Cable cars, climate change and loving high places – Valluga, Lechtal Alps

At the guesthouse, our landlady ushered us into a wooden room with a view out across the valley to the mountains on the other side. She lowered herself into a chair and carefully began entering our details into a laptop computer. A moment or two later and the printer started into life. 

‘Your guest cards,’ she said. ‘You can use them for discounts in town. Or to go up the Valluga.’

We were staying in a small village just down the valley from St Anton am Arlberg, a place known to be the cradle of alpine skiing and from where early cable cars lifted visitors from the town up onto the slopes of Galzig and the Valluga above. Everywhere we went in St Anton there were reminders of the history and the present of skiing in the region, from old posters in restaurants to ski equipment decorating the walls of every shop, cafe and bar. 

The entire tourist infrastructure of the town is dedicated to days on the slopes and evenings in the bars and clubs. The number of hotel beds dwarves the number of permanent residents In 1922, when the St Anton Ski School was founded, there were around 400 beds for visitors in the town. A century later, it numbers somewhere around 10,000. St Anton’s population stands at around a quarter of that. 

We were there in summer, a time when the town is presumably quieter but still draws hikers like us as well as climbers and mountaineers. And as our landlady told us, our guest card entitled us to one free day on six of the 31 cable cars of the Arlberg region that operate in the warmer months, something that is presumably not the case during the winter, when this is the fifth largest ski area in the world. In any case, we didn’t need asking twice. We headed up.

You need three cable cars to reach the summit of the Valluga, which marks the border between Tyrol and Vorarlberg at 2,811 metres. As we were carried up from the valley floor we looked down on the pistes now being used to graze animals and then beyond the high meadows to the rocky landscape above the vegetation line. In shaded corners, there was still snow on the ground. But the higher we went, the easier it was to see how much of the mountain had been altered and shaped for winter sport.

There were the cable cars, of course. But also the little reservoirs to feed the snowmaking machines for the increasing number of times in a winter when what falls from the sky is simply not enough to support a multi-million euro industry. Access roads and electricity pylons. And the summer sports had left their mark too. Hiking trails snaking out from the cable car stations towards distant mountain huts where flags fluttered in the summer breeze. And where people go, whether on foot from the bottom or lifted up beneath a hanging cable, they leave their mark in other ways too. A hat, dropped by mistake perhaps? A chocolate wrapper nestled among the purple flowers. Dog shit, neatly collected in a black bag and left by the side of the path.

I’ve long been unsure and uneasy about the trains and cable cars that take us to places that – perhaps – our bodies alone would be unable to reach. When we were young, it would have been impossible to imagine being allowed to take the train up Snowdon. In the Harz mountains, when I reached the top of the Brocken, I was unimpressed by those who had been brought up by steam engine and hadn’t earned the views.

And yet, here I was, atop the Valluga. Or wandering the easy trails around the Galzig on the way back down, enjoying the views that had been made possible by the engineers hired by the pioneers of the ski industry in this part of the world. I’ve been up cable cars on Mount Teide in Tenerife, and to go hiking in the Picos de Europa. And if, elsewhere in Austria, there had been a cable car to get me down from the summit of Daniel across the valley of the Zugspitze, then I probably would have taken it and saved the resulting soreness of my knees after the descent.

More than that, I wonder about access to such places, and the experiences that can be gained, for example, on the train that delivers you to the edge of a glacier or the cable car that offers you the chance to take in the view of mountains that stretch to another country. How they might inspire us. On a small, personal level, they might give the kid the first brush with something that might grow to be a love affair. A climber or mountaineer born of the breathless view granted via an Austrian Bergbahn

There is also the question of those for whom hiking or climbing a mountain like the Valluga would simply be beyond their capabilities, for a variety of different reasons. Should we only allow the experience of high places for those who can get there under their own steam? Are we more likely to want to protect something if we love it? And are we more likely to love it if we have the chance to experience it for ourselves?

On the Galzig we sat on a bench, brought up to two thousand metres to give weary hikers someplace to sit. Our path was part of a nature trail, created to give families who had caught the cable car up an easy walk around the summit, with information boards and games to both keep the kids amused and inform them about the environment they were looking at. 

A young girl from – judging by her accent – somewhere in Yorkshire skipped ahead of her mum and dad before excitedly reading the English translation of the description of the flowers native to these slopes. She was standing higher than anywhere in the British Isles, and when she looked up from her reading she could see mountain after mountain, peak after peak, stretching out towards Switzerland, towards Italy and towards Germany. 

And then I think of the snow machines, and the energy and water needed to keep an industry going that is both a victim of climate change and yet most take some responsibility for it. Snow machines and nature trails. Shrinking snow patches and a restaurant above the treeline. How do we make places accessible without destroying them? How do we teach people to love these mountains without ruining exactly what it is that makes them special? On the Galzig and atop the Valluga, I had no real answers.

Back down in the valley, on our balcony looking across to peaks that had no cable cars and could only be accessed by strong legs and time, I found online the website of Protect Our Winters, created in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones and active in Europe since 2013.

“Anyone of us who spends time in the mountains can see the negative effects of climate change on our snowlines, our snowpacks and our glaciers,” Jones writes on the website. “The reason I founded Protect Our Winters was to unite the industry to take action on climate, and to turn international winter sports participants & athletes into climate advocates.

Their key goal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. They are encouraging members of the outdoor community to travel and enjoy the outdoors more responsibly. To find ways to pursue their interests in low impact ways. Their roadmap for individuals involves education, recognition of impact, and becoming an advocate. I’m sure there are many skiers and snowboarders, as well as hikers and climbers and mountaineers and mountain bikers, who all struggle with the contradictions I felt up there in the Lechtal Alps. 

As I write these words, Protect Our Winters is running a campaign called ‘Reframe Your Journey,’ to encourage us all to choose transport options that cause the least impact, whether in travelling to your favourite outdoor destination or getting around once you are there. I think back to that wooden room in Austria, and the guest card pressed into my hand. ‘You can also use it to take the bus,’ our landlady said. Our car was parked in the drive below the window. There’s always something more we can do. 

47°09’27.5″N 10°12’47.0″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton