aiming high

Cable cars are just about the safest means of transportation. People like Hans-Ulrich Zbil ensure that this remains the case.


leg 12  ■  görlitz ➡ garmisch-partenkirchen  ■  600 Km  ■  Arrival 24.11.2015, 9:00 A.m.  ■  travel time 148 hrs  ■  -4°C  ■  total distance 58,450 KM

It starts as a numbness in the fingertips and toes, even if you’re wearing thick gloves, long thermal underwear and an extra layer of thick socks. Then the cold slowly creeps along the feet, up the ankles and into the lower legs. A spot by a warm fireplace—or a cup of hot tea at the very least—would be just the thing right now. 

It’s freezing cold this late autumn morning. It’s been snowing around the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, for the past few days. A 20-centimeter-layer of snow now blankets the landscape in Werdenfelser Land and the peaks around it: Kramerspitz, Wank, Waxenstein and, of course, the Alpspitze, Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s own 2,626-meter-high pyramid-shaped mountain. Even in the valley, the upscale shops on Marienplatz in Garmisch are covered by a thin layer of snow.


White Splendor

White Splendor


On bright sunny days, it’s hard to imagine a lovelier place to workeven if your hands are freezing sometimes.


Superlatives in the andes

Superlatives in the andes

Hans-Ulrich Zbil and his colleagues travel the world for TÜV SÜD’s cable car testing center, not just in the Alps. New construction projects especially—for instance right now in Macao, China—is where their expertise is highly in demand. Early in the planning phase they review the technical documentation, monitor the concrete and steel constructions for the cable cars, inspect and approve the entire installation before it begins running and ensure that subsequent operations run safely.

The list of spectacular projects of the past years runs the gamut from a cable car crossing the Thames on the occasion of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London to a new aerial tramway network in La Paz: the Bolivian metropolis is currently building an intra-urban transportation system with cable cars that, after the final phase of construction, will include up to 1,400 cabins.




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.”


In shape for winter

TÜV SÜD inspects the Kreuzeckbahn



Hans-Ulrich Zbil and his co-workers are motivated by a single goal: ensuring that cable cars remain one of the safest means of transportation there is. For that reason, legal guidelines are particularly stringent. And inspectors like Hans-Ulrich Zbil scrutinize ev-erything, even if that sometimes means extra work and expense for the operators of the tramways. Take the Kreuzeckbahn, for example: in 2002, a modern system with a capacity of 1,400 people per hour replaced the historic aerial tramway from 1926. And just a few years ago, the entire 4.6-kilometer-long, 46-centi-meter-thick haul rope had to be upgraded—under the stern and watchful eyes of TÜV SÜD.

 The service gondola slowly glides on, past frost-covered fir trees. Our breath forms tiny white clouds in the morning air. When we finally arrive at the Kreuzeckbahn’s summit station, 1,638 meters above sea level, the first rays of sun pierce the fog. It is warm and comfortable in the utility room of the cable car station; our numb fingers quickly thaw out. As we stand with Hans-Ulrich Zbil on the imposing summit, the Loisach valley seems to spread out at our feet, with the Zugspitze and the Höllentalferner above us, the southern tip of Lake Starnberg way out in the north and behind it the haze of Munich. Right below us, the world-famous Kandahar descent peeks seductively out of the woods. Is this the coldest workplace in the world? No, it’s the loveliest!