The longest sled run in Europe happens to be an easy train ride from Geneva, in the resort town of Grindelwald, set in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. Rick Steves has it out for Grindelwald, so I set my expectations low, picturing a town like Interlaken, overrun with tourists and shopping strips . But Grindelwald, though full of out-of-town skiers, still maintains its charm as a relaxed, quaint skiing village set between the spectacularly beautiful giants of the Alps, peaks like Eiger and Jungfrau. We hopped on a train straight from work on Friday afternoon, and after passing through Bern and Interlaken, arrived in Grindelwald by dinner time. It was a perfectly clear night and the stars were out to greet us in bright clusters. Our bnb, Lehmann’s Herberge Hostel, was only a 5 minute walk from the train station on the main road. My expectations for Lehmann’s were also set warily low, as this was the cheapest accommodation in Grindelwald by a significant amount. But again, I was wonderfully surprised by the quality and charm of this independent hostel, tucked neatly behind the flashy hotels. This family run establishment turned out to be as nice as any hotel we could imagine staying in. A beautifully decorated wooden swiss chalet, which, like most chalets, was absolutely huge (to have plenty of room to move around in winter??). It was divided into 14 rooms plus a spacious living room and dining area where breakfast was served each morning. The rooms were made completely of wood, giving the space a cozy cabin vibe, and had a bag of colorful slippers hanging outside the door so we could leave our boots on the mat but still keep our feet warm. Perched on a ridge, our bedroom window looked out over scattered snowy cabin rooftops to an unobstructed view of some of the massive snowcapped peaks on the edge of town – a Swiss postcard picture.
Breakfast was included and was a great start to our Saturday adventure, with a spread of homemade breads, local butter and cheeses, homemade jams, hardboiled eggs with bright orange “summer yolks” that signified they must be grazing on the hills around town, yogurt made right there in Grindelwald, muesli, tea, coffee and hot chocolate. We wolfed down as much as our stomachs would allow while studying the map of the area before making the decision to brave the Big Pintenfritz sledding run, said to be the longest sled run in the world. All week I had been simultaneously euphoric and panicked about this moment. Based on our past experiences with the Swiss trails, I was sure that this would be another example of our hike in Gimmelwald, where numerous people told us the hike up the Schilthorn was easy, and it turned out to be the most terrifying experience of our lives. I mentally braced myself for a hike to the top of the Faulhorn along treacherous cliff walls with no railings, carrying a sled, and then a sled run down the mountain with a 10,000 foot drop on either side and nothing to stop you from crashing over. But the lure of a 2 hour sled ride was enough to override this fear. I told myself that we could always turn around when this part came, and we’d come all this way, so time to suck it up and hope for the best. So we walked the 5 minutes from Lehmann’s to the FirstBahn lift, bought our $15 one-way tickets, climbed in the silver egg-shaped ball hanging from a wire that was far more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen on a mountain before, and were efficiently whisked away up the slope, passing over grassy patches of land where global warming was showing its effect, and higher up, houses with footprints on the roof because the snow had been so deep. After a 30 minute ride we arrived at First, the last stop on the lift at 7,000 feet. We exited the lift and found the small store located just next door where we could rent our “sledges”, for $15 each. These resemble what people in the states might call a toboggan – two thin metal runners with a mesh seat across the top and a rope attached to the handles that allows you to hang on for dear life and steer you a little bit. Before testing out our sleds we took a quick detour to the cliff walk built precariously along the side of the mountain behind the store, offering fabulous views of the soaring peaks, crazy skiers hiking off-piste to find fresh powder, and a sled run with a steep drop-off that we fervently hoped was not ours.
Our next task was to drag the sled 2.5 hours and another 2000 feet up to the very top of mount Falhourn at 9000 feet. This is where Big Pintenfritz begins. So we joined the continuous line of people slowly making the mecca up to the top. We lucked out with the weather and thanks to a clear blue sky and a balmy 45 degrees, the views were breathtaking and we were toasty warm. The altitude made the hike a little more challenging, but the path was wide and clear and the grade wasn’t too steep until the end. We were mixed into a group of more seasoned sledgers who we saw over and over as we leapfrogged each other up the mountain between sporadic breaks, them for shots of whisky, push-ups, and professional photography sessions, us for a few desperate deep breaths and swig of water.
The last 45 minutes of the hike was short, distance wise, but extremely steep with strong gusts of wind, forcing us all to occasionally hike backwards to avoid being stabbed in the face by tiny ice daggers. After hiking for 20 minutes to the top of the almost 90-degree peak, we were sad to learn that the restaurant we’d been hoping to refill our water in was closed, but were rewarded with staggering views – a full 360 degrees of the huge mountains in the area – Eiger, Jungfrau, Monch, all standing at around 3600 meters. A fitting send-off to this epic sledge ride.
We had practiced on a few downhill sections of the hike up the mountain, but it still took a few near crashes (or “pull-offs” as Chris likes to say) to master the steering, done completely with your feet – left foot down turns left, right foot down turns right. Once we got the hang of it, just a toe lightly scraping the ground at 20mph was enough to cause a sharp pivot around some of the hairpin turns. For an hour we careened down the mountain, screaming and giggling like little kids in pure delight. I flashed back to the sled rides down my grandfather’s mountain driveway in Vermont and felt as though all of my childhood dreams had come true in this moment. Every now and then we’d take a break to sit in a snowdrift and gaze around at the huge mountains surrounding us and the worn wooden huts peeking through the snow, or sing along to “No Woman, No Cry” playing from a small radio one group had brought along to add a soundtrack to their ride. I can’t remember the last time I felt this alive and exhilarated.
Halfway down, in the 5-building village of Bussalp, we pulled off at a warm wooden restaurant with a beautiful enclosed outdoor seating area that looked out over the mountains and glaciers, filled with wooden benches, blankets, and sheepskin rugs for cold days. The steaming fondue and rosti plates that streamed out of the kitchen were tempting, but we decided to stick with drinks for the moment and treat ourselves to fondue later, as a reward for making it down in one piece.
As we left the restaurant we could see our destination between the glaciers, mottled in the light being cast through the clouds. Newly energized, we pushed off for the last 8km stretch back to Grindelwald. This last section was on a road, closed to all traffic except an hourly bus with a distinctive horn to warn sledders of its arrival. The road twisted and turned and was studded with a few strategic bumps that sent us momentarily airborne. Finally, about 2km before Grindelwald, we ran out of snow. To avoid paying $23 each for the short bus ride back home, we hoisted our sledges on our shoulders and headed down on foot on a winding path through the fields. We made it back just in time for our hostel to make a reservation at the owner’s favorite fondue spot, so we quickly stripped out of our wet clothes and headed down the street to the restaurant, a converted old barn and one of the oldest buildings in Grindelwald. As we settled into our table in the tiny dining room, waiting for our fondue and lamb, we sleepily smiled and toasted a glass of local wine to the most appropriate ending for a truly epic day.