JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. Imagine Yellowstone without Old Faithful or San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge. Next image Jackson Hole without the tram that rises 4,139 feet from the valley floor into the Teton Range.
The image isnt coming easily in Jackson Hole. The tram, say die-hard skiers, has been the source of their "happiness and sanity" for several decades, providing easy access to Corbetts Couloir and other big-mountain runs that are household names among skiers in North America.
But ski area officials say the tram must come down, and a new one cannot be erected unless others defray the $20 million replacement cost.
"Spending $20 million on a tram that is not the most efficient carrier of skiers its a no-brainer that we cannot do this alone," said Bob Graham, a stockholder in the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
The tram was built in the mid-1960s at a cost of $2.5 million, almost half of it from a federal program designed to help depressed communities that relied on seasonal economies. But it was the ski areas Achilles heel, noted the ski area developer Paul McCollister. For all the comfort of the tram, it provides little uphill capacity 260 people an hour. Many other ski area lifts and gondolas can carry several thousand people per hour.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide reported that some in Jackson Hole see this as further proof of the ski companys shift from skiing to real estate.
A slightly tempered view comes from David Gonzales, author of a book about the history of the resort. He speculates that the announcement was one way to gauge the communitys affection for the famous lift. "Them threatening to take away the tram is akin to taking away a childs toy just to see how loudly the child screams," said Gonzales. The tram, he added, is too valuable to the ski area because of the publicity and image it generates.
Still, the majority owners, the Kemmerers, have sunk only $55 million into the resort during the last 13 years, much less than many resorts in the West. Jerry Blann, the ski area president, suggested partnerships with outside sources and possibly assistance from the state government. Indeed, there is ample precedent for such actions most resorts have partnerships involving the ski areas to secure direct flights.
And if the tram is not replaced? While Jackson Hole has built its reputation as a place for die-hard skiers, the ski area for the last several years has talked about trying to provide a product of greater interest to more mid-range skiers essentially, destination guests. That more genteel posture would probably be attractive in some quarters of Jackson Hole, where the ski economy remains distinctly second to the summer business.