Picking up speed on the snow covered slopes of Switzerland

Wind in your hair and snow at your feet — these are the splendid perks of learning to toboggan on the Swiss slopes of the Bernese Oberland region.

Written by Neelima Vallangi | Updated: March 6, 2016 12:03 pm

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The snow-covered beauty of the Swiss landscape outside the window and the romance of trail travel in the gorgeous country were not lost on me, but there was a slight knot in my stomach that was tightening with every passing minute. For the 10th time that afternoon, I replayed the words of the guide in my head to soothe my frayed nerves. “If it wasn’t safe enough, I wouldn’t let my four-year-old daughter go on it alone.”

Sound logic. But I still wondered how on earth would I manage to sled down a 3 km snow track full of twists and turns without any assistance even on the first run. I was in the vicinity of Grindelwald village in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. It was a fine winter afternoon and the snow-covered slopes were glimmering under the soft sunshine. The north face of Eiger loomed large above us and the pretty chalets of Grindelwald below were laid out like colourful bricks in the monochrome visage.

Summers in Switzerland are known to be green and gorgeous. But an inclination for visiting places during off season drew me to Switzerland in the winters earlier this year. Only it didn’t feel much like off season. The trains were packed and ski runs were full, as were cable cars going up and down the white slopes of the mountains. Unlike what I had imagined, winters were definitely not a time to be indoors for the Swiss.

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In the pursuit of some winter amusement, I reluctantly signed up to slide down a 3 km long track known as Eiger run. Tobogganing, as it is known, is probably the most fun anyone who doesn’t ski or snowboard can have in winters. Arriving at Alpiglen station, the train came to a slow halt and my heart began to race. Pulling on another layer of winter clothes, I picked up a rented toboggan waiting for me outside the station. The sled was sleek and incredibly lightweight, a gentle push would launch it forward. Not so easy to control, perhaps?

A wide and flattened track was winding its way through a few wooden chalets into the valley below. I waited for detailed instructions, but this was one of those instances where hands-on learning was the only way out. I was told to use my legs to brake and pull the steering cord in my hands to turn. A gentle nudge and I was on my way down the slope.

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The toboggan glided easily and it wasn’t that hard to brake by pressing the ankle of my boots into the soft snow. I was a little bit reassured. A winding turn showed up next. I tugged at the rope with all my might and nothing happened. Worried, I pushed one foot down into the snow instinctively and the sled turned in the other direction. I was feeling better now. I lifted both my legs off the ground and leaned back on the sled, about to give in to the speed. The sled picked up pace. I could feel the freezing wind in my hair and trees whizzing past me in a blur. It felt much like cycling fast down a mountain, except I was sitting down and my legs substituted for brakes. It was exhilarating and I let out a shriek of joy that came from trying something new that turned out to be incredibly fun. Sledding is amazing that way — anyone can get a hang of it and enjoy it without any specialised equipment or training. No wonder it is such a popular winter activity all over the world!

When a series of sharp switchbacks leading down into the valley came into view, my heart skipped a beat. I slowed down to take stock of things. This could get very exciting or very scary. Veering off the track and plunging headfirst into the valley was a real possibility now. Gonzalo, our guide, was leading the pack and I was right behind him. I decided to match his pace and follow his moves closely. And that did the trick. Careening down the slopes screaming like a little child, I threw caution to the wind and steered the sled along the turns without slowing down much.

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Passing under a bridge, soon we were on a much wider snow track. The large tract of gently rolling terrain with a decent gradient was the last section of the Eiger run. Without any sudden bends, this part was all about gaining speed and feeling the adrenaline rise. I let my sled go into full throttle before ending the exhilarating dash at the Brandegg station. The altitude difference was a little over 100m but the thrill of tobogganing downhill surely felt much more than that.

Only later, I was told that tobogganing caused the most accidents among winter sports. I could see why — the high of gliding down the steep slopes at breakneck pace can easily go to your head. I’d like to think the novice in me had just the right amount of fear and caution in mind to keep my speed in check. I had the most fun ever by willingly giving up control.

Neelima Vallangi is an independent travel writer and photographer

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