You'll gasp at the view from Kitzbühel's new 3S gondola. Glidinghigh over thick forests and broad snowfieldsof the Saukasergraben Valley, witha jagged line of high Alps marching offinto the distance, it's arguably the bestview from a lift in all of ski country. Butthe stunning panorama isn't the onlyreason the resort calls the 3S, completeda few years ago, "the world's most spectaculargondola, a boast you can forgiveafter taking a ride on it. The lift is anengineering marvel that has transformedthis already legendary Austrian resort.
Kitzbühel expanded 20 years agowhen it added the Jochberg and Resterhoheareas to the south, but the additionsdivided the resort into sections that weredifficult—or impossible—to reach fromeach other on skis. The only access fromthe Hahnenkamm—where the fameddownhill race is run each January—andthe Pengelstein areas above the town tothe newer slopes at Jochberg-Resterhoheinvolved a long ski descent into thevalley, followed by a five-minute clompin ski boots or a taxi or bus ride back totown. To return, skiers had to wait inline to catch a bus at Pass Thurn near theResterhohe summit. Even Kitzbühel'sSki Safari, a 23-mile resort-crossingroute, was a one-way trip with a shuttlebusreturn. It was hardly convenient.
And there was no easy fix. The terrainbetween the areas couldn't be developedinto a skiing corridor because it's basicallyunskiable, says George Hechenberger, aformer ski instructor, now executive managerof Bergbahn Kitzbühel, the resort'slift company. "It would have been impossibleto build a run from Jochberg toHahnenkamm, Hechenberger explains."The landscape on the Jochberg side wasway too steep for a ski run. Even a run onthe Hahnenkamm side would have beena black run.
Kitzbühelers dreamed for years aboutconnecting the Hahnenkamm-Pengelsteinand Jochberg-Resterhohe sections, but itwas deemed technically impossible tobuild a lift spanning the valley. Until2004, that is, when the Austrian lift companyDoppelmayr used new technologyto build the 3S gondola. The unique liftruns in both directions from mountaintopto mountaintop with only a single lifttower in between, traveling more thantwo miles each way at heights reachingmore than 1,300 feet. The gondola,which spans an amazing mile and a halffrom station to tower, is kept steady bythree cables—two fixed ones that guidethe cars and a third in the middle thatpulls them. "The two tracks would keepit stable even in a hurricane, Hechenbergersays. "When our other lifts closebecause of wind, the 3S is still running.Doppelmayr had used the new technologypreviously at Val d'Isère, France,but the Kitzbühel lift is the longest ofits type in the world. Its 30-personcabins—one of them fitted with a glassinsert in the floor for better gawking atthe scenery—take only 11 minutes tocross the valley.[pagebreak]By transporting up to 3,200 skiers perhour, the gondola eases crowding onthe popular pistes closer to town. It alsoprovides access to the higher, snowierslopes across the valley—a huge boon, asthe lower slopes of the Hahnenkamm,which rises to only 5,472 feet, have beensoft and spotty in recent years. (To dealwith an inescapable warming trend, theresort has also made major investmentsin snowmaking, including carving out anew reservoir at Resterhohe's relativelylofty summit at 6,575 feet.)
While the 3S gondola has garneredmost of the fanfare, it isn't the only newlift at Kitzbühel. Last year, an eightpersongondola was built to linkKitzbühel to the Ski Welt, a village-tovillageski route totaling 250 kilometersof terrain and 92 lifts. Another gondola,the Panoramabahn Kitzbüheler Alpen,connects the southern end of the resortwith the neighboring ski regions ofHollersbach and Mittersill.
Indeed, Kitzbühel is a fitting place forall this interconnected skiing: It was herethat the "ski circus originated in the1940s. And the Old World town ofKitzbühel has remained very much thesame charming, lively place it's alwaysbeen, as famous for its nighttlife as forits rich skiing history. Its medievalcenter is still among the prettiest andmost atmospheric of ski towns, wherehorse-drawn carts carry visitors overcobbled streets lined with churchesdating back to the 14th century, andstylish shops, cafes and hotels. The bestpart: While the town remains rooted inits centuries-old history, up on the hillthe skiing experience is moving quicklyinto the new millennium. Just the wayit should be.