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Extreme Sledding in the Swiss Alps

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To reach the top of the Waldspritz sledding run above the village of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps, I hiked 90 minutes into the backcountry, dragging a small runnered sled by a rope to roughly 7,400 feet.

Above the tree line, the snow — a brilliant fondant whiting out granite ledges and filling meadows — lay deep on either side of a four-foot-wide sledding path groomed in perfect corduroy. When I reached frozen Lake Bachalp, I turned around, straddled the sled and dug my heels into the unyielding snowpack to keep myself from ripping down the mountain. I took a last look at the panorama of milky blue glaciers clinging to skyscraping peaks, then braced myself for the more than six-mile descent. Releasing my heels, I immediately rocketed toward a blind turn and rolled my ride into the depths off-piste to keep from sailing off the mountain.

Sledding — a recreation I had previously experienced as walking briefly uphill, sitting on a plastic saucer and letting gravity provide a laugh — never struck me as a skill. But sledding in Switzerland, where it is called sledging in English, is different. Here, locals heading to ski mountains tote lightweight, ash-framed mini-sleighs on trains alongside those with skis, snowboards and trekking poles. For visitors, ski shops rent sturdy touring versions to access ski areas that maintain networks of sledding-specific runs often classified for their difficulty, like downhill ski slopes.

While sledding is an old tradition here — exhibits in the Grindelwald history museum trace its development in the 19th century as both transportation and entertainment — the pandemic gave the activity new life.

“During the pandemic, everyone wanted to come to the mountains, but not everyone knows how to ski,” said Bruno Hauswirth, the director of Grindelwald Tourism. “So they tried sledging.”

Today, the activity attracts families, aging skiers and winter enthusiasts like me seeking variety during their ski holiday.

I first encountered the joy of Swiss sledding many years ago on a ski trip to Les Diablerets in the western Vaud region on a tipsy descent from a mountainside chalet after a dinner of fondue and Swiss wine. Wearing a head lamp, I wiped out repeatedly, finding myself on my back surveying the stars on a run to the village.

Last February, I returned to Switzerland’s central Jungfrau region to visit Grindelwald, which claims the longest sledding run in the world, the more than nine-mile Big Pintenfritz, named for a 19th-century mountain hotelier known to sled to town.

After a 30-minute climb by train from Interlaken, my husband, Dave, and I arrived in Grindelwald to find peak-hugging glaciers surrounding the village of roughly 4,000 residents. Chalets lined the main street, which takes about 15 minutes to walk end to end.

Above the town looms the infamous north face of the 13,015-foot Eiger mountain and other giants, including Wetterhorn and Mettenberg. Nineteenth-century climbers popularized the region, begetting mountain resorts and, in 1912, a railway that, in a feat of engineering, tunneled through Eiger to reach Jungfraujoch, a glacier-filled saddle between the peaks of the Bernese Alps. Reached via Europe’s highest train station at over 11,300 feet, it remains the region’s biggest tourism draw.

On the far end of town opposite the Fiescherhorn peak, we checked into the new Hotel Fiescherblick, a classic chalet with Swiss-modern décor run by fifth-generation hoteliers, the brothers Matthias and Lars Michel. Blending tradition and innovation, the Fiescherblick attracted the local yodeling club one evening for drinks and spontaneous singing and, on another, served elegant shaved beet salads and trout in pea-miso sauce in the Nordic-chic restaurant.

The surrounding mountains host three ski areas — Grindelwald-Wengen, Grindelwald-First and Mürren-Schilthorn — collectively known as the Jungfrau Ski Region. Grouped on one pass (75 Swiss francs, or about $84, a day), they are mapped with both skiing and sledding runs and connected by bus, train and tram lines, all included with the pass.

Reaching the runs at Grindelwald-Wengen is a thrill all its own aboard the 26-seat Eiger Express tram that sails toward Eiger’s north wall from town, part of a $470 million investment by Jungfrau Railways that opened in December 2020.

From the tram’s terminus at the Eiger Glacier, sightseers transfer to the electric train that leads to Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe for stunning views over the nearly 14-mile Aletsch Glacier. Skiers and sledders begin their descents just below the craggy ice.

Dotted trails on the resort map, often paralleling the ski runs, marked sledding paths that web the mountains, providing vertical thrills and touring routes to remote villages, including Wengen, famous as the end of the Lauberhorn World Cup ski race.

