Opened in 1955, the Valluga II in the ski resort of St. Anton is the oldest of the six cable cars featured in this series and was the highest cable car in Austria when it came into service over 60 years ago. Even if it still looks the same as back then, it today enjoys legendary status among the cable cars of Tirol.
The Valluga II is unlike any other cable car featured in this series. That’s not only because it is relatively old (built in 1955) and small (two cabins carrying six passengers each) but also because instead of meeting a lift operator to show us around we have a date with a mountain guide.
The journey to the Valluga II begins with a ride on the Galzigbahn cable car. Opened in 2006, this gondola uses the very rare Funitel System where gondolas are attached to two wires running parallel to each other. Another unique feature are the two huge wheels which lower the cabins around eight metres down to the ground in order to make it easy for passengers to embark. Once everyone is on board, the gondola is then pulled back up, accelerated and attached to the wire.
As cable car nerds we are thrilled to have seen one of these rare Funitel Systems in action, but our main focus for the day is a lift with more rudimentary technology but a legendary reputation: the Vallugabahn II.
It is here that we meet Erich “Naggy” Schweiger. On his head he sports a cap with the logo of the famous St. Anton ski race “Der Weisse Rausch”, while under his arm he carries a Red Bull helmet – this man knows a thing or two about skiing the Arlberg. Erich has been a ski instructor and mountain guide for 38 years and refers to the Vallugabahn II cable car quite simply as his “office”. When conditions are good he travels up several times a week with freeriders to the 2,811m peak of the Vallugaspitze. On most cable cars all you need is a valid lift ticket, but here in St. Anton things are a little bit different. To use the Valluga II lift skiers and boarders must be accompanied by a registered mountain guide, who must in turn sign a waiver accepting responsibility for his group. Sightseers are also allowed to ride up to the top but may only visit the viewing platform and are strictly forbidden from accessing the open terrain.
Together with Erich we squeeze ourselves and our equipment into one of the small blue cabins and immediately feel like we have stepped back in time. Inside the gondola there is a smell of engine oil, while the scratches on the walls indicate how many times this tiny metal box has been painted and repainted over the years. The cabins themselves have, in fact, been replaced only once. That was back in 1979, when the old five-man gondolas were exchanged for new ones which could hold six passengers. “Most people who come up here with me are a little hesitant when they get onto the cable car for the first time and feel it wobble beneath their feet,” says Erich. “That’s a good thing. The descent is very steep, exposed and dangerous. The more respect people have, the better.”
After just two minutes we have climbed the 161 vertical metres and pull into the top station located high on the ridge next to an eye-catching radar system. We walk out onto the viewing platform, to the exact point where the regions of Vorarlberg and Tirol meet. Wherever we look, the views are simply breathtaking. The Lechtal and Allgäu Alps, the Verwall Mountains, the Ötztal Alps and even the Swiss canton of Graubünden can all be seen from here. Erich has ridden the Valluga II more than 700 times, he reckons. “When there is powder in winter and when the snow is nice and soft in spring everyone wants to come up to the Valluga. The north-facing slopes are fantastic – and that is one of the things that makes the cable car so legendary. The fact that you are only allowed up here with a guide also adds to the legend, of course.
We had originally planned to ski down with Erich, but after filming a few shots we find we have run out of time. Instead, we have a date with the head engineer of the Valluga II. Meanwhile, as Erich gets ready to head down, we give him an action camera and send our camera drone high into the sky to film his descent into the Pazieltal down to Zürs.
After a bowl of delicious soup in the charming Valluga View restaurant, it is time to meet Michael Mussak. He has been working in the resort for more than 20 years and can remember the Valluga II when it was still very much a hands-on operation. “Until 1998 we had to do everything by hand. We literally had a steering wheel. If you turned it right then the lift went up, if you turned left it went down. The more you turned it, the faster it went. You won’t find anything like that these days,” he says. Together we go into the machine room at the back of the building. Despite the modernisation of the technology which runs the cable car, there is still plenty of traditional charm such as the patina on the walls and the smell of the motors – it really is a paradise for fans of classic cable cars. When we ask Michael how he would describe the Valluga II, a broad smile spreads across his face. “For me,” he says, “it is small, cosy. Almost cute.”
We say goodbye and ride back down to the bottom, where our journey back in time ends as we get onto the state-of-the-art Valluga I. Few things better demonstrate the pioneering work and technical progress of humankind than these majestic cable cars. That has always been the case and will remain so for many years to come. The Valluga II and the Galzigbahn with its huge turning wheels are two fine examples in the heart of St. Anton am Arlberg, one of the world’s most famous ski resorts. It has been, we all agree, a worthy conclusion to our six-part series on Tirol’s most spectacular cable cars. All that remains for us to do is pick up the action camera from Erich and head to the cutting room, where we will have the privilege of watching the breathtaking images we have filmed over and over again.
“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.”