In the tiny Austrian province of Vorarlberg, tucked in the folds of a geologic skirt that forms the country’s intersection with Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Lichtenstein, lies the slumbering hamlet of Mellau, population 1,280. A softly contoured mountain municipality best suited to vacationing families, it is, nevertheless, still the Austrian Alps. So Mellau serves up both the comforts of a modern ski vacation as well as plenty of traditional urspruenglichkeit—a cheery-sounding epithet roughly translated as “simplicity.” Not that it matters, because mediocre Mellau has something else going for it. While a resort map plots out lift-served terrain that isn’t much of a challenge, it also reveals a short, straight line stretching from the village to an alpine plateau. There, a certain Artur Doppelmayr erected the world’s first detachable lift – the Rosstelle gondola – in 1972, a development that revolutionized resort skiing.
With Doppelmayr—a family whose design and innovation roots date to 1892 when patriarch Konrad acquired the machine workshop that had apprenticed him—it’s more correct to say “a development that further revolutionized resort skiing.” Not only was this cornerstone of modern skiing a stress-reducing boon that offered skiers more time to get on and off as well as faster delivery to their favourite lines, but it came amidst a brilliant run of spectacular achievement. In 1912 Konrad produced the first mechanical lift—a freight elevator—under his own name; in 1937, with engineer Sepp Bildstein, his son Emil constructed the first-ever ski lift—a T-bar—in Zürs am Arlberg. Artur joined the firm’s ranks in 1955, and by 1972 had designed and built the Rosstelle. It was a watershed, yet Artur’s engineering firsts continued through a self-loading T-bar, avalanche-blasting cable lift, detachable triple chair, 12-passenger mono-cable gondola, funicular railway, 6-seat express chairlift, 80-passenger large-cabin aerial tram, and an 8-seat express chairlift. In 2004, Doppelmayr constructed the first heated chairlift—its bench was rewarmed each time the chair cycled through the lower station. By 2019, Doppelmayr Garaventa Group (the family absorbed its rival Garaventa in 2002) had installed some 15,000 lifts in 96 countries.
Where other early builders focused on gigantic projects and classic Euro one-upmanship (indeed some companies were incorporated simply for the purpose of building a single spectacular lift), Doppelmayr quietly kept its sights on the let’s-make-it-easier ball with systems that increased transport speed and reduced waiting times at the base. While others cast their cables against seemingly impossible rock and ice barriers, Doppelmayr threw itself against the barriers of entry to the sport—comfort, and convenience. After breathless descent and a line-up to crowd into the terminal, went corporate philosophy, riding back up should be a moment of repose. Skiers seem to agree; we’ll take modern convenience any day over wetting our pants in an ancient, creaking, cable-stretching tram.
Such thinking was already evident in Mellau’s original Rosstelle. Until then, lift speed as dictated—and severely limited—by the speed of its passengers. Uncoupling these processes was a stroke of brilliance that allowed leisurely loading/unloading to bookend a high-speed slingshot up the mountain. There seemed no limit to the innovation the company was willing to bring to the lift game. “I want to build the first ropeway on the moon,” said director Michael Doppelmayr in a 2006 interview, “I have already secured myself the plots of land, together with the base and mountain terminals.”
You expect he’s kidding, of course, but then Konrad, Emil, and Artur had set their sights on some fairly weightless engineering feats. Like the idea of a detachable lift—as distant from orthodoxy as the moon.