VANDANS, Austria — Fellow non-skiers, here's the coldest hot tip of the season: Do what other folks and I do who are not ski-polecats or athletic snow-hounds. Come to Vandans in the Montafon Valley and try your skill, or lack of it, on one of Europe's niftiest sled runs.
I guarantee fun and frolic, with no broken bones, no sprained ankles and no dashed expectations.
Squatting aboard your trusty one-person conveyance, you pilot down at your own speed, and once you touch bottom, you take the ski lift up again for a repeat performance.
As perhaps "the sled capital of the world," this tiny town (pop. 2,000) is not exactly one of those "best-kept secrets" everybody hides for himself to stop mass invasions, etc. But not so well known is that Vandans does have the longest and most well-kept sledding piste in Europe, perhaps in the whole world. It runs for 2.7 kilometers (more than a mile and a half), with a downward dip that averages about 13% and has exactly 22 curves.
Take a Spill--Safely
Although none of them is dangerous at all, one could be tricky enough to plunk you into the white stuff the first time you try it. It did me. Theoretically you go from the top to the bottom in about 12 or 13 minutes nonstop.
Here's where you're the boss and where you are in full control, even if it's your first time on a sled in many years, because you brake with the heels of your shoes or boots. That's how you govern the sled speed you feel most comfortable with. And speaking of speed, there are no cops or speed laws to tell you how fast or how slow you may zip along, once you sit on your two-track missile and start your downhill safari.
One of 11 in a sausage-like string of resorts of the Montafon Valley in Austria's westernmost province of Vorarlberg--which touches Lake Constance where three countries meet (Austria, Germany and Switzerland)--Vandans is the place for sledding down firmly packed and groomed snow trails.
The sled trail is called a Rodelbahn, the sport of sledding Rodeln. Whether you ever learn to pronounce that last word without tying your tongue is irrelevant. What matters is that you get yourself to the Vandans Rodelbahn, rent a solo sled for less than $2 a day (no charge for using the sled run) and take the ski lift to the Latschau Plateau 1,000 meters up.
Turn, Walk, Squat
Turn left for the starting point of the run (a right turn would take you to where the skiers begin their descents), walk about 10 yards, squat on your sled, lift up your feet and by obeying the only law in sledding--the Law of Gravity--start down. Who said you have to go up to get to heaven?
Kid stuff? Maybe. But sledding, Vandans style, is for any kid under age 90. Since the Vandans Rodelbahn opened to the public several decades back, not one old-timer over the age of 17 1/2 has broken a tibia or lost a fibula. That's the good news--there is no bad news. Except maybe for a few charley horses after the first day on the run.
If you have any doubts about that first trip, Vandans provides you with an experienced sled man (free) to take you up there and show you the what and the how. One of these chaps is Emil Mangeng, a former European sledding champ working for the Vandans tourist office as a teacher and cross-country ski guide.
Speaking nary a word of English, he shows you with body language what to do with your feet to make your dazzling downhill descent one of the great thrills of your life. He'll also supply you with a free map showing the 22 "friendly" curves. But the way I look at it, once you start your zigzag plunge--at five miles or 30 miles an hour--who in tarnation has time to pull out a map?
The Rodelbahn is open seven days a week during the ski season, which in Montafon lasts until the middle of March, more or less. The nice thing about sledding in Montafon Valley is that it's the cheapest snow sport of all. With places like Vandans, who needs skis?