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Jackson Hole, WY News

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Steep, dark and cold: A farewell to the Summit Lift

Locals bid farewell to Snow King Mountain’s historic Summit Lift.

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Snow King summit chairlift

Kristine Harris walked from her home to Snow King last week for a last dash up the Summit Lift. She and her husband, Adam, wanted to pay tribute to the lift one last time.

“It was important to us because it is such an iconic chairlift,” she said. “Not only is Snow King the first ski resort ever in the state of Wyoming, it’s the steep and deep. That is the chairlift not for the weak of heart.”

The only lift from the base of Snow King to the top, the Summit Lift double chair rises — quite slowly, by today’s standards — 1,400 feet through a narrow cut of trees to the summit. Since 1947 it (and its single-chair predecessor) carried Olympians, residents and tourists in winter and summer.

Snow King summit chairlift

Skiers make their way down from Snow King’s old double chairlift in this undated photo. The Summit Lift platform, now used as an observation deck, was used from 1959 when the mountain’s original 1946 single chairlift was replaced until the opening of the current Summit chairlift in 1981.

To say it’s a relic of days gone by is an understatement. Every ski lift in the vicinity has gone higher-tech, with heated sidewalks to melt snow and hydraulic lifts that pick up speed. To load on the Summit Lift means walking or skidding onto a wooden platform where painted feet tell you where to stand. From there the journey has to be part of the destination because it will take you anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes to get to the top. (The lift changes speeds depending on who is riding it. It slows for sightseers and picks up for skiers. Regular King skiers will see people loading without skis and head to another lift, knowing the glacial pace that will ensue to suit tourists on the Summit Lift.) At the top a rope safety net is cobwebbed beneath the chair before the unloading area in case anyone falls while unloading from the wooden platform.

On the travel review website TripAdvisor, one woman took the time to review the chair specifically. “I did not anticipate how steep this chair lift was [and] how high off the ground it was while riding. If you have trouble with that sort of thing, it might not be the ride for you.”

But Harris pointed to the chair’s leisurely pace as a bonus: Passengers can watch the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb and ski races.

Snow King Summit chairlift

Skiers make their way to the Panorama House last Wednesday atop Snow King for a celebration sending off the soon-to-be-retired Summit chairlift.

Speed aside, the lift will stop spinning forever Sunday after the Hill Climb, and the chair will be taken down this spring to be replaced by an eight-passenger gondola to the summit, expected by next winter. The lift chugs up Exhibition, and the only runs accessible from the top are expert runs like Grizzly, Belly Roll and Bearcat.

The chair was the first on the mountain and in the valley. After Neil Rafferty opened Snow King with tow ropes in 1939 the community saw the need for a chairlift, in part because of a boom in the ski industry after World War II. In 1945 the Jackson Hole Winter Sports Association formed and raised some $40,000 for a chairlift from locals.

An old gold mining tramway was bought from Salida, Colorado, for the first chairlift. It included bullwheels, cables, towers and structural beams. Single chairs were hung in the place of the ore buckets.

In the winter of 1948-49 the lift carried 8,500 people to the top.

Snow King Summit chairlift

Skiers ride the Summit chairlift last Wednesday at Snow King Mountain. The double chair, installed in 1981, is being retired at the end of this season to make way for a new 8-person gondola.

By the late 1950s the single chair was replaced with a double. In 1981 the entire lift was replaced with the Summit Lift there now.

The retirement of the Summit Lift represents the modernization of Snow King. It was just a part of a slew of upgrades the resort sought — and was ultimately granted in the last year — for the Town Hill. The gondola was not particularly controversial. More debate was had around the opening of the south side of the mountain for ski runs, clearing of trees, a new road up the mountain, a zip line and new buildings.

“I love the idea of a gondola for both winter and summer use — to be able to go to the top safely, access ski and hike trails and stargaze,” Jackson local Nancy Leon said during the local’s ski free day last week. “I’m delighted that Snow King and the community support the idea of a gondola. Just the idea of having something safer and more modern is a bonus.”

For many locals, like Snow King neighbor Kristine Harris, one of main issues of the new Snow King modernization is parking.

Snow King summit chairlift

A line forms at the base of Snow King Mountain’s first chairlift, which was installed in 1946-47 by Neil Rafferty using parts from an old Salida, Colorado, gold mine tramway. The single-chair lift followed a narrow strip of cut timber up what is now the mountain’s Exhibition run, then called “Screwy Schuss.”

“I’m just worried about that slim little road with all the cars parking on the street for the bar, the ski resort, for the park,” she said. “There’s not enough parking.”

Snow King President and General Manager Ryan Stanley said the gondola will boost the winter experience. “We’ve struggled ever since Jackson Hole has come along, so we’ve now focused on improving the beginner, beginner-intermediate skier and rider experience,” he said. “We want to give people a better experience so they don’t get scared off.”

Snow King Summit chairlift

A memorial for former Snow King ski patroller Karen Colclough remains inside the summit patrol cabin. Colclough was killed on a mission trip to Nicaragua. The cabin will be removed and replaced along with the top of the 40-year-old Summit chairlift.

Stanley and the Snow King team hope the installation of a few more magic carpets and a new lift on the back side of the King will convince newer skiers to ski Snow King’s supportive terrain over Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s tough trails.

As for the Summit Lift, it will be disassembled this spring. The resort has not formally announced plans for the chairs, but some locals are already eyeing them.

“It’s something we’ve talked a lot about in our house, if they choose to auction or sell [the chairs] I hope they do a raffle or lottery so people can afford a chair and put it in their backyard,” Harris said. “I know we would.”

— Julia Hornstein contributed to this article

Features editor Whitney Royster can be reached at 732-7068 or valley@jhnewsandguide.com.

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