Heavenly’s tram — a 50-year-old tradition


By Susan Wood

One of South Lake Tahoe’s most famous landmarks has carried countless skiers and boarders up the steep slopes of Heavenly Mountain Resort’s lake-facing ridge. It has carried a history with it – one that has stood the test of time.

The tram has been operating for 50 seasons.

From old-timers to modern-day users, the tram in six minutes has whisked riders up to the back slopes. It can cart 600 people an hour up the mountain. Near the top is a restaurant, which has changed names a few times since the lift’s inception in 1962. It’s now a burger joint with a bar called Booyah’s.

South Shore’s longtime skier, former Heavenly employee and Olympic volunteer Martin Hollay still makes the tram part of his morning ski ritual. Hollay lives a few blocks away — his home base since going to work for Heavenly in 1964.

Views from the tram are one reason people continue to ride it from Heavenly’s California Lodge. Photos/Kathryn Reed

He likes the views from the tram and said he’d be heartbroken if it were taken out. The views are unparalleled, sweeping 180 degrees of the lake’s south shore.

“It should be kept because it’s a big part of Heavenly’s history,” Hollay told Lake Tahoe News.

Although the tram is documented in the 2007 Heavenly Master Plan, its days could be numbered once the redevelopment plan involving the California Base Lodge is launched. This is according to Heavenly and confirmed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and U.S. Forest Service. A smaller lift situated closer to the ground will replace the tram. It is proposed to land near the top of the Powderbowl chairlift.

“Its removal is no longer tied to the implementation of the gondola,” said Andrew Strain, Heavenly’s planning chief. The Heavenly Gondola opened in 2000 near Stateline from the Highway 50 street level.

The scenic impacts of the building and towers were discussed by TRPA back then, but never fully addressed. The new plan was approved in 2007 by the regulatory agency.

The U.S. Forest Service, which leases the land to Heavenly, is treating the plan as a “concept document,” said Jonathan Cook-Fisher, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit recreation special uses regional manager.

Fisher uses the tram because before he hits the slopes he likes “to tinker” with his gear. One can do that while standing in the tram. Other than that, he treats taking the tram versus the other lifts as a difference between an escalator and elevator.

“It has served the ski area well,” he said.

Heavenly’s tram has been transporting people for 50 seasons.

Tram proponents — including former employees — hope there is as much room for the lift in the town as there is in the hearts of its residents.

Malcolm Tibbetts, Heavenly’s former vice president of mountain operations of 32 years, remembers working with the tram like it was yesterday. However, the place looked a lot different and wasn’t owned by Vail Resorts.

“When the tram was first built, it was a separate company, but it didn’t stay that way very long,” he told Lake Tahoe News. “Back then, the lifts were numbered.”

There were three chairlifts and two rope tows. The tram was completely rebuilt in 1986 – making the new one faster and larger. The new one doubled the number of passengers to 50.

“As a tourist lift, it was fantastic,” said Tibbetts, who still lives on the South Shore. “From a marketing standpoint, it probably paid for itself.”

“It’s a part of the Heavenly history,” he said.

Tibbetts recalled how employees would unwind at the top building known decades ago as the Pioneer Hut.

“It was added onto through the years,” he said. “We loved to do our own construction.”

The tram turned out to be a bane and a blessing. It needed much maintenance, creating a “huge headache” for the mountain operations workers, Tibbetts added. “It had its quirks,” he said.

One morning, all but one member of the ski patrol was caught in the tram when one of the cables “reversed,” making it necessary to slow the tram down to a “creeping” speed a half hour before the mountain opened.

The restaurant that came to be known as Monument Peak was a steakhouse where workers and old-timers staged last-minute parties.

Some parties were more memorable than others.

About a decade ago, a spine-tingling version of “God Bless America” was sung by a host of pioneering South Lake Tahoe families who gathered at the restaurant to honor the late Patsy Gilman Wood. Her husband, Robert Wood, was a founding partner of Heavenly and was on hand to help lead the group in singing her favorite song. (Patsy Wood has a run and lift named after her, but is not related to this reporter.)

The Woods were instrumental in getting the tram off the ground in 1962.

Today’s riders are more than grateful of the effort.

“We always ride the tram,” said local skier Jill Berliner on a recent morning with her son, Bram Sigman.

He noted how many riders are scared to go up the tram because of how steep the ridge appears.

They also know when the gondola is on wind hold, the tram is often a last hold-out to get on the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments (16)
  1. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    Please don’t tear down “my” old tram! It’s part of old Heavenly Valley and South Tahoe. Martin, I agree with you it would break my heart to see it go. Malcom, your right it did take alot of maintenance but we did as best we could with what we had to work with. Kept it runnin’ under all kinds of conditions. Good crew, maybe a little crazy, but good guys one and all!
    Those little original red cars, #1 and #2, sure got lots of use over the years. Skiers in winter and sightseers year round would take the tram to 8,300 ft. and either ski off or go to the lodge.
    I was told here the otherday ,”Old Long Skiis, yesterday was yesterday”. While that may be true but in some instances somethings are better left as they are.
    And finally, Hello Martin, Malcom and Tere Tibbetts and any other old patrollers and former employees of Heavenly Valley back when it had 3 or 4 chairlifts and a couple of rope tows.
    Save the tram! Old Long Skiis

  2. Dogula says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    I love the tram too. The comeraderie of the first tram up in the morning sets the tone for a great day.
    And the fact that it can be used when the gondola is on wind hold seems pretty important to me, too.
    I hope it stays. It’s a little bit of history that has stood the test of time and weather.

