“Baking is too stressful.” Karin Huber has a huge grin as she clips in and starts on her highwire act, 60m in the air. Except this is no act, and she’s walking downhill, between cable car towers at Saas-Fee ski station in Switzerland. One casual loop of the lanyard over the cable and a clip the size of a croissant attached to her body harness is what prevents her from plummeting to the ground. “The higher the better,” she says.
Karin’s title is Seilbahnerin. There is no translation. Her position puts her in charge of one tram lift, including everything from maintenance to future planning, daily operations to scheduling her crew and keeping the service buildings tidy. She is the only female in the world with her credentials. In her early thirties, a former professional baker and lifetime skier, she is charming, talkative and won’t stop smiling. It’s almost alarming.
Visual inspections of the cables require the highwire act. It’s done in the best weather possible, for obvious reasons. Envision the span between towers, the degree of the slope, and add in even a slight breeze and it becomes clear that Karin’s grins are impressive.
Tall and slightly intimidating, with a no bullshit stance appropriate to his experience and role as Technical Director, Stefan Studer is Karin’s boss. “She is the best at what she does.” A man of few words, he gives us the grand tour of all the inner workings and infrastructure of a well-established and efficient Swiss ski station.
Underground tunnels, service elevators, private rooms, parallel chambers that allow staff secure access to the many machines that keep skiers happy. Towers anchored in ice that have to be adjusted weekly because of glacier creep. It’s an eye opener. Over 100 people work full time in the summer months. Glaciers hang vulnerable and dirty while skiers slide around, unconcerned. Since working here, Karin admits that her perspective on the cost of a lift ticket has changed. “I don’t think that the prices are expensive anymore.” A complex and technical set of logistics supports every smooth ski day.
It can be an extremely dangerous job. “You must be meticulous and methodical.” Evaluating weather is critical. Following the correct sequence of safety checks. Like baking, there are successful equations. Experience only adds insight; it does not create shortcuts. So, what does she love about it? “Being outdoors. Physical work. Talking with people.”
Everyone we met was either born and raised in Saas-Fee, or moved there to ski and just never left. It’s a tightly knit community, pastoral, nestled high in a narrow alpine valley. Karin started as a seasonal worker, became a baker and eventually went back to school to spend more time outside and feel less pressure at work. She is drawn to technical tasks, with a hands-on approach. Although her parents were initially surprised at her change in career path, they aren’t nervous anymore.
She skis every chance she gets. Is she a double black diamond cliff hucker? No. She’s all about the details. Precision, control, perfection. “I’m not a risk taker.” With so many lives in her hands, this is a good thing.
The person she took over from held his position for 45 years. It’s a labour of love, and that love includes place. A large part of the job is about the people who ride the tram and are curious about where they are and what makes it special. Karin is happy to fill them in. Were she to go back to school, the next stage is a four year program, at the end of which she would be an engineer. It’s very difficult. She could take over from Stefan. (He raises an eyebrow). “But, I don’t know. I like talking with the people, very much, and there would be less time to ski.” For what she is doing, she is extremely young. Time will tell.
At the end of the day, we have coffee on the outdoor terrace. Bootpacks disappear through the col toward the Haute Route, seemingly casual. It’s a big place, with tangled, melted terrain. Karin takes us down the mountain in our own cabin, back to her orderly work space. It’s frightening to imagine winter, being on the towers in wind and snow. But as we roll quietly over the terrain, she’s so confident and cheerful that it’s clear she is entirely in her element, at home with everything.