In 1962, Whistlers Mountain was Jasper’s ski hub.
Locals took a lazy tow rope, built by Ken Cook in the 1940s, to the top of the slopes, hit a ski jump on the way down, and warmed up in a clubhouse near the bottom. Whistlers’ peak could only be reached by foot.
The volume of tourism that would eventually flood the streets of Jasper was unimaginable back then. Even less imaginable was the fact that conquering Whistlers peak would soon become a seven-minute affair, accessible to all.
William McGregor and Norm Gustavson, avid hikers, had the idea that sparked this change: to bring an aerial cable car tramway to Whistlers Mountain.
At the time, the only other tramway of its kind in North America was the Cannon Mountain Tramway in Franconia, New Hampshire. The Jasper SkyTram would be the first in Canada. This was, of course, a really big deal.
After a hush-hush trip to Jasper to scout out the site, engineer John Ogilvy took on the project. His team used helicopters to bring workers and materials to the summit and completed the project in only five months despite a language barrier between German experts and local engineers.
Ogilvy’s design is simple: the tram is attached by a haul rope, which pulls the cars up the mountain, and a track rope, along which the car slides. As one car goes up, the other car comes down.
After a small hiccup in the form of a derailment on opening day, the tramway launched successfully in 1964 and quickly became a Jasper must-do.
The tramway has changed hands many times over the years.
After immigrating to Canada from his native Austria, Toby Rayner eventually landed in Jasper and worked on surveying the Whistlers road, parking lot and logging the lift line for the SkyTram in addition to his full time job as a truck driver for Parks Canada and early involvement developing Marmot Basin.
Rayner also went to work on the installation of the telecommunication tower on Pyramid Mountain, for which a tramway was also built.
After moving to Banff and opening and operating Banff’s largest gift store, Toby and Judy Rayner purchased the SkyTram in 1979. The Rayners operated it until 1985 when Toby became the sole owner.
In 1995, after working in the business off and on since childhood, Curt and Alex Rayner entered into a multi-year buy out of their father. Curt was the general manager from 1995 to 2001 and Alex operated the SkyTram until the brothers sold the tramway in 2012 to a group of Marmot Basin shareholders who own it to this day.
During the Rayners’ ownership, several improvements were made including the installation of new cables, carriage rebuilds, extensive renovations to both stations and grounds, electrical system upgrades, evacuation system upgrades and plumbing systems.
The fact that there have been no accidents on the SkyTram since 1963 is a testament to the team’s dedication to safety. Employees do evacuation training yearly to ensure they are prepared for any emergency. Only twice, since 1963 have they had to implement their training skills.
In 2010, a track rope malfunctioned with 271 people on the mountain and 49 people in the cable cars. The visitors at the peak were taken down by a Parks Canada helicopter, while the passengers inside the gondolas were evacuated by rope and pulley.
Then, in 2018, a power surge in Jasper knocked the SkyTram out of operation, stranding about 160 people. 50 of them, including 10 staff members, had to spend the night above the clouds playing games in the upper terminal. No one seemed to complain in either SkyTram stranding. In fact, guests were quoted as saying “It made my vacation,” “Wow, that’s an adventure,” or “A holiday experience I won’t forget.”
By the 1970s and 80s, nearly 2,000 people were taking the SkyTram each day. Among the visitors in 1977 were Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his sons Justin, Sascha and Michel. Marmot Basin eclipsed Whistlers as the main ski hill in the 1970s, and Whistlers became a hub primarily for sightseers and hikers rather than skiers. In fact, the old Whistlers Ski Hill chalet later became the HI hostel on Whistlers Road.
Over the years, the SkyTram has hosted many special events including weddings and anniversary parties. Most famously, though, the SkyTram hosted one of the more difficult challenges for the Amazing Race Canada in 2016.
Today, the SkyTram runs from mid-March to the end of October. When the weather turns cold, visitors can even rent snowshoes at the top. The Jasper SkyTram might be one of the best places in the Dark Sky Preserve to get up close and personal with the stars during Jasper’s Annual Dark Sky Festival.
Another piece of Jasper history can be found at the base of the SkyTram: the original Jasper the Bear statue has lived there for more than 30 years and still hasn’t tired of the view.
Jasper Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Now showing in our Showcase Gallery in partnership with Mountain Galleries is Enchanted Forests and Other Wonders, a collection of art by many Western Canadian Artists including local artists Pascale Robinson and Satoko Naito (Rico).
Our 28th Annual Duck Race in partnership with the Right to Read Society of Jasper will take place on Sunday, September 27, and tickets are now available for only $5 in the museum gift shop. First prize is $1,000 cash. Also available in our gift shop are bird feeders with all proceeds supporting the museum.