The Longest Sled Run in the World Passes Through Miles of Scenic Mountains — and There's Wine on the Way Down
Looking up from the valley, standing in my snow boots in the picturesque village of Grindelwald, nestled in the Bernese Swiss Alps, the top of the Faulhorn mountain can be hard to pick out. Nonetheless, this is where some of my favorite adventures since childhood have unfolded, and where I count the days to return with my family each year. Surrounded by infamous, gigantic snow-capped peaks, the windswept Faulhorn crest looks almost unremarkable, but anyone who hikes up will soon find that the sled ride down — the longest in the world, at almost 9.5 miles top to bottom — will stand out as an unparalleled, life-long thrill.
The hike up to the Faulhorn, hauling your own sled from the last gondola or bus stop, takes about three hours, and the views alone are worth the walk. Directly across the valley towers the imposing north face of the Eiger mountain, with its shimmering sheet of ice. Surrounding it, many equally impressive Alps, including the Jungfrau, the Schreckhorn, and the Wetterhorn, whose jagged peak is reputed to foretell the coming weather, depending on whether or not it’s shrouded by clouds. Though we’ve undertaken the journey with both kids and older relatives, the trek is not for the faint of heart, nor those with nebulous commitment. (For our family, dishing out copious amounts of gummy bears helped keep the kids going, as well as a promise of hot chocolate and gluhwine, mulled wine, for the adults, on the long ride down).
Once you reach the top of the sled run, at 8,800 feet above sea level, there’s no way to go but down, and there’s only one way to ride — and that’s near-break-neck speed. Nicknamed “The Big Pintenfritz'' after an eccentric local, the sled run has a mysterious and amusing backstory. Fritz owned the inn on the Faulhorn peak almost a hundred years ago, and allegedly liked to spend the evening in the village, without his wife, sledding down and somehow hiking back up nine miles in the dark, by sunrise.
Zipping down 5,000 vertical feet on a sled, past sleeping cow barns and icy streams, is a breathtaking buzz, and some bold speed-demons reportedly fly down in thirty minutes flat. But many, like us, stop to warm up and catch their breath at one of the cozy chalet-restaurants dotting these slopes, serving up pots of pungent, boozy cheese fondue, mugs of steaming hot chocolate, spiked coffee, and more delicious uniquely Swiss comfort food. No matter your speed, “the view is amazing,” remarks my daughter, Noodle, age 10, whose favorite part is sailing under the cathedral-height pine trees. “It feels almost peaceful,” she says, despite the wind whipping through our hair, and our sled almost slipping out from under us, repeatedly, as we strain to make each U-shaped turn without rocketing off the side of the mountain.
To be properly equipped, sleds, helmets, and snow gear can be rented down in the village or at the top of the gondola. Veteran local sledders claim the best ones to use are wooden, and while many chose to sled on the old-school version, there’s also a newer design that’s much faster. It's built out of wood as well, but a little lower to the ground, the top is made of a lighter nylon canvas material, and the runners are wider apart than a traditional sled’s.
A word of caution from experts: Don’t sled on anything plastic or inflated. And as you set off, be sure to heed the safety signs posted at the start of the hike, noting that sledding on your belly is not permitted. To be able to steer properly, you have to be seated upright. In a pinch, if you see a cliff-edge coming too fast, or feel you might slam into an unsuspecting mountain goat, my advice is to jump ship. Just remember to keep a firm grip on your sled leash, so it doesn’t keep barreling down the alp without you.
Through the swooshing sound of the snow, the wind, and the sled runners gliding over the endless trail, don’t be surprised to find yourself suddenly belting out yodelay hee-hoo as you wind your way down, intoxicated as you may well be by the stunning scenery, the freshness of the alpine air, and the sheer joy of sledding for miles and miles on end, through this winter wonderland.