Depending on where you grow up, your childhood winters may have had a lot of snow or no snow. Even if you did grow up with snow as I did, you might not have had the best sledding conditions.
I remember very few exceptional sledding adventures from my childhood. When I went to Mary Baldwin in Virginia, I discovered the amazing soccer field. The soccer field is a bit like half of a bowl carved out in the land. The steep hill that curves along half of the soccer field’s perimeter has no trees. Sledding paradise… Or so I thought!
After I finished my exams, I went to the Alps at the very end of February. My German friends informed me that this is “real sledding.” Indeed it was.
Schlitten fahren (sledding) is much more serious than sledding I’ve done in the States. First, you must bundle up against not only the cold, but in case of an accident. This means wearing a helmet.
Bewildered, I asked, “Am I going to die or something today?” My sledding buddies told me, “Well if you think you’re going to go off the side of the mountain, then jump off. In the really dangerous places they have nets, so you should be okay.”
Nets? To keep me from flying off the mountain? Yep. Sledding is way more intense.
The next difference: the sled. My grandma has told me that back in the day they had wooden sleds with metal runners. In my childhood and undergraduate college days, we all had plastic sleds. The Germans scoffed at that remark. “Your little plastic sled would break, and then you’d have to walk all the way back down the mountain.”
After the Germans had me seated on a wooden sled, I was given driving instructions. Basically, you put your heel down in the snow on the side of the sled that is in the direction you want to go. Seems simple, but takes practice.
Oh, and about those brakes… Just stick both of your heels in hard and hope you stop. If you’re going too fast, then you should probably just bail.
Finally, do not pass another sledder until you are sure you can safely do so with enough space. Sleds don’t have rear-view mirrors after all, so other people can’t see you coming up behind them.
Sledding basics aside, the experience itself was also different. To start, we took a lift up the mountain. I’ve never been skiing or done any other winter sports on a mountain before, so this was my first time in a lift. Up we went. Then, down we went.
I think it took us about an hour to get down the mountain. In warmer months, the sledding path was a road. For us, it was a treeless path to race down. At many points it was a race. I lost as an inexperienced American, but it was still fun. At least I have the advantage of being a light weight. Whenever there was a hump in the road that sent me airborne, my landing wasn’t quite so rough thankfully!
All in all, I’d say the day was another successful venture into local culture and recreation. I’d definitely recommend “real sledding” to other international students and expats near the Alps.