing nearly 3,000 vertical feet.
The tram was the seemingly impossible dream of Snowbird’s founder, Ted Johnson and its financier, Dick Bass. There’s a lot more to the story and you can check it out in my history article here. The short story is Bass forked over a whopping $3.5 million—an unseemly sum in 1970—to bankroll construction of the tram. A Swiss crew worked non-stop alongside Snowbird’s original crew to erect the tram in just two summers. Ted originally wanted a blue and green tram to match Snowbird’s quintessential logo, but it was determined green would not provide enough high visibility and contrast so the colors red and blue were chosen to deck the cars.
The winter of 1969–70 was rather a deep one, as tends to happen at Snowbird, and the installation in 1970 did not go smoothly. Crews were forced to slog longer hours navigating on snow and dealing with snow removal around their worksites. Littered with busted mines and narrow tracks, the crew first had to cut actual roads and level off the top of Hidden Peak to build the top terminal. Snowbird’s former CEO and President, Bob Bonar, recalls with amusement and the distance of hindsight, spending those two summers working 12-16 hour days, seven days a week. Bob confesses “Most of what you see here was built in two summers; we spent every waking moment cutting all the runs, building the lifts, the tram, and the cat roads.”
The tram is the anchor and foundation of Snowbird. Its prominent perch, jaw-dropping views, beloved cars, and loyal service have become symbolic of the resort itself. Having ridden the tram thousands of times myself I admit I was a little sad to see the old boats sail off into the sunset. Change can be good and I connected with Snowbird’s Jake Treadwell, Director of Mountain Operations, to learn more about The Bird’s latest evolution.
Jake confirms that the project to replace the tram cars has been in the works for quite some time. Crews at Snowbird replaced the track rope in the spring of 2016. These are the four thick cables that the carriage for each tram cabin rides along—two per side. This was the first time the track ropes had been replaced since the system was constructed in 1970. The haul rope that pulls the tram has been replaced by Snowbird every 10-15 years to keep the system operational.
The various projects to upgrade and maintain the tram have been carefully managed so as not to disrupt winter season usage and to eventually replace the entire system, culminating with new tram cars. The scope of the project has involved every aspect of the aerial tramway excluding the towers and footings. Snowbird has replaced the track ropes, haul rope, drive system, motors and bullwheels. It took Jake and crews about a week to pull out every single component you see in the engine room in the basement of the Snowbird Center.
The challenge of plotting the cabin replacement dates back to 2019. A few representatives from Snowbird made a trip to Europe to gain inspiration and conduct research so as to thoughtfully honor the traditions and aesthetic of Snowbird while incorporating the latest innovations from Doppelmayr/Garaventa and CWA Constructions. From choosing the shape to the color and all the various internal options, Jake estimates that Snowbird went through about 50 variations of exterior logos before a final design was achieved.
Jake admits that the challenges of timing, delivery, and international shipping to the US were manifold. It was a complex endeavor to plot installation amid shipping windows, shipping delays and the arrival or holdup of various parts or components; it was a never-ending puzzle. Jake and his crew worked tirelessly to tackle the ongoing challenges of even just transporting all the new parts into the tramway's Drive Room. This took hours of complex rigging and planning, just to get the new parts in place prior to installation. In some cases, equipment had to be lifted up with rigging and passed through windows with only a few inches to spare.
The new blue boat took its first load of Snowbird guests to Hidden Peak on July 16, 2022. After a few installation mishaps, the red boat wasn’t far behind and was installed in early November of 2022 before Snowbird’s rapidly approaching Opening Day. With a prodigious amount of snow coating Little Cottonwood throughout October and November, we’re hoping for a banner breakout year to welcome Snowbird’s new tram cars.
FACTS ABOUT SNOWBIRD'S NEW TRAM CARS
Cabriolet style floor-to-ceiling windows will elevate the sublime 360-degree views as passengers climb to Hidden Peak.
The aerial tram cars will climb nearly 3,000 vertical feet in just 7-8 minutes, depending on weather and wind.
In the summer months guests can elevate their heart rate by peering through three sections of glass paneling in the floor as they race above the rocky cirque and soar up the flanks of the Dalton’s Draw ski run.
The new tram cars feature a rooftop balcony with room for up to 14 passengers! The first time this feature has debuted in North America, guests can enjoy this amenity in the summer months.
Commanding a new position of respect, the tram operators will now enjoy working from an elevated platform and much-improved information control systems that will assist operators in maintaining the entire tramway system.
If you can't get enough TRAM FACTS, don't miss Tom Kelly's Last Chair Podcast—click here—with the Snowbird Crew. They chatted about the installation and the future of the tram and recorded the podcast inside the brand new blue car while parked 350 feet above the daunting Cirque, some of Snowbird's most famous terrain!