Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

Proper Sledging

Apologies if you’ve seen the photo above before, but it’s the best one I have to illustrate the monumental sledge run which Jo and I undertook yesterday, from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald Grund. If only the weather had been as lovely as it was back in 2005 when we took an alternative route from Männlichen, I’d be able to show you the wonderful run we did; taking in twists, turns, forests and wide open sections. As it was, the weather was really only suitable if you were British: the kind of weather which most people would’ve seen from their windows as they sensibly stayed at home in the warmth.

By the time we arrived at the train station in Grindelwald, the weather had closed in completely and the massive mountains all around the village had disappeared into the clouds; snow began falling gently and by the time we’d rented our sledges and begun making our way up the mountain on the train, the upper reaches of the area were in all but completely whiteout conditions and the temperature had dropped to a bracing -12°C.

Never let it be said that Jo and I aren’t dauntless when we’ve spent good money on a day out. On arrival at Kleine Scheidegg, high above Grindelwald, in the midst of snowfall and hundreds of skiers despite the weather, we plodded off to the Eiger Run sledge track, leading from the mountain-top hamlet out into the whiteness and downward towards the second highest station at Alpiglen. The upper reaches of the slopes are barely suitable for sledging but we enjoyed a brisk walk along what in summer is a hiking path, marked out by the first of the purple and orange poles which mark the side of the route all the way back down the mountain.

Thanks to the poles, we made it to the top of the first proper slopes, where we began the hair-raising descent on our rented wooden sledges; remembering quickly the techniques for turning and braking we’d learned five years ago and quickly caking our hats and scarves in a fine layer of ice and powdered snow. Taking a break in the shade of some trees for a warm drink and small energy bars, before carrying along the beautiful route; sadly seeing only snatches of the view as the powdered and falling snow made it difficult to keep our eyes open.

Aside from the weather, we had a great time. The recommended route for the sledge run down to Grindelwald begins at Alpiglen, as the sections higher than this require probably a mile or so of walking before the gradient is steep enough to gain any momentum. For this reason, we’d had the route to ourselves for about an hour, which meant we could go as quickly or slowly as we liked, without running the risk of holding up other sledgers or crashing into groups waiting on corners.

The best part of the sledge run, though, was from Alpiglen down to Brandegg and onward to Grindelwald Grund. Reaching the sign in the photo below, we realised that the alternation of sloped and flat sections was to give way to something a little more serious: the choice which the signpost offered were “easy” to the right…. and “steep” to the left.

Of course, we went left.

The best part about sledging in Switzerland is the length of the proper runs: this one, which is one of the more popular in the region, clocks in at around 7.5 km from start to finish. The first long section of the run had taken us a little time as we’d taken it fairly easy, and the lack of use meant that there was plenty of powdered snow on the smooth track to allow riders to brake; in case you don’t know, braking is achieved by digging your heels into the snow or using the grip on the soles of your shoes to slow you down. However, once onto the more popular section of the run, much of the surface snow had been brushed away by the day’s previous riders and so many of the corners were ice, covered in only the lightest dusting of snow. Travelling at speeds up to an estimated 40 km/h, turning and stopping on such a surface is either impossible or very difficult… which adds to the fun! Drifting a sledge around a corner (in much the same way that you see rally drivers sliding cars around corners) is invigorating and elating if you get it right. If you don’t, though, there is always a mound of soft snow to crash into, which Jo and I managed to only need a couple of times on the whole run!

After a stop at Brandegg for some hot food and Glühwein, we carried on down the mountain as dusk began to set in, making it a race to get to the bottom before it was too dark to see the route. Luckily, thanks to a little less care about keeping our speed down, we made it. The last challenge of the day was the final slope of the run: a 45°, 200 metre drop, polished smooth and with a big corner. After an afternoon of bumping along on hard wooden sledges, the battering of this last section took the last wind out of us and we trudged back to the train station, exhausted, invogorated and ready for the sleepy train ride back to Spiez.

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