It's a blue bird day at Teacup Lake Nordic area and the sun lights up the snowy peak of nearby Mt. Hood. I push off on a crust of perfectly groomed Nordic track on my classic skis, trying to catch...
RLK and Company President Jeff Kohnstamm is working behind the scenes on a project that could lift Mount Hood recreation to new heights.
Kohnstamm's father, Richard L. Kohnstamm (1926-2006), rescued Timberline Lodge from financial ruin in the 1950s and oversaw its transition from a run-down relic to a National Historic Landmark. Now Jeff Kohnstamm and other leaders from the Mount Hood community are laying the foundation for the next big step: an aerial connection between Government Camp and Timberline Lodge.
Kohnstamm spoke about the effort to build a gondola, expand into mountain biking and improve the transportation situation "from Hood River to Sandy and all around the mountain" during an interview with Shred Hood on Monday, December 16, 2013 as dignitaries gathered to celebrate the newly expanded Mt. Hood Express bus line.
Casually dressed and seated in an office decorated with mountain art and skiing heirlooms, the 51-year-old Kohnstamm called the first public bus carrying riders to Timberline "a great start," and offered details about what could come next.
The effort would start with a local nonprofit or quasi-governmental agency representing resorts, businesses and public agencies on Mount Hood, to oversee transportation improvements. The most ambitious and popular project being considered is an aerial connection between Govy and Timberline Lodge, which would probably be operated by the company Kohnstamm runs.
"People fear that it seems a bit audacious," said Kohnstamm, "but it really isn't that big a project. The biggest challenge is the transportation infrastructure at the bottom of the tram, and how it interfaces with the community and the roadways. Really, the tram itself is probably a $15 million piece of machinery. That's not a ridiculous amount of money when you're talking about transportation."
Some amazing and amazingly expensive trams have been built in recent years — most notably at Whistler-Blackcomb and Kitzbuhel — but Kohnstamm says the Mount Hood tram would not require fancy engineering. "We would probably use a standard, eight-passenger gondola. It's quite a bit more straightforward and a lot less expensive than a big contraption like [the trams built used at Whistler and Kitzbuhel]."
Timberline managers have studied the tram project in detail and are considering hiring a consulting firm to perform an updated feasibility study. They also have lessons from history, because 60 years ago there was an aerial link connecting Govy to Timberline that ferried passengers up the mountain in converted buses. Unfortunately, the Skiway tram proved unreliable, inefficient and expensive, and it flopped.
"It was certainly the wrong technology," Kohnstamm said of the Skiway tram. "It could only transport 60 people an hour — if things went well. That just doesn’t do it. The other thing is that it was a competing enterprise. It was before RLK and Company started operating Timberline, and the different groups weren’t working together."
That attempt at a tram failed so badly that the poles were ripped out of the ground in 1961 and investors from the skiing community ate their losses. But the historic right-of-way for a transportation link up the mountain remains.
Kohnstamm and other tram supporters would like to see the new gondola follow roughly the same path as the old Skiway did. The only catch is, a large parcel of land along the way is in the process of moving from public to private ownership, and the private entity looking to receive the land is Timberline's biggest competitor, Mt. Hood Meadows.
Meadows has been working with the Forest Service for years to complete a complex land swap that would give Meadows 120 acres of land uphill from Government Camp, in exchange for 770 acres in the vicinity of Cooper Spur. The right-of-way for the would-be tram runs through the western parcel of land that would go to Meadows.
Kohnstamm said the land exchange between Meadows and the Forest Service "has slightly complicated things," but that Timberline and Meadows have a general agreement about allowing the gondola to pass through a buffer area. "We don’t have a document signed, but we have agreed on all the salient terms," he said. "There’s just a lot of moving parts and a lot of uncertainty. But we’re pretty much there."
When it comes to Mount Hood, Kohnstamm takes the long view. He grew up sharing a room with his brothers at Timberline Lodge, and he has worked there full time for more than 25 years. A graduate of Oregon Episcopal School in Portland and Cornell University in Western New York, Kohnstamm has served as president of the company his father founded since 1992. He oversees a staff that swells to about 650 people during the peak of the winter season, and then swells again for a summer shred scene that has become an international draw.
He sees a new Mount Hood Gondola as the next logical step toward making Timberline a must-see travel destination for visitors from all over the globe.
In his interview with Shred Hood, Kohnstamm delved into what it takes to keep Timberline running smoothly, what's happening this season, and what he would like to see happen on Mount Hood in the future. You can read the full December 2013 interview here.