January 18, 2024

A Legacy of Innovation

Story by  Peter Landsman, Photos courtesy of Big Sky Resort

How Big Sky Resort looks to the future; leads the transformation of the North American ski experience

As the new Lone Peak Tram takes its inaugural flight this season, Big Sky Resort marks 50 years of transporting skiers aboard innovative lifts. From the original Gondola One to the first eight-place chairlift in North America and many others in between, Big Sky skiers have always enjoyed famously uncrowded slopes and few lift lines thanks to a unique and ever-growing lift system. 

Chet Huntley in front of Lone Mountain

Chet Huntley in Big Sky

Big Sky Resort’s founder, broadcaster Chet Huntley, first envisioned building one of the first gondola lifts in western skiing at his new resort in Montana in the late 1960s. Opened in 1973 for Big Sky’s inaugural season, Gondola One carried skiers out of the original Mountain Mall to the bottom of the bowl in the shadow of Lone Peak. The lift was manufactured by Pomagalski of France and featured colorful egg-shaped cabins, a modern style for the ‘70s. Huntley sadly passed away shortly after Big Sky’s opening, and Boyne USA of Michigan purchased the resort in 1976.

The original Gondola One in 1973

Boyne founder Everett Kircher brought experience building groundbreaking lifts in the eastern United States and set to work on his largest lift projects yet at Big Sky. The resort opened the Mad Wolf chair on Andesite Mountain in 1979, one of the longest double chairs in the nation at the time. By 1984, Big Sky needed a second gondola in order to keep lift lines from forming. The opening of Gondola Two made Big Sky the first ski area in America to operate two high-speed gondola lifts side by side.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Big Sky began adding the expert, high alpine terrain it’s now known for. The original Challenger chair debuted that year, ushering in a new era for a resort previously famous for mellow cruiser runs on Andesite Mountain and the lower reaches of Lone Mountain.

Left Image: Construction on the Shedhorn lift, Right Image: The 1988-89 Winter Trail Map of Big Sky Resort

Three years after Challenger, Big Sky introduced the first of what would become many high-speed detachable chairlifts, a new technology at the time for southwest Montana. Ramcharger was the first lift at Big Sky constructed by Doppelmayr, an Austrian lift company with a 100-year history in 1991. Thunderwolf, Swift Current, Southern Comfort, and Shedhorn high-speed quads would follow as Big Sky grew, but innovation didn’t stop there.

John Kircher, Everett’s son and Big Sky’s general manager in the 1990s, envisioned building an even more unique lift. Tired of running a ski resort without a summit lift and without clear approval from his father, John set out to build a lift to the top of Lone Peak. With no access road, crews built the entire Lone Peak Tram upper station by helicopter, a first for a tram at a US ski area. The bottom station sat atop a rock glacier, requiring terminal elements to be moveable to keep the tram in alignment. The original Lone Peak Tram opened in 1995, launching Big Sky to the pinnacle of North American skiing. 

Construction of the original Lone Peak Tram, September 1995

“The original tram opened the high alpine terrain of Lone Mountain to skiers and riders, and the new tram is symbolic of the experiential transformation we are endeavoring to accomplish through our Big Sky 2025 vision,” said Taylor Middleton, president and COO of Big Sky Resort. “This world-class summit experience is now serviced by a modern tram that will open up possibilities never contemplated until now, in both winter and summer.”

As boundaries continued to expand, Big Sky worked to increase capacity on core lifts to maintain famously uncrowded slopes. Powder Seeker debuted in as one of the first lifts in the United States with bubble covers and heated seats for the 2016-17 ski season. Boyne Resorts President Stephen Kircher announced in March of 2018 that Big Sky would open its largest chairlift yet, Ramcharger 8.

Ramcharger 8

Not only would Ramcharger 8 lift twice as many skiers up Andesite Mountain than the original Ramcharger, but it would also carry more skiers at a time than any other chairlift in America. Ramcharger 8 became the first Doppelmayr D-Line chairlift in the Americas when it opened in December 2018. Manufactured in Austria, D-Line lifts feature innovative comfort and safety features such as a raiseable loading conveyor, auto-locking safety bar, and an in-terminal LED screen. Three years after Ramcharger, Big Sky opened its second D-Line chairlift, Swift Current 6, bringing the same features to the legacy Gondola Two lift line.

Swift Current 6 Lift

Swift Current 6

For the 2020s, Big Sky leaders realized they needed a more modern lift system to provide guests year-round access to Lone Peak’s 11,166-foot summit. The original Lone Peak Tram was reaching the end of its useful life, and the rock glacier posed challenges at the bottom terminal. Instead of replacing the tram with another short tram from the original lower terminal location, Big Sky opted to build a larger and more accessible machine from the bottom of the Bowl. Crews from across the world worked for two years to build America’s first new tram in 15 winters.

The recently completed tram can carry up to 75 riders at a time at a blazing fast 10 meters per second. Guests will enjoy automatic doors, 360-degree panoramic windows, and, in the summer months, glass floor panels as they travel up Lone Peak. The new tram opened on December 19th and is the 25th lift Big Sky and Doppelmayr have completed together since 1991.

The new Lone Peak Tram

“Big Sky Resort is at the forefront of transforming the North American ski experience by adding the most advanced and comfortable lift system to our mountain. These lift replacements support our long-standing reputation for having some of the shortest lift lines in the Rockies,” said Nedved.

The two companies are already working on what’s next. Construction is underway on the Explorer Gondola, another innovative lift carrying riders roughly along the path of the original Gondola One. The new gondola will provide year-round access from the Mountain Village to the base of the new tram with a mid-mountain learning center. Riders will enjoy the latest generation 10-passenger gondola cabins when the gondola opens for the 2025-26 ski season. 

Rendering of the new Eight-Place LiftA rendering of the new eight-place lift that will replace Six Shooter

Just days after the new Lone Peak Tram opened to the public, Big Sky Resort delivered a surprise announcement about their next steps: the resort’s second eight-place and third state-of-the-art D-line chairlift replacing the existing Six Shooter lift.

The new eight-place lift will effectively double the uphill capacity and reduce ride time by 30% on Big Sky Resort’s notoriously cold, shaded north-side terrain. This lift will also set a new record globally as the longest eight-place installation in the world.

With seven new lifts in seven years and more on the way, Big Sky continues to forge ahead on its commitment to lift innovation as part of its 2025 vision.

Peter Landsman is the founder and editor of Lift Blog, a website dedicated to documenting ski lifts, gondolas, and tramways. He recently completed visiting every ski resort in the United States and is currently skiing his way through Canada. When not exploring, he works as a Lift Supervisor at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming.