This report will cover a rather unconventional trip, at least for me. For example, the total flight time, roundtrip, was about 10 minutes; the destination was a big pile of rocks; the thrill factor was higher than I’ve ever experienced. Now that I’ve peaked your interest (hopefully!), here’s some background info.
In the summer of 1995, Big Sky Ski Resort near Bozeman, Montana began construction of an aerial tram to the summit of Lone Peak. This beautiful mountain, at 11,166 feet (3,403 M) towers above the ski area and the surrounding landscape. The ownership of the ski resort, lured by the potential to offer skiers a vast swath of incredible new terrain, decided to build a tram to the summit despite some difficult engineering challenges presented by the geology of the mountain (more on this later). So, along with the engineers and construction workers involved in the project, a number of geologists were involved as well, one of whom was a colleague of my father (who is also a geologist). This colleague arranged one morning for my father and I to hitch a ride on the helicopter ferrying workers and construction materials to the summit. I was just 13 years old at the time, but this is a day I will never forget—in fact I recall many of the details vividly. Recently I came across some of the paper pics from this experience, so I decided to scan them and share the story with my fellow A.netters. Apologies in advance if the scans are a bit gainy or fuzzy—hopefully they’ll still convey what it was like. Hope you enjoy!
Sunday, August 13, 1995
I recall leaving our house in Bozeman very early on a sunny morning. The drive to Big Sky took about an hour. As soon as we pulled into the gravel parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, I remember spying the helicopter parked at the far end.
We met up with my dad’s colleague who introduced us to a few of the other workers and the chopper pilot. Here’s a pic of me (the teenage version) standing in front of the beautiful little bird with Lone Peak dominating the background.
The chopper was an Aerospatiale SA315B (Lama), registration number N49525, built in 1976—almost 20 years old at this point, and still going strong!
We waited a few minutes before the pilot gave us the okay to climb aboard. I took the front left seat next to the pilot, while my dad and his colleague took the two back seats. Soon the rotors were spinning above and before I knew it, we were off the ground.
We made a 180* turn to the left, the nose lowered slightly, and we began to pass over the forested lower sections of the mountain.
We reached the mid-mountain area in about a minute-and-a-half, as I recall. That same distance usually takes about 15-20 minutes by ski lift in the winter. By helicopter is definitely the way to travel!
The forested areas beneath us soon gave way to the rocky terrain of the upper mountain. By this point, the cliffs of mountain’s east face dominated the windscreen, though the summit still loomed far above us. I was not used to being in an aircraft so close to terrain! By the way, this impressive cliff, which is the east face of the mountain, is where the tram was being built!
As we quickly gained altitude, we followed the right (north) ridgeline toward the summit.
And before I knew it, we were nearly there.
We began to slow before cresting over the summit, probably 25 feet (7.5 M) above the rocks. To this day, I remember the final seconds of the flight and how improbably small the landing zone appeared below—as though we were trying to land on the tip of a pin. Incredibly, we floated downward the final feet, and the pilot set us gently on the summit rocks.
As soon as we were down, the door was opened (I don’t recall by whom) and we all jumped out, rotors still spinning. Someone closed the door again and the pilot lifted off for another lap down the mountain. With the chopper gone, my dad snapped a quick pic of me on the “helipad”—nice paint job! Even on sunny days like this, there are often clouds swirling around the summit. And even in the middle of summer, the temperature up there was close to freezing.
Next, we began to take in the sights of the summit. Here’s a view of the half-built structure that would become the top station of the tram, as seen from the landing pad.
We walked the short distance down to the construction site. My dad’s colleague explained a bit about the process, the progress already made, and what remained to be completed. Here’s a closer look at the station.
And another shot from below. Just behind my back is the east face of Lone Peak, which are the cliffs seen directly ahead of the chopper while on the flight to the summit. The terrain is very exposed—not a good place to trip on a shoelace!
The next pic looks straight down the east face of the peak, with the tram’s base station far below. The base station, which was also under construction at this point, would eventually be connected to the summit with a free-hanging cable—in other words, without a single support tower at any point in between. Pretty incredible, in my opinion. Also note the large, oval shaped area of rocks with a criss-cross pattern on the surface, directly in front of the base station. This is the area flanked on the left and right by patches of snow. This geological feature is an active rock glacier (a mass of rock and even some ice) that is slowly creeping downhill. The tram’s base station is actually built on the lower part of this geologic feature, and as such, the distance between the top and bottom stations is gradually becoming longer. This posed a significant problem for the engineers, and is one reason why the geologists were brought in during the design and construction processes.
While we were busy checking out the construction site, the chopper continued to come and go, bringing more personnel and supplies to the summit.
Here are a couple pics of the bird on top:
And a few seconds later, departing:
I also snapped a few pics of the surrounding mountains. These are the Spanish Peaks, just north of Big Sky. On the far side of these mountains is the Gallatin Valley, where Bozeman is located.
And this shot looks due west toward Fan Mountain with the Madison Valley in the background.
After a half hour or so on the summit, it was time for us to catch a ride back down. As soon as the chopper touched down and offloaded, my dad and I jumped aboard and closed the doors. Again, I was in the front left seat.
Unfortunately, I was too busy holding on to take any pics during the flight down. But I’ll certainly describe it, as this was the BEST part!
From the summit, we lifted off and did a 180* turn until the nose was pointed east. Then, all of a sudden, we were diving straight down the east face, seemingly feet away from the rocky terrain. It felt like a freefall, and with the glass windscreen surrounding me on three sides, I felt even more exposed to the elements. In all honesty, this was the only time I’ve ever been terrified in an aircraft!!! The view was just incredible, although everything was moving too quickly for my mind to even process it. Seconds before slamming into the rocks at the bottom, the nose lifted up and we skimmed over the trees and continued on down the gentle slopes of the lower mountain. Of course the pilot knew exactly what he was doing, and in fact did this dozens of times each day! But that drop of the east face was equally thrilling and frightening—and remains a vivid memory thirteen years later.
In just another couple of minutes, we were at the base area and the chopper set down again on the grass next to the parking lot. My dad and I jumped out, waved at the pilot, and a few other guys jumped in. The door closed again and they were off, heading for another lap to the summit. Simply incredible. My dad and I got in the car and headed back home, both still high on adrenaline and excitement.
I hope you all enjoyed this “trip” report. Thanks for reading, and as always, feedback and comments are greatly appreciated!