  3. 33 year local says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    I thought the tram was to be removed when the gondola was built. Also an overpass where the crosswalk and signal are at heavenly village was to be built. Also no old growth trees were to be cut down for the village or the gondola. Most of the trees are dead now and many old growth trees were cut down. Good job Heavenly! How about fixing the signal light at pioneer and ski run so more than 2 or 3 cars can get thru before it turns red.

  4. Steve says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    Under no circumstances should the Tram be removed. Photographs, and its photo on postcards, with the awesome picture of the lake in the background, have been sent and seen around the world for decades, likely surpassing anything the Visitors Authority has done or can do. Removing Heavenly’s Tram would be a mistake.

  5. Michael Clark says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    That tram holds such memories, the old rickety tram and the new one. A bit of a nightmare to work on but such a beautiful machine! I would estimate my trips on it at right around 10,000. I have no doubt that Martin easily has double that. The biggest problem with taking the tram out would be medical evacuation. There is no reasonable method that can transport a seriously hurt patient down the Face safely and quickly while maintaining care.

    I still remember when the Ridge Chair was new and the Blue Angel Cafe was the place to go. It always cracked me up in summer to see the extra-green grass growing under where the cafe bathrooms used to be, decades after it was taken out!

    All the best! I sure miss skiing and the mountain.

  6. Dan Wilvers says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    I was a tram attendant and later in the summer an operator for the
    Ski season 77-78. It was Bill Killebrews 1st year in charge, lift tickets were 13 bucks. Squaws tram had their tragic accident that year.
    Riding the apex of the frame above the cable to grease fittings on the towers was an amazing thrill ride ill never forget.

    Tons of stars came through to see the sights, and so many ski wrecks it boggles the mind.

    The Tram was I that time the center of everything happening.
    I could write a short book on that season. Fun times!

  7. Noodle says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    The Tram is iconic to the South Lake Tahoe. Maybe get it on a historical preservation list.

    The corporate offices would show their ignorance if they pursue a plan that would remove the tram. For safety reasons alone it should stay.

    And quit forcing the gondola option (which is awful for everyone who is not staying in the corridor).

  8. Robert Fleischer says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    It was also my understanding that once the gondola was in, the tram would go bye bye. I was very happy it did not. I refuse to go park in the City parking garage, nor at Harrahs (or?) and use the gondola. I have always used the tram, or the chairlift next to the California base lodge. If the tram goes, I might use the lift; or; I might just get my season passes elsewhere’s. I hate being a Luddite; but, I LIKE THE TRAM, and the early morning comaraderie. Seeing Martin always makes me smile, and have thoughts of how long I may continue to ski…..

  9. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    Glad to hear some support for saving the tram! Michael Clark you bring up a good point about bringing injured skiers off the mountain via tram. The ambulance waiting at the bottom, Terry Tibbetts on the platform waiting to give her assistance when the skier was helped out of the tram.
    I to met many famous people while working there, Johnny Cash, Kirk Douglas,Sonny and Cher and many others.
    The tram is definately a draw for locals and vistors alike. Are you listening USFS, TRPA and Vail?
    Old long Skiis, tram attendant and operator from 1972 thru 1976.

  10. Marc says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    Good article. I enjoy reading about the history of heavenly and the town.

  11. Michael Clark says - Posted: January 29, 2013

    This got me to reminisce a little more. I remember skiing the old Gunbarrel chair, on skier’s left, and the mid-station about a third of the way down. Anyone remember that?

    Long Skis reminded me of talking to John Denver in the VIP tent while we were laying phone cable for the John Denver Celebrity Ski Classic TV coverage. What a great time! Faaaaaaar Out, Man!

  12. Firebreaker says - Posted: January 30, 2013

    Hmm, I like the old tram, but that new lift to the top of powderbowl seems like a good idea too.

    I like the top of tram lodge now called Booyah! and they have the best burger selection in Tahoe with elk, buffalo, lamb and other gourmet food and just a little more than the other 12.00 epic burger at the cafeteria. Excellent service with excellent views. The view up there is the best.

    Anyway, I think we should urge Heavenly to save the tram, but it must be getting old by now. The equipment looks like something out of the 1970’s (because it is).

    We could make ‘save the tram’ bumper stickers and have a ‘save the tram’ protest at Heavenly complete with that big crime scene banner used at the police department protest.

    What ever happened to that idea to connect Wally’s hot springs to Heavenly via the worlds longest gondola?

  13. Firebreaker says - Posted: January 30, 2013

    If the Olympics were to come to Tahoe, Heavenly is rumored to be the only mountain with enough vertical. This is what they promoted last year for the failed attempt. I wonder what trail since the Olympic downhill run at Heavenly is not really Olympic class compared to Beaver Creek Birds of Prey.

    Brian Kroliki of Nevada said the proposed course would be at Heavenly and Start in Nevada and end in California. This leads me to speculate that Heavenly would need to build a new downhill trail from the top of east peak down to the base of the Gondola area. This is the area known as Firebreak. It is the only area that I can think of that could be a downhill course to rival Beaver Creek Birds of Prey.

    See http://www.lvrj.com/news/krolicki-leading-charge-to-bring-winter-olympics-to-nevada-156944545.html

  14. Chief Slowroller says - Posted: January 30, 2013

    when I was a Snowmaker in 83-84 we rode the tram one night when the wind’s were well above the limits of operation

    that was one Exciting Ride

  15. Gayle Harlow says - Posted: February 2, 2013

    I, too, love the tram and think it would be terrible to remove it. Best way to get up the mountain.

  16. Bill Dickert says - Posted: February 2, 2013

    I too have enjoyed the tram as my #1 way up the mountain. No wind problem, time to get settled, tweak glove & goggles, and gaze off into Big Blue and visualize the great day of skiing ahead. No chair can replace the Tram. Don’t do it.