Hans-Ulrich Zbil had warned us the day before to dress warmly: ”Preferably several layers." But he neglected to mention how drafty a maintenance gondola can be. Instead of spending seven minutes in a cable car comfortably floating up to the summit station of the Kreuzeckbahn tramway, we stand crowded together in an open cage making frequent stops. It's time for the annual review at the Bavarian Zugspitze Railway, after hiking season ends and before ski season begins. From early November to early December, railway employees execute a detailed inspection and repair plan, checking parts for wear and replacing entire rollers if necessary. At the final stage, TÜV SÜD inspects all safety-relevant parts again and gives its blessing for the cable car to run another year.
Jiggling and measuring
The inspection gondola stops at the first post, an 25-meter-high mast. Hans-Ulrich Zbil looks up, attaches one of the carabiners on his security harness to the car’s ladder and climbs up to its mounting frame. There, where the gondola rollers rest on the track rope, he jiggles several moving parts and checks the welding of the haul ropes’ roller mounting. In the meantime, we get dizzy just looking down through the gondola’s lattice scaffolding.
Working at high altitudes in the icy cold is practically in Zbil’s blood: his family has operated a bi-cable gondola lift in the Bavarian Alps since the 1950s. As a teenager, he began assisting in maintenance work, shoveling snow from gondola roof in winter and climbing support masts to chip away ice. He subsequently went to Munich, where he studied engineering and joined TÜV SÜD’s cable car testing cen-ter, which he has headed since 2003. Over the decades, that has meant a lot of field work in the mountains. “It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not, or if it there’s a snowstorm,” he says. “We have to do our work.”