In the ski resort of Kirchberg-Kitzbühel we find the Kitz 3S-Bahn – the tallest cable car not only in Tirol but in the whole of Europe.
Head engineer Markus Thaler is keen to show us the cable car. He was involved in building it back in 2004 and has a special relationship with this triple-wire gondola giving skiers and boarders access to one of the world’s most famous ski resorts. We speak on the phone a few days before and he encourages us to get there early: “You need the sunrise to get the best pictures,” he says, adding: “I’ll meet you at 5:30 at the bottom of the Pengelsteinbahn cable car.” He is as good as his word and is waiting for the pitch black together with a colleague to transport us and our equipment up to the top of the mountain on skidoos. As we zoom up the empty pistes, an icy wind whistles past our ears – suddenly we are wide awake. Up at the top we have just enough time to set up the camera before the sun appears behind the Großglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, and bathes the Kitz 3S-Bahn in the most beautiful light of the day.
As we film, Markus climbs onto the pillars in front of the station. His daily tasks include checking the rollers as well as measuring the angle of the supporting wire using a spirit level. “The angle always changes a bit, depending on the temperature. So far we have never had to adjust it. Every six years we inspect the wires using magnetic induction and set everything up from scratch,” he explains.
After the calm of sunrise, things suddenly swing into action. Our filming has delayed the normal daily routine. The cable car cabins have to be loaded onto the wire – a tough job which is still done by hand and gets the lift operators sweating despite the freezing temperatures. The first skiers and boarders have already gathered in front of the doors. But before they can cruise the pistes there is a safety run of the gondola to check everything. For this, we are invited to join Markus in the special gondola number one with its glass floor.
We glide out of the station and enjoy the surprisingly smooth journey – and the somewhat surreal experience of seeing the mountains appear beneath our feet. After a few minutes we reach the only supporting pillar, 80 metres above the ground. The original plan had been to stop here and climb out onto the pillar together with Markus, but he informs us what we are running late and have to press on. Having glanced into the abyss below, we certainly aren’t going to complain! We move onto the 2.4km section between the pillar and the top station and approach the highest point: an incredible 400 metres above the valley floor. What happens, we ask Markus, if there is a technical defect and the cable car has to be evacuated? Surely you can’t abseil someone out at this height? “No,” reassures Markus. “We would not expect our guests to do that. In an emergency situation we have a separate cabin which runs along the supporting wires to the individual gondolas and pulls them one by one back to the station. In really extreme situations we can even operate the lifts using pedals like on a bike.” After nine minutes in the air we reach the bottom station, which is in fact only 137 vertical metres lower than the top station.
By now almost all the cabins are full. The Kitz 3S-Bahn cable car has a transport capacity of 3,154 people per hour, creating a quick and efficient connection between the resorts of Kitzbühel and Kirchberg. Until the cable car was built the only way of getting from one resort to the other was using a shuttle bus which took a lot of time and polluted the environment.
We chat to a few other guests who have joined us in gondola number one. Most are unaware just how high above the ground they are – almost 80 metres higher than the top of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, we have the impression that a few of them would have preferred to receive this fun fact at the top of the lift rather than in mid-air! Nevertheless, the journey feels safe and secure from top to bottom thanks to the two 54mm supporting wires and the 42mm haul wire. It is these three wires which give the cable car the 3S in its name and ensure a smooth and stable ride even in strong winds.
To capture the awe-inspiring dimensions of the Kitz 3S Bahn we get out our camera drone and let it fly high into the deep blue sky, filming the cable car from top to bottom. It seems to take an eternity to complete the 3.7 kilometres.
The day is slowly drawing to a close, but there is time to meet up once more with Markus. He is keen to show us some photos taken during the construction of the cable car. It soon becomes clear to us just what a feat of engineering it is. There are some spectacular images and hair-raising stories such as the time when the three lorries transporting the 90-tonne haul wire slid off the muddy forest road and landed in a nearby ditch. “We had to repair the road with stones and supports within just two hours so we could get the haul wire to the top in time,” he explains. “Another good story is the one about the engineers from Switzerland who were responsible for installing the wires. Those guys were crazy! It was amazing to see them sliding on their stomachs along the wires 80 metres above the ground.” Markus has a story to go with every photo. We soon realise that the Kitz 3S-Bahn is not only an important addition to the ski resort but also has a special place in the hearts of all those who work on the lifts in Kitzbühel.
We spend a long time browsing through the photos and listening to the stories. By the time we travel back down into the valley the sun has disappeared behind the mountains and the pistes are once again empty.
“The invention of lifts and cable cars has made many mountains accessible to everyone, not just hikers and climbers. In this series we showcase six extraordinary cable cars in Tirol, each unique in its own individual way.”