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“Mum, I'm headed skiing!
C Adolf Bereuter - Bregenzerwald Tourismus

“Mum, I'm headed skiing!"

“Mum, I'm headed skiing!"

As a family ski lift where local children really enjoy themselves, the village lift in Hittisau fulfils an important function in winter, both as a sports facility and as a place where lifelong friendships are formed.

There’s something truly magical about the village lift in Hittisau: Once school is out for the day, kids chuck their rucksacks into the corner, grab their gear and hit the slopes. Homework can wait. Here, local kids shovel the fun park themselves, refreshments come from the vending machine and nobody is in it for the money. It’s the kind of place where lifelong friendships and shared memories are made that stand the test of time. “Our lift has an important social function in the village,” says Head of Operations Stefan Bechter, who has worked here for over 20 years.

As he studies the weather radar, families all over the village eagerly await his verdict: “Will Stefan open up today or not?” No matter the conditions, from slushy thaw to heavy snowfall or a wind storm, it’s Stefan’s job to make the call, which is not always easy. When the conditions are right, Hittisau is transformed into a glittering winter wonderland. On such mornings, Stefan climbs into his snow groomer early. He then sets up the safety nets,

checks the equipment, shovels the entrance way and steps inside his ski shack. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this is a small-time operation as opposed to a state-of-the-art command post. Inside, Stefan makes himself comfortable in his ageing office chair, pulls up the screen, opens the cash register and leafs through his company diary. “In the winter of 2008/2009, we were open for 88 days,” says Stefan.“And yet we weren’t open for a single day in the winter of 2019/2020.”

The Hittisberg lift was built in 1964 by three main shareholders (two of whom were textile entrepreneurs from Lustenau and the other was a master builder from Hittisau). The early years of operation went well, but competition grew over time. At some point the business was no longer financially viable and the locals were confronted with a difficult question: “What are we going to do with our lift?” The municipality took over operations and converted the T-bar lifts to self-service. Meanwhile, back at the ski shack, Stefan welcomes the first family of guests. Julia (6) and Marius (9) drag their skis to the lift house and greet Stefan with smiles.

Once the queue thins out, Stefan recalls the winter of 2008. After heavy snowfall, it rained for days. Then, on 19 January at ten o’clock in the morning, there was a great crash. “It sounded like someone had cut down a big beech tree.” In reality, however, a boulder had rolled down into the mountain station and also hit a supporting beam. “It was pure luck that the lift wasn’t running that morning.” Afterwards, the boulder was blasted apart, rockfall nets were installed, and the supporting beam was repaired. For the second time, the lift was in need of saving. Back at his ‘command post,’ Stefan monitors the entrance and the middle station, and regulates the speed with a frequency converter.

“The lift used to run at over ten feet per second, which is way too fast for kids.” At present, Julia and Marius don’t seem bothered by the lift’s current pace. Because the ascent was too challenging for very little kids, for a time many families stayed away. Then, in 2016, everything was called into questioned once more. Parents and locals asked: “What is the purpose of this lift? Who uses it? And does anyone even want it anymore?” People living in the community were heavily involved in the discussion. Out of this process, the “üser Hittisberg” group was developed, which is committed to the preservation of the lift.

The solution: a low rope drag lift was installed for the little ones. At the surface lift, every third T-bar was replaced with a button. But the upgrades didn’t stop there: A middle station was also built in addition to a toboggan run, an after-work cross-country ski trail with a biathlon shooting range was added, and new snow groomer was purchased. Retirees Traugott and Ernst are the helpful, friendly faces that work at the baby lift. The pair do everything they can to make sure that every kid catches the rope. There’s nothing they won’t do for the little ones, including walking along beside them until the very end.

Suddenly, there’s a knock at the lift door. Christian Obrist has dropped by for a chat. He lives across the street, works for the Doppelmayr cable car company, and helps Stefan with tricky technical problems. Seconds later there’s yet another knock, this time at the window. Julia and Marius want a shovel to build a ski jump. They get everything they need from Stefan. “He doesn’t even scold us when three of us try to use the same T-bar,” says Marius. “I do have to scold them sometimes, actually. Like when they get too far off track it does get a bit dangerous,” contradicts Stefan with a laugh.

The children’s mother, Simone, likes the lift too. No matter where the kids ski, they always arrive at the same place at the bottom. Their father, Reinhold Berkmann, is chairman of the local ski club and looks after the needs of all kids when it comes to skiing. As school caretaker, he spends a lot of time with children. As soon as the snow falls, the ski club offers free skiing every Saturday. On such days, it’s a veritable ‘ski safari’ with twenty to thirty children participating. Stefan does everything he can for the ski club. By adding or subtracting a bit of snow here or there with his groomer, he makes sure that the group has plenty of fun. Julia lets everyone else go first. She’s waiting for number 29, her favourite T-bar. “I like it because it’s the only pointed T-bar,” she says proudly. “The other ones have round studs on the ends, which makes it harder to slide off.”

Julia likes to ski with her friend Ida. The pair like to play games like “first to the bottom wins” and “whoever brakes first loses.” Sometimes she falls. If she loses a ski, she simply puts it back on again and continues having fun.Julia likes it here, even the snow tastes good when it crunches between your teeth. When the snow flakes begin to fall, she points her nose towards the sky, sticks out her tongue and closes her eyes. These are memories she’ll never forget.

Author: Irmgard Kramer
Issue: Winter 2021-22 Travel Magazine