Like many of you I had only ever seen snow in limited amounts, in fairly urbanized areas, like towns and cities and occasionally in the rolling fields of the countryside.
On some of those occasions, which were quite rare in my case, as it didn’t snow too often in London, we would go sledging. That’s what we would call it although it would be a whole world away from what sledging or tobogganing really is. We would take a plastic bag or a ‘borrowed’ tray from the school canteen and hike to the top of the nearest hill or steep slope and hurl ourselves down it at break-neck speeds!
We thought it was the best thing ever and as I grew up I found myself pushing the envelope of what we could do on pieces of plastic gliding on snow.
I was at boarding school in the north of England for my last year of childhood and our school was perched on the top of a steep sided hill above the River Dunelm, in the City of Durham. There was a path leading down to the bridge over to the University, (it was all very British and probably lives in an episode of Dowton Abbey!) On the day that it snowed someone turned up with about 5 meters of plastic sheeting, well you can guess what happened next!
Yes you got it, 16 quite burly young lads went careering down the embankment towards the very old and very solid stone bridge. Oh to be young again! There was a sudden stop and luckily we all ended up in a large pile of snow and not the river (It was December and the snow was definitely warmer!)
Fast forward to my arrival for my first winter season in Austria, somewhere around 1993, and although the novelty of getting drunk in the bars was not wearing off, we were still looking for other ways to entertain ourselves that didn’t cost too much.
He was an old hand and had done a few seasons before we had arrived in Mayrhofen. One evening he suggested that we come and try something called “Rodelling” (locally called Rodeln). It didn’t sound like much when he described it “you sledge down a road on an old wooden toboggan” but my inner desire to throw myself down the side of a mountain was starting to wake up and take note. “And you do this at night”, well I was definitely sold at this point.
He had rounded up some beaten up old toboggans or “rodels” from some of the locals he knew. They reminded me of pictures from a children’s storybook. They were all wood in the classical shape of two runners with metal skis, curving up to the front and woven material seat. A group of us met him at the bottom of the Ahorn Mountain that had a large snow covered field as the last part of the black run down from the top.
As with most things and young men (and some ladies too!) the first and most important item on the agenda is a speed test. We hiked as far up the slope as we dared and one by one we set off straight down into the huge dark field that awaited us. I don’t believe that anyone got to the car park at the end of the field without crashing at some point in the deep snow. These ancient machines were amazing and we weren’t even using them properly!
Martin pointed this out as we regrouped for another attempt on the slope. “Try using the road this time, its much better” How could it be better? Well let’s go and find out, it was certainly easier to walk up the gentle gradient of the road compared to the steep slippery side of a ski slope!
We all walked for about 20 minutes along the road talking amongst ourselves and sharing a couple of beers that some clever person had in their rucksack (somewhat shaken up though!). Its incredible how much you can see at night after your eyes adjust to the darkness. Finally we decided that we had walked enough (and we had finished the beer) and we decided to set off from where we were.
You don’t move much to start with, sort of like a Gran Prix starting grid in slow motion, but then you begin to pick up speed. Stopping on these rodels was simple, you put both feet in the snow in front of you and you stopped (eventually!) but turning was a bit more of an art form as you had to plant that foot to turn that direction, i.e. Right foot turns you to the right.
It was a Darwinian process as to who made the first corner but everyone learned very quickly (especially those who took a detour over the edge into
the very deep snow!). Soon we were all moving with quite a pace and starting to play around a bit with the steering, cutting others off and overtaking when the chance arose! Suddenly we were at the end of the road, back to where we had started.
It was over far too quickly. Martin was right the road was far better than the field.
We walked back up four more times that evening, late into the night, before tiredness eventually overtook excitement.
We were hooked. This was something that we were going to be doing for a very long time to come.
That night we discovered ‘Rodeln’
To be continued…