With a rental sled from the ski shop Intersport (17 Swiss francs), I left the tram station, set off on an intermediate slope and panicked straight into a snowbank. Plenty of accomplished sledders — including one woman with a pug in her lap and a grandmother with two toddlers aboard — whizzed by confidently.

Following their leads, I righted the sleigh, jabbed my heels — serving as both brakes and rudders — in the snow and learned to yank on the reins to pull up to a stop while throwing my weight right and left to bend around curves. Hazarding the occasional transit of ski runs where the trails intersected, I trusted the snow to cushion my crashes.

As a means to explore, sledding in my warm, pliable Sorel boots was more comfortable than in ski gear. Setting a course for Wengen, I coasted through forests and fields, walked on flat stretches and shared the trail with occasional winter hikers in the hour it took to reach the car-free village.

There, a gondola conveniently returned me to Männlichen, another mountain within the rangy ski area, and I closed the loop by plunging from the summit back to Grindelwald in time for an après-sled Eisbier (ice beer) at the tram terminal.

If daytime sledding teeters between joy and terror, night sledding tips to the latter.

Within Grindelwald-Wengen, a roughly two-mile stretch of the Eiger Run — rated easy by Swiss standards — is lit for night riding (from 19 Swiss francs). A train shuttles back and forth roughly every 30 minutes between the top and bottom for convenient laps between 7 and 11 p.m.

At the start of the run, Dave and I waited for more experienced riders — mostly families and small groups of friends — to set off before launching ourselves downhill. The route began gently by descending in a wide snow field, then narrowed to a series of hairpin turns that switched back like a roller coaster amid the dark pine forest, ultimately expelling sledders onto a broad ski slope. Pinballing through the turns and unable to see what lay below, I held my breath until we hit the open run and gave in to gravity with whoops of glee.

In slaloming finishes, we nearly collided with the chalet Restaurant Brandegg at the end of the course where, after a few exhilarating laps, we parked our sleds with scores of others and joined a frenzy of Swiss high schoolers on a winter break warming up over gooey pots of melted cheese.

Catching the last train to Grindelwald, we asked our waitress how she planned to get home. “I always bring my sledge,” she laughed.

The longest sledding runs in the Jungfrau region amp the adventure with high-Alpine starting points riders must hike to.

From the gondola atop Grindelwald-First ski area, which faces Eiger across a narrow valley, we hiked as far as we could toward the Big Pintenfritz start, only to find it closed for insufficient snow (it opened the day after we left). Barred from Switzerland’s longest sledding run, we settled for its runner up, the 6.2-mile Waldspitz route, setting off on a precipitous ride that I occasionally interrupted to regain control by rolling the sled into the deep snow off track as an emergency brake on a rollicking five-hour round-trip.

From sections seemingly cut into cliffs to forested inclines and flats that run past shuttered barns of dark wood, Waldspitz followed a seasonal road to highland pastures. Once the snow melts, dairy cows spend their summers grazing these slopes; many of the barns we passed are used to make cheese the old-fashioned way, over open fires.

As far from civilization as we felt, peering over rock falls and gazing at mountains draped in hanging glaciers, we rounded one bend and coasted directly into Gasthaus Waldspitz. Piping Alpine music on the open deck, the mountain chalet served rosti — Switzerland’s celebrated hash browns — and sausages in a dining room trimmed in red-checkered curtains and blond wood tables straight out of the “Heidi” novel of my imagination.

After lunch, the sun had softened the snow, making it easier to control our sleds over the long run down through evergreen forests and open meadows, switching back frequently and at one point speeding right through an outdoor cafe that had seating on either side of the run. On the outskirts of Grindelwald, a bus fitted with snow chains on its tires, and racks for sleds returned us to town.

If sledding isn’t thrill enough, Grindelwald offers a higher degree of difficulty in the velogemel, a bike-like vehicle with wooden runners instead of wheels invented by a local mail carrier in 1911 to take the place of the bike he used in summer. Now, Grindelwald holds a velogemel world championship each February.

I met Peter Kaufmann, a Grindelwald local, piloting a velogemel as he trained for the competition. Loaning me his brakeless snow bike for a trial, Mr. Kaufmann cautioned me on speed.

“We don’t wear a helmet to sledge,” he said, “but we wear one to bike.”

Elaine Glusac is the Frugal Traveler columnist, focusing on budget-friendly tips and journeys.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

Elaine Glusac

2023-12-06 10:01:05

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