Sledding in Switzerland

Posted on March 27, 2015

In which Heath survives another descent from a mountain.

Where I grew up is an 8a as far as the USDA hardiness zones are concerned. Meaning that it doesn’t snow every winter. But what I liked about this is that when it did snow, it was very very special. If it snowed like a foot and it stayed cold, you could expect to stay home from school for a solid week. During which time you could go sledding.

Where I grew up is also extremely flat, more or less a glorified sand bar, and the only place to go sledding was a hill that afforded maybe three seconds of ecstasy before you had to trudge back up, wheeze while keeping your sister from staking a claim on the sled, and then doing it again.

Sometimes I was lucky enough to visit my cousins in Minnesota where I got to go down a hill that I remember telling someone was ‘at least a half a kilometer long’.

I loved sledding and after seeing the Winter Olympics, I really wished that one day I could go on a sled run on a bobsled. Or at least steer and weave and throw my weight around.

Well luckily I moved to Switzerland, where the mountains have sledding runs carved into them. You can steer some sleds by nudging the runners with your feet, or you can drill your heels into the snow, and try to shift your weight so you can go skidding around a corner, like in Mario Kart.

To top it all off, you get hauled to the top in a ski lift! It’s heavenly!

Mrs. and I went on one run near Gstaad that took nearly three hours. In the middle of this run there was a hand-hewn hut where we stopped, sticking our sleds into the snow. It was owned by an ancient man who had won several shooting awards in his youth and had several plaques honoring his long-associating with a Hornnussen league. We both ordered mountain coffees which were made of a generous serving of homemade herbal liquor topped off with a dash of coffee and some whipped cream, a substance which made my steering just that much more effective.

A couple weeks ago some of my classmates and I went on a sledding trip together. It wasn’t a very long run, in Swiss terms, but it had some really interesting features. The first leg of it was an absolute straight shot, meaning you could lean back, make some minor adjustments every once and a while, and just whip down the hill.

Then there were the usual twists and turns. The town where it ended had no cars, and the final stretch kind of crept along next to the road, meaning I got to burn past some horse-drawn carriages and golf carts fitted with snow chains. Not the most exciting run in the world, but in this case, what made it something special was the changeable Swiss weather.

The weather was hovering about a degree or so around freezing when we got there. And during the first run, I was pelted by frozen rain. Luckily I had brought sunglasses so I looked like a real cool guy going down the hill who could also see where he was going. The precipitation just pelted off of my jacket.

If I know I’m going to be doing a certain run several times, I go through it the first time kind of slow, really getting to know the curves. Sledding is actually pretty dangerous. Veronica’s cousin is a nurse near what is advertised as ‘the safest run in Switzerland.’ It’s not and she treats a significant number of people who just slam into walls and crack their legs open. I personally know two people who have torn their ACLs sledding.

The second run started off with the same frozen rain, but then somewhere around halfway down the straightaway, turned into actual rain. It wasn’t a downpour, but it was enough to make my face wet. Like, one of those rains where if you’re standing there it’s not a big deal, but if you’re actually moving it kind of sucked.

The next run had no precipitation, and the temperature had dropped a little, so the snow was crunchier. This run I really started to bite into the turns and I burned past this snot nosed kid who thought he had game.

On the fourth run it was drizzling again, throughout the entire run. Again, not a problem. I think it was on this run that I saw a mom sledding with three small children. One clinging to her back. One sitting on the sled in front of her. And another one that she was kind of tugging behind her on a smaller sled. Madness.

Sledding in Switzerland is a pretty strenuous activity. You’re not sitting there passively like on the hills of my youth. Shifting your weight, dragging your feet and bending the runners keep you on the mountain. Think of it as the difference between boogie boarding and surfing. One of them you can do with your eyes closed. Your legs are also active the entire time, there’s no real way to rest them. It’s easily the best workout for your psoas out there. I was very sore the first time I ever did it.

Fun side note: the German word for sore muscles is “Muskelkater,” which literally translates to ‘muscle hangover’.

I should mention that when you’re sledding with friends, the most fun you can have is speeding past them and smacking them in the face with a snowball. I will also add that it is very, very difficult to throw a snowball accurately from a moving sled.

We took a break at the restaurant at the top of the mountain. I ate a schnitzel and had some holunderblueten soda.

After lunch we kind of left it open ended as to how many times we were going to go down. One thing that also happens in sledding is your butt starts to really hurt. Some sleds, the nice ones, have kind of woven fabric seats. If you’re ever in the market for a sled (or a sledge, really is what they’re called), then get one of these. Absolutely worth it.

By the time we had left, a band with an accordion, bass and electric keyboard had set up shop in a tent next to the door. They played music that would most likely appeal to middle aged Germans.

The first run of the second half, the fifth run, I guess, was not that bad. The temperature had really started to go up. Snow was starting to fall off of the trees, and it was raining and sunny at the same time.

And now when we got into the ski lift, as we crested to the top of the mountain, we would be greeted by the band that had set up. It would kind of fade in as the restaurant came in to view.

For second run of the afternoon, the sun was out completely, once again I was very lucky to have my sunglasses. And for the first time during the day, I was uncomfortably warm. A couple of us had sore butts, but we decided we had two more runs left in us, especially since it was turning into such a nice day.

The third run of the day took place during a downpour. By the time I got to the bottom, my front half was completely soaked, while my back was dry. I, along with almost all of the others, was ready to go home after that one. Until Matt, a guy who brought a Rubiks cube along with him, convinced us to do one more run.

The final run of the day took place in complete fog. I could not see more than ten feet in front of me, and that may have helped. I’m convinced that if I had been timing myself like a dweeb that it would have been the fastest run of the day. Is it better to focus on the run as a whole? Or to take it turn by turn? This experience suggests the latter. Surreal stuff to plummet into the fog and then emerge in the sunlight.

We were all pretty whupped after that one. I make it a habit to not fall asleep on the ‘return trip’, but even I nodded off on the train.


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