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March 5th, 2007 - Off in the distance
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The Bellinghman
Date: 2007-03-05 10:30
Subject: My least favourite mode of transport is ...
Security: Public
... the cable car. And no, not the cable tram as used in San Francisco, but the full suspended-gondola type to be found in mountain regions.

We took two cable car trips from Leukerbad. Two return trips, so four actual rides, since there are two big cable cars going up from the village.

(Compare with SF, which has, despite the tourist images, roughly the same number of cable trams. But then, you can get to their destinations on foot or by car.)

The first trip was on the Torrentbahn, which goes up the Torrenthorn, and which had an interesting gauge by the door - the current extra weight. At 6 tonnes of people, it set off. That route isn't too bad, with the first part being the steepest, over half the entire route. (Of course, that means that on the way down, the last pylon one goes over causes an alarming dip.) It's nearly 10 minutes to get up, but the rise from 1400 metres up to 2400 metres lifted us from a mild drizzle up into actual falling snow, and then really bright sunshine that caused my photochromics to go solid black.

Being February, with a considerable risk of avalanches, the summer walks weren't open. But the restaurant was, and mountain restaurants are built for looking out at amazing views while eating or drinking. Outside, the snow was proper skiing snow - nicely packed without being too icy.

A couple of hours up there was enough, though. The brightness of the sun had chased away any remaining winter blues, and we came down again.

(One interesting feature is that one of the pair of cars has a great big liquids tank underneath. We assume clean water, since on getting out of it, we saw a large bore pipe being attached and then going rigid under pressure.)

The following day, we walked to the other end of the village, and took the Gemmibahn, a smaller car that goes up the Gemmi pass. Now, one can apparently clamber up that pass, given good weather and a few hours to spare, and both Twain and Maupassant remarked on it. However, the cable car itself is totally terrifying. The third pylon is perched on a impudent finger of rock, and from there to the double slot in the final cliff, the whole construction looks flimsy enough to belie its fifty years. Getting out was an exercise in momentary terror, since a mere two metres separated the door from the cliff falling vertically for a couple of hundred metres.

(Somewhere on the way up, I had managed to flip from my "I'm way too high" to the "Whee, I'm in a plane" mode. My vertigo is strongly linked to whether I can see the linkage from where I am to the ground itself. I'm fine in a plane, and will indeed quite happily go up in one to experience aerobatics. But in a building, let me see the million tons of concrete and steel holding me up, and I get very nervous. So long as I was in the cable car and not looking at the cables or pylons themselves, I was fine. But that platform at the top? I couldn't pretend it was a plane any more.)

The top of Gemmipass has another restaurant, and a hotel (into which which we declined to peek). The restaurant, unlike the Torrenthorn one which is perched on a gentle, skiable slope, protrudes out over the same precipice into which the car arrived. As we chatted on the phone to dduane and petermorwood, a lammergaier flew past the end of the terrace. Trying to talk and take photos at the same time is not conducive to doing either well, so this Ossifrage got away.

One thing that I did wonder about was that both routes ran a service every thirty minutes, yet there was apparently enough traffic to be able to run more frequently than that. On both trips, the car was crammed full both ways. Since the pair of cars switch places in less than ten minutes, a 20 or 15 minute interval would be easy to maintain.

Oh, and a note to ourselves - the Halbtax card is valid on both these routes - next time, we could save a decent amount of money.
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