From barrels of schnapps to a rooftop balcony: Snowbird ski area to replace its aerial tram

New cabins with glass panels in the floor expected to carry passengers by June

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A tram full of sightseers head to the top of the mountain, as skiers head back down, on the last ski day of the season, at Snowbird Ski resort, Thursday, July 4, 2019. The resort plans to replace the tram cars and drive system this summer.

The barrels shipped from Switzerland bore the label “Cable Grease.” And their contents likely did help smooth the building of Snowbird Resort’s massive aerial tram during the spring and fall of 1971 — when a series of unseasonable blizzards beleaguered Little Cottonwood Canyon, including a Halloween dumping of 8.5 inches.

But thanks to perseverance and plenty of schnapps — the actual contents of those barrels, according to Walt McConnell’s book “The Snowbird Tram” — the resort’s iconic blue and red carriages made their maiden voyage on Dec. 23, 1971.

As the resort celebrates its 50th season, however, the time has come for the tram to be replaced. Snowbird announced Tuesday it has ordered a new drive system and carriages from The Doppelmayr Group in Switzerland. The old cars will make their last trips between the base and Hidden Peak on April 3 and the new ones are expected to be ready to carry passengers by the start of the summer season in late June.

“The Tram and Snowbird have provided year-round excitement for five decades,” resort general manager Dave Fields said in a press release, “but the new tram cabins promise to take this excitement to a whole new level.”

The tram carriages have traveled nearly 800,000 miles — enough to allow it to go to the moon and back 1.5 times. And though Snowbird replaced all four track ropes in 2016, the technology had advanced such that it was time to replace it, resort spokesperson Sarah Sherman said.

“The current trams are 50 years old. We absolutely love them, they’re a classic, but it was time for an upgrade,” Sherman said. “Even looking at the control system and how they drive the tram, there’s just been so much in the past 50 years that has changed and been upgraded that we felt it was time to really embrace the newer technology, not only for this upcoming season but for the next 50 years.”

Some perks come with the upgrades.

In the summer, the two cars — one of which will still be red and the other blue — will have glass floor panels, allowing passengers to see the scenery directly below them. Each of the three panels measure 3 feet by 3 feet and will be located in one section of the tram. So, there will be safe areas for those who are squeamish about the idea of seeing the treetops pass far below their feet.

For those wanting an even less obstructed view, however, another option exists. The new cars will be equipped with a 15-person open-air balcony that can be accessed in the summers for an additional fee. Sherman said it is the only open-air tram balcony in the U.S.

“We’re really, really excited to have this,” she said, “and let people stand up there on the summer days and see the 360-degree views of Mount Superior and Salt Lake and take everything in.”

Neither option is available in the winter, when the cars will return to delivering skiers and snowboarders to the snow 2,900 feet up the mountain. The old cabins carried a maximum of 125 passengers, the most of any aerial tram in the United States as of 2016, according to liftblog.com. Sherman said the uphill capacity, which the resort generally limits to 100, and the speed, about 10 minutes per trip, will not change.

Some alterations will be made to the tram car docks. Sherman said she is not aware of any additional changes that will need to be made to the building that housed the recently closed Tram Club, a bar located under the tram’s loading station and in view of its bull wheels, and other adjacent buildings. The Tram Club is already undergoing renovations and its status should be updated “soon,” Sherman said.

While it hopes to have the new tram up and running by mid-June for its summer season, that doesn’t mean it will be closed for skiing by then. Snowbird is traditionally one of the last ski areas in the country to close, sometimes staying open into July. Sherman said the resort will try to find ways to keep the areas traditionally accessed by the tram open well past April 3 using their Peruvian, Little Cloud and Mineral Basin lifts.

So what will become of the two tram cars once they’re retired?

“That’s the million dollar question,” Sherman said. “And the not exciting answer is: We don’t know yet. We want to do something really cool with them. We want to continue to honor them.”

The 200 gallons of schnapps that greased their installation says a bar might be a good solution.