With the spring crowds dwindling, I’ve been skiing a lot lately, on descents where I launch myself into a chair, point them down and 500 vertical meters later I’m straight back into the same chair.
With the spring crowds dwindling, I’ve been skiing a lot lately, on descents where I launch myself into a chair, point them down and 500 vertical meters later I’m straight back into the same chair. It’s not my usual modus operandi, but the zen and the efficiency of covering 3,000 vertical meters in an hour suddenly appeal to me. And while driving those chairs, I had some thoughts about the current state of the sport. One of them seems particularly relevant: I, we – the entire resort world – owe everything to detachable elevators. And it goes back, like so many others in the field of skiing, to a visionary Austrian.
In the small province of Vorarlberg, nestled in the folds of the geological skirt forming the intersection of Austria with Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Lichtenstein, lies the sleepy hamlet of Mellau, 1300 inhabitants, 700 meters above sea level . A soft-edged mountain municipality that, in its own floury marketing terms, is best suited for a low-octane family vacation. Yet this is the Austrian Alps, and so Mellau can be expected to offer both the comforts of a modern ski holiday as well as all the traditional and historical smooth pursuit strudels you can manage; a syntactical nightmare of a website might even spring that “he” hasn’t lost any of “his” urspruenglichkeit, a cheerful epithet that roughly translates to “primitiveness.” That’s okay, because mediocre Mellau has other things to do. While a resort plan maps out terrain served by lifts that isn’t always a challenge, it also reveals something else: a short straight from the village to the alpine plateau. The very vector on which, in 1972, a certain Artur Doppelmayr erected the world’s first detachable gondola, the Rosstelle gondola, a development that revolutionized resort skiing.
In the case of the Doppelmayrs, a family whose roots in design and innovation date back to 1892, when family man Konrad Doppelmayr acquired the machine shop that had apprenticed him in Wolfurt-Rickenbach, it is more correct to say “a development that further away revolutionized resort skiing. Not only was a single-cable cable car running with detachable units a stress-reducing boon that gave skiers more time to hop on and off as well as faster delivery to their favorite lines, but this cornerstone of modern resorts is actually halfway through a brilliant pedigree of spectacular achievement: in 1912, Konrad had produced the world’s first lifting device – a hoist – under his own name; in 1937, together with engineer Sepp Bildstein, his son Emil built the very first dedicated ski lift – a T-bar – in Zürs, Arlberg; Artur joined the company in 1955 and by 1972 had designed and built the Rosstelle.
It was a turning point. Under Artur’s leadership, engineering firsts followed: a self-loading T-bar, an anti-avalanche gondola, a detachable triple chairlift, a 12-passenger monocable gondola, a funicular, an express chairlift 6-seater, a large 80-passenger chairlift – the cabin cable car, the eight-seater express chairlift and the first heated chair – where the bench is warmed each time the chair passes through the lower station – which entered service in 2004 under the direction of Michael Doppelmayr. By 2019, the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group (the family absorbed the latter competitor in 2002) had produced some 15,000 elevators in 96 countries.
Where other early builders had focused on the gigantic, one-upmanship that characterizes many European classic lifts (in fact, some companies were hit just for the purpose of building a spectacular project), the Doppelmayr family quietly kept heading for the ball of ease, iterating this mantra through a range of systems that have increased transport speed and reduced wait times at base. While others threw their cables against seemingly impossible barriers of rock and ice, Doppelmayr threw himself against the barriers of entry into sport – comfort and convenience. After a breathless descent and a queue to squeeze into the terminal, climbing the mountain should become “a moment of rest”, according to the company’s philosophy. Most skiers seem to agree: we’ll take the convenience of wetting our pants in a creaky, stretched-out old cable tram any day.
This thought was clearly evident in the original detachable, Mellau’s Rosstelle. Until then, the lifting speed was dictated – and severely limited – by the speed of embarking and disembarking passengers. Decoupling these processes was a stroke of genius that allowed for quiet loading/unloading to end a high-speed slingshot up the mountain. So the contemporary Doppelmayr clan can ski resorts around the world with justifiable pride. The legacy of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather proscribes not one of the biggest and craziest continuum, but thousands of assiduously cycled threads stitching together the multi-panel quilt of the world of modern skiing.
If it seems like there’s no limit to the innovation the company is willing to bring to the elevator game, that’s because there probably isn’t. “I want to build the first cable car on the moon,” said Michael Doppelmayr in a 2006 interview, “I have already secured the grounds myself, as well as the base and mountain terminals.”
You expected him to be joking, of course, but Konrad, Emil, and Artur had then set their sights on some fairly light engineering feats. Like the idea of a removable elevator, as far removed from the orthodoxy of the time as the moon.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never encountered a mountain he didn’t like.