The Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen actually comprise three separate cable cars: the Hungerburgbahn, the Seegrubenbahn and the Hafelekarbahn. Together they transport visitors in just 20 minutes from the centre of Innsbruck into the high alpine terrain of the Karwendel Mountains.
Today it is just a few metres from our downtown hotel to the Hungerburgbahn – the first of three lifts providing quick and easy access to the Nordkette-Seegrube ski resort. With its futuristic design and sweeping lines, the Hungerburgbahn looks more like a modern underground railway station than a cable car. It is, in fact, neither. Instead it is a state-of-the-art funicular which runs on rails and connects the Congress Centre in the centre of Innsbruck with the Hungerburg settlement perched at the foot of the mountains north of the city. Two trains run every 15 minutes and whisk passengers up the 288 vertical metres from bottom to top in the blink of an eye.
We hop on the first service of the day and start chatting to driver Thomas Keil. He tells us that over the years he has worked in several ski resorts but ended up staying at the Hungerburgbahn. “Most of the funicular railways like this one simply go straight up onto the mountain. We go up and down, and in the corners the carriages bank and turn. The technology behind it is fascinating,” he says.
After crossing the river Inn we enter the 445-metre-long Weiherbergtunnel, where the two trains – one going up, the other going down – whizz past each other at high speed. One of the most eye-catching features is the roof design of the station buildings at the top and bottom of the funicular. They were designed by the famous architect Zaha Hadid, who took inspiration from the glaciers of the Alps. Shortly before we arrive at the top we see the remains of the old Hungerburgbahn, which came into service in 1906 and remained in operation all the way through until 2005.
„We go up and down, and in the corners the carriages bank and turn. “
As we ride up and down a few times to film the shots we need, we are surprised by just how many mountainbikers there are amongst the skiers and snowboarders. Their destination? The Hungerburg Trail, which is already snow-free despite the fact it is only late February. For Innsbruck locals the Nordkette mountains to the north of the city are one huge outdoor playground.
We treat ourselves to the first coffee of the day at the trendy ‘Hitt und Söhne’ café next to the top of the funicular. The café takes its name from Frau Hitt, one of the peaks in the mountains high above. According to legend, Frau Hitt was a giant queen who liked nothing more than saving money. One day she offered a poor beggar woman nothing but a piece of rock to eat – and, as a punishment, she was herself turned into stone. Wary of the same thing happening to us, we remember to leave a generous tip before moving on to the second leg of the three-part journey up into the mountains: the Seegrubenbahn. Reopened in December 2006, this cable car has two large carriages which can each carry up to 95 passengers plus one lift operator – or, alternatively, a film team plus equipment. The bottom station of this lift was designed by architect Franz Baumann and considered a radical new way of building in the Alps when it was opened in 1928. Despite the lift itself being modernised in 2006, the building is still exactly as it was back then over 90 years ago.
„Where else can you get from the centre of a city into high alpine terrain in just 20 minutes?“
The Seegrubenbahn takes us from the Hungerburg settlement overlooking Innsbruck all the way up to the Seegrube ski resort, where we meet Werner Haberfellner on the sunny restaurant terrace with majestic views of the city far below. Werner has been a member of the ski patrol for 16 years and is also on the “avalanche commission”, a group of experts tasked with analysing and monitoring the avalanche situation in the mountains. After drinking in the view, it is time to complete the third and final leg of the journey all the way up to the Hafelekar ridge at 2,300 metres above sea level. As we step out of the building at the top, we are almost blown over by the wind. We scramble to do up all the zips and flaps we have, but Werner in his fleece jacket open to the waist seems unperturbed by the icy air. “Cold? Me? No way! For that to happen it needs to be about 10°C colder than this,” he laughs.
We follow Werner out onto the ridge and soak up the fabulous view stretching from the densely populated Inn Valley and the urban hub of Innsbruck to the raw nature of the Karwendel Alpine Park. “There’s nothing better than this,” says Werner. “Where else can you get from the centre of a city into high alpine terrain in just 20 minutes? That is what makes the Nordkettenbahn unique.” That and the friendly atmosphere here at over 2,000 metres above sea level. “Everyone knows each other. People just come up here for a coffee or a beer after work. When the weather is good it feels like half Innsbruck is up here,” he smiles. Part of the attraction for Werner is the outstanding freeriding on offer away from the signposted pistes. “Today I’m taking the direct route down. There are still a few pockets of powder left and it has the best view of the city,” he tells us before disappearing into the distance.
We decide to take the cable car back down to the Seegrube. By the time we arrive the terrace in front of the Cloud 9 Iglu Bar is full of locals and tourists enjoying the sun, the clean air and the mesmerising views of Innsbruck. We chat to a few of them and soon realise that, wherever they come from, this fusion of urban and alpine is the main draw for almost everyone who has made their way up here. Students from Germany and Italy tell us that there is no better place to study if you love skiing and snowboarding. A lady from Denmark taking her son to his ski lesson spends every winter here in Innsbruck. And tanned snowboarders from faraway Graz in the east of Austria have moved to the regional capital of Tirol, they tell us, because of its unique combination of city and mountains.
As the day draws to a close, we ride back down into the city on the Hungerburgbahn funicular and meet up once again with driver Thomas Keil. He is busy helping mountainbikers get their bikes out of the carriage and advising Japanese tourists on the best place in Innsbruck to try traditional Tirolean food. As we pull into the station he turns to us and says: “And, did I promise too much? It is the mixture which makes it so special here. Every day you meet new interesting people. There is no other cable car in Tirol like it.” We can only nod in agreement. One thing that surprised us was how well everyone gets along together: tourists, skiers, pro snowboarders and mountainbikers. We decide to join the Japanese tourists for a meal in the evening at the Gasthof Weisses Rössl in the oldtown.
“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.”