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Like a modern scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, swaddled in my puffy ski clothes, I sat up straight with my legs splayed outward and held on to a rope attached to the front runners of my small sledge.
Here on the Gemmi slopes, in the Valais region of Switzerland, I scuffled to the top of a sledge run, took a deep breath and down I went. Immediately out of control, zooming low and fast like a crazed wintry gnome, I plowed into a snow bank. Laughing, somewhat embarrassed and covered with heavy, wet snow, I righted my upside-down sledge and continued my descent, this time with a modicum of battle-hardened competence. My friends were up ahead and, like me, wore snow-covered clothes and faces.
Sledging, or sledding, is an organized winter sport that takes place throughout Switzerland. It is marvelous fun for everyone, not just kids. Sledges are meant to fly — going fast and straight is what they do best.
Riders ostensibly use their legs and weight transference to turn, but in reality, steering is a luxury. Heels are used for brakes — Fred Flintstone-style — to dig into the snow. When braking as hard as possible (a clear sign of a novice “sledger”), symmetrical fountains of snow shoot from both sides. Native Swiss riders, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble navigating down steep narrow runs, turning at will and stopping wherever they choose.
Sledge runs (or “schlitterbahn”) are found all over Switzerland. They are often hard-packed, retired ski trails that cut into the mountain or summer fire roads covered with thick snow in winter. Once in a while, a sledging trail goes right down a portion of an active ski run, and everyone has to be alert for potential traffic.
There are gentle slopes, steep racing runs, ones with lots of turns, modest slopes, short ones, incredibly long runs. —you name it, and the Swiss have already created it. Some facilities have dedicated ski lifts just for sledgers, and a number of sites even host night sledging. Sledge rentals are always available.
Many sledges are handsomely designed — with some of the finer and more expensive ones handcrafted from seasoned Swiss ash trees. Lightweight racing varieties have canvas seats. More humble sledges are crafted out of aluminum and painted in bright colors. There are horn-shaped sledges, ones made of plastic and long sledges, which are meant for two or three people.
Make no mistake: Runs can be swift. Fortunately, and unlike skiing or snowboarding, the steepness is mitigated by the fact that you’re always near ground level, though sledges can become airborne. When you land, you’ll feel it — especially with a wooden or aluminum seat.
With turns, navigating a sharp curve can be a real challenge. Neophyte riders like me sometimes fall off and occasionally watch the sledge disappear down the course. Thankfully, other riders, skiers and the occasional employee catch runaway sledges all the time and plant them in the snow to be picked up later.
On the long, curvy run near Les Diablerets — which spans almost 4.5 miles — I had to trudge toward my wayward chariot more than once. However, while walking to my sledge, I watched the magnificent Swiss Alps glow brilliant yellow, orange and violet as the setting sun hit distant mountain peaks. Near the bottom, I got back on my trusty sled and looked down to admire the twinkling lights of the quaint town below, where my friends, a warm meal and a customary glass of Swiss white wine awaited. Finally getting the hang of this sport, I cruised the final half-mile in one long glorious schuss.
HOW TO BOOKA well-respected winter tour operator that sells sledging and other Swiss winter sport packages is Alpine Adventures, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Travel agents get 10 percent of the total package cost sold.
GETTING THEREMany airlines fly to Geneva or Zurich, including Swiss International Air Lines, Switzerland’s national carrier. Trains, buses and funiculars (cable railways) are highly efficient and available all over Switzerland. Taxi and shuttle service can also be arranged to and from all major Swiss Airports.
WHERE TO SLEDGEThe nearly 3-mile Muottas Muragl is often considered the fastest of the region’s sledge runs. Its elevation drops more than 2,700 feet, so hold on.
The approximately 4.5-mile run at Diablerets has many turns and is a ton of fun.
The Eiger Run, from Alpiglen to Brandegg, is lit up at night for evening sledging.
The Fiescheralp to Lax sledge run travels amidst the gorgeous Alpine peaks of the Valais region.
Created by an Olympic bobsledder, the Tobogganing Park in Leysin offers exciting snow tubing and sledging runs.
The short but exhilarating Gemmi Pass sledge run is a blast, with magnificent views of the Valais Alps. This experience is to be followed by a visit to the impressive Burgerbad thermal baths in the center of Leukerbad.
And, if you want a serious challenge, the 9-mile Big Pintenfritz in Grindelwald is billed as the longest sledge run in the world. It is reached by gondola and a two-hour hike.