After two hours of mountain hiking, my first destination came into sight, and it hardly seemed worth the trip. The wooden shelter was barely noticeable in the mist, but when I slid open the door, all doubts disappeared. A tiny blue cable car was waiting inside, it seemed, just for me.
I settled inside the vehicle, and picked up a clunky phone attached to the wall. Through the static I heard a woman’s faint voice answer in German. “Hi,” I said. “I’d like a ride down,” wondering if this was really going to work.
My answer came 20 seconds later, as machinery buzzed to life and the car glided out of the open side of the shack, floating above a spruce forest and looking out over emerald-green pastures. I felt like a feather slowly descending to Earth.
In Switzerland’s Engelberg Valley, cable cars are used as basic transportation (Credit: Adina Tovy/Getty Images)
To the farming families of the Engelberg Valley region, which lies about 35km south of Lucerne in the Swiss cantons of Nidwalden and Obwalden, cable cars aren’t built for ski holidays and scenic views. They’re basic transportation, used to haul supplies and run errands. But the Buiräbähnli (German for ‘farmers cableways’), which are concentrated in the region, also welcome hikers, who can pay a small fee to hop aboard, like an Uber of the Alps.
“We call this the Valley of the Cable Cars,” said Linda Schmitter, 22, who uses one of her family’s small gondolas on her work commute to Engelberg. Her family runs a dairy farm in the hills above the village of Wolfenschiessen, and two dormitory-style mountain huts, offering room and board to visitors like me. I met her after a day of hiking that had included four cable-car rides zig-zagging up and down the Engelberger Aa River valley.
Linda’s father, Ueli Schmitter, a third-generation farmer, helps neighbours keep their gondolas in proper repair. The cableways must pass an annual government inspection, and every five years undergo a complete safety assessment, using X-rays to reveal stresses to cars and cables.
Ueli admits to an obsession with the vehicles. “I pimp my cable car,” he said in heavily accented English. “I clean it every evening. I say to it ‘I love you’.”
Engelberg Valley residents use cable cards to haul supplies and run errands (Credit: Larry Bleiberg)
Although the family’s cars are 38 years old, they look brand new, with gleaming royal blue and lime-green paint jobs and a playful decal of a cow hanging from a cable car on the door. It’s not artistic license: occasionally Ueli attaches a basket to the bottom of his cars to transport his small-sized Dexter cattle down to the valley.
Farmer cableways developed after World War I as an efficient way to bring supplies to high Alpine fields and a cheaper alternative to building roads. Because of the hilly topography and reliance on agriculture, many developed in the canton of Nidwalden, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of cableways in the world. They’re particularly prominent in the Engelberg area, which has a third of the country’s remaining farmer’s cableways.
The cableways soon became quasi-public, with neighbours sharing them for deliveries and transportation. Eventually some were opened to hikers, who would pay owners a small fee for rides. But since it was difficult for visitors to learn details and plan outings, in 2016 the local tourist board began promoting a package ticket for a multi-day hike using cars around the Engelberger Aa River valley.
For me, it’s natural: when I go outside for work, for school, for anything, I take a cable car
It was that hike that led me the next morning to the compact village of Oberrickenbach, where three cable cars promised an easy ascent to the looming peaks. Two were commercial operations, but my ride was hidden around the corner, where a farmer lifted bales of hay onto a platform hanging from a cable.
When I requested a lift, he stepped inside a storage shed to press a button, and a second cable started to move. A few minutes later, a faded red vehicle glided into view. Again, I clambered aboard and a few minutes later found the farmer’s son, Daniel Durrer, unloading the hay his father had just sent up.
Durrer, who had taken a day off from his job as a chef, grew up with aerial transportation. “For me, it’s natural. When I go outside for work, for school, for anything, I take a cable car,” he said. “When I was a child, I used one every day.”
Farmer Ueli Schmitter admits to being obsessed with his blue-and-green cable cars, and helps his neighbours keep theirs in good working order (Credit: Larry Bleiberg)
This stop was only a waystation. After a few minutes of chatting, he pointed to an open-air vehicle that looked like a cable-car version of an antique pickup truck, with an open bed ringed with removable wooden guards. I piled in, and as the vehicle began to climb, Durrer waved goodbye.
At the top of the hill, a winding forest path led to a cheesemaker’s rustic studio and cafe, where owner Barbara Wismer seemed eager for company. She served a plate of nutty, creamy cheeses and freshly baked bread, and recalled how she left her banking job in Zürich to join her boyfriend. They live here from spring through autumn, and generate electricity with a wood-burning stove. Supplies come up by cable car.
It’s a simple life, but one under threat.
In the last 10 years, the Engelberg Valley has seen the number of cableways drop from about 100 to just more than 40 as the government began to remove cable cars from communities served by roads, Ueli Schmitter told me. The lines crisscrossing the valley were deemed a hazard to helicopters and paragliders, and expensive to regulate.
In the last 10 years, the number of cableways in the Engelberg Valley has dropped from around 100 to just more than 40 (Credit: Larry Bleiberg)
Progress maybe. However, early in the trip I had seen why locals want to keep them.
Walking down the valley floor the previous day, I’d spotted a blue, four-seater gondola attached to cables leading up a mountain. It looked too enticing to pass up, so I hopped aboard. I was greeted by a couple, their two grandchildren and a dog who were waiting for the cable car at the top of the ridge. My plan had been to turn around and take the car with them back down to the valley floor, but the family suggested I might enjoy trying another gondola 20 minutes along the ridge path, and pointed the way.
Eventually I found the second cableway – and a cryptic handwritten sign with bright red letters scrawled across the top. ‘Achtung!’ it read, followed by a brief note. After a moment, its meaning sank in. The line was closed for repairs.
My destination, Wolfenschiessen, lay nearly 365m below. I was going to have to walk.
A path led across a field, and suddenly corkscrewed down a deep gorge. It was getting dark and starting to rain, and the trail grew rocky, steep and slick, forcing me to grab at tree limbs to slow my descent.
When I finally arrived on the valley floor, I was muddy and soaking wet. What would have been a five-minute ride had taken nearly an hour. And like the farmer Schmitter, I was ready to declare my love for a cable car.
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Experience Engelberg's cable cars
The Engelberg-Titlus tourism bureau has designed a three-day hike called the Buiräbähnli Safari using privately owned cableways. The hike, which takes around 20 hours and includes two overnight stops, starts and finishes at Engelberg railway station. Shorter hikes can also be planned easily.