Cable car operators – they take you up the Mt Chopok

We meet them every day on one of ski slopes in the ski resort under Mt Chopok. Sometimes in person, sometimes through the control centre´s window. But we know they are somewhere out there. Without them, cableways and lifts would be just stationary metallic columns. Cable car operators put them in motion so as to transport skiers and tourists to the mountains during working hours. And after working hours the cable cars are parked and maintained. We spent a couple of hours with two cable car operators, Radoslav and Lukáš, who work at Funitel to learn something about their work. Of course, it could have not been without interesting stories.

How does an ordinary day of cable car operator look like?  

Rado has its day shift at the Funitel upper station. But first he has to get there. He arrives at work at about seven o'clock in the morning, carries out a revision cable car ride in the area of Biela Púť then at Priehyba and at 7:30 a.m. to the upper station Rotunda by Funitel. What is a revision ride? It is used to test cableway systems, to see if everything is ok with the cableway, masts, pillars, pulleys and, of course, it also serves to transport the staff. After the revision ride, cabins are fixed to cables to be ready for the first visitors at 8:30. His colleague, who has had a night shift, was waiting for him at the upper station. Not only Funitel, but also other cable cars and lifts fall under the night-time emergency service. Why? Well, we'll find out in the next lines of the blog. If you think that Rado is just sitting in a chair in the control room and pressing the buttons all day, you are wrong. Working tasks of a cable car operator consist in many other activities. If it has been snowing and blowing, the snow must be removed from around the cable car station, a vestibule has to be checked, ice has to be removed from an area around the station where visitors might slip.

Operation has started and the first visitors come to the resort. Several indexes are checked during operation. Electronics are also reviewed; it could not work properly without human intervention. Visitors getting out of a cable car are also monitored by cable car operators to make sure that they didn´t forget anything in the cabin and everything is okay. You would be surprised what things people have forgotten in the cabins? Gloves, sticks, skis, and helmets are routine. Women´s personal hygiene stuff is not so common to find, but it happens too. The most unusual thing, Rado has found, was a leather sadomasochism mask with a zipper. No one has yet reported a loss. Who knows why?

On the boarding station they are at hand to help skiers boarding the cabins and they are also responsible for monitoring electronic systems. When there is no problem with undisciplined visitors, it is almost for sure that there is something wrong with nature. Wind at Mt Chopok is a frequent problem, its intensity is monitored by several wind speed meters, and the values ​​are then displayed on the cable car´s control panel. Funitel suspended on two ropes was built just due to the strong wind, which is typical for Mt Chopok. It can still work at a speed of ski trail wind of 32-33 m / s. (the wind blowing along the trail); higher values slow down or stop the operation. The values of side wind are critical at a speed of about 25-26 m / s. In strong wind, the cable car slows down to a speed of 1.5 m / s. If there are people in cabins, they need to be transferred safely to a lighting or boarding station. It takes longer than the normal operation, but safety is of paramount importance. In the summer season, thunder storms are particularly dangerous for the cable car operation. If it´s lightning, the Funicular cannot be in operation. At that time, the cable car is switched off, ground rods are driven into the earth and we are waiting for the storm to pass.

Which are cable car operator duties during the daily operation? Occasionally, guys come as meteorologists when visitors ask about the weather not only in their location but also in other ones. Sometimes they look like an information office when people ask about a variety of bizarre things, like car park occupancy at Krupová and similar interesting things. But guys have a great sense of humour and take it easy.

Cable car operating hours last until 15:30 in the beginning of the winter season (until February) and until 16:00 in the second half of the winter season (until May), as days are getting longer and the sun rises and sets later. The last visitors come up the peak a few minutes after operating hours, but it certainly doesn´t happen that the cable cars will stop operating with the last minute of operating hours. A cable car operator marks the last cabins with visitors and the cabins are not parked until all the visitors get off the cabins in the alighting or boarding station. 22 cabs hang on Funitel´s ropes; 11 of them are parked in the valley station and 11 remain in the upper station. The cabs are parked in order to be protected from unfavourable weather like strong wind, frost and snow. After all, nobody wants to get on a frozen cable car full of ice.

Anyway, the operation of cable cars hasn´t ended yet. Rado with his colleague are waiting for the staff working at Rotunda Restaurant to take them back in several cabins down to the valley station. Sometimes, skiers and tourists, who missed the last cable car from Chopok, join the crew. After all, Rado and his colleagues do not let them go down the ski slopes where groomers are already working hard to maintain the trails. Not just our homes are kept warm. Cabins deserve warm too. The station gates have already been closed and when it´s freezing outside, heaters are turned on to keep the station warm. And are they going to sleep now? In any case! A cable car operator has his night shift. If there is high humidity connected with wind, frost and there is a risk of ice coating on a rope, the rope turns around constantly, but without hanging cabins. Chopok is specific because it creates a lot of frost and moisture, and it can easily happen that if the rope doesn´t turn around the whole evening, it would not be able to move in the morning at all. The worst situation is when there is strong wind blowing outside, along with fog, high humidity, and a temperature of about 0°C. Ice coating on the rope may consequently damage the cable car security systems or tear the rubber lining of pulleys. A rotation speed of an empty rope during the emergency shift is about 1.5-4 m / s. The emergency shift lasts until the morning review ride, when the whole cycle begins again.

Sometimes, they are asked by Mountain Rescue Service to transport rescuers up the peak to be there as fast as possible. And then, after the intervention they are asked to transport the rescuers with injured people back to the valley station. If necessary, the goods are transported by a service cab with no seats inside to transport as much as possible. Corporate events are also very attractive as well as weddings at Rotunda at an altitude of 2,004 m, when extra journeys are made for guests up and down. 

How is safety ensured?

There are two safety equipment fixed on each mast. So called sticks and RPD system monitor the position of the rope, its deflection and, in the event of danger, the cable car is switched off. Of course, there are many electronic systems, but the most important factor is a human. Of course, safety is of utmost importance and it has happened a few times that the cable cars were not in operation because the security situation did not allow it.

How to become a cable car operator?

Just come and show your interest in the position. In the beginning you do not need special schools and knowledge, but it is good if you have completed an apprenticeship at a technical school as an electrician, electrical technician or mechanical engineer. The stuff is thoroughly trained in their field. For the first months they get a part-time job to learn how to control a cable car. Training starts with simpler systems, i.e. chairlifts, and then they proceed with more complicated systems. To have some experiences as an electrician is a big advantage. One learns by practicing and training, but the most important thing is to find joy for this job and not to be afraid of heights. There are different working positions even among cable car operators. The first position is a station operator, later after experiences gained on the first position, it is followed by the second position as a handyman (maintenance man) and the highest position belongs to mechanic technicians. A women working as a cable car operator is a rarity. You can meet Alena at the Krupová - Kosodrevina cable car.

Does a cable car operator only sit in his control room or does he also get onto a mast?

If there is some failure on a mast / pillar or something needs to be changed, cable car operators are prepared to work outside. As mentioned before, there is a service cabin with an opening roof and ladder, which make it easier to get onto the mast. To do this difficult job, they use a rope, but even so, it is a real adrenaline job to climb up and down the frozen mast 32 metres above the ground.

What makes the cable car operators´ work difficult?

Visitors, who don´t observe operating hours, mostly put cable car operators and even themselves to troubles. Whereas, they work not only with machines but also with people, it´s a specific kind of job as well as people themselves. There are several cases on a regular basis, or daily, when people don´t watch time or visual and sound warnings and they require to be transported by a cable car after operating hours. Neither trains, nor buses, nor ship are waiting for passengers. Why should a cable car wait for passengers, who failed to move to the right place within opening hours? A funny incident happened in summer, when a group of tourists wanted to call a taxi to get them down from Mt Chopok after operating hours. But there was no taxi to fulfil such a non-traditional request. Problems are also caused by arrogant visitors, who want to get on a full cabin, regardless of women and children.

You can find  27 cable cars and chairlifts of different lengths, speed, amount of transported passengers, and ages in Jasná Nízke Tatry. Let´s look at the most interesting facts. Rovná hoľa - Konský grúň is a 2-seater chairlift, the oldest one, which was put into operation in 1976. Funitel (Priehyba - Chopok) is the biggest cabin cable car suspended on two ropes transporting 2,480 passengers per hour. With its length of 2,130 m Funitel is at the same time the longest cable car in Jasná. Krupová – Kosodrevina is the newest cabin cable car which was put in operation in 2016.

All cable car employees in the resort deserve our respect and admiration. There are more of them than you can see in an ordinary day, and they just care about the smooth running of chairlifts, cabins and other cable cars. As we have learned, it is a difficult job, but also interesting and beautiful. Especially, when there are beautiful cloudless nights and soothing silence everywhere. When you arrive in the morning for your first ride, greet them and give them a smile; you will definitely make their shift more pleasant. After all, there is nothing better than a smile to start off your day.

TIP: If you want to learn something more about the history of cable cars on the southern side of Chopok, visit the Von Roll Cable Car Museum, which is located behind the Kosodrevina Restaurant. Visitors can see a historic lift dated back to 1954-1957. Entry is free of charge.