The first time I heard about “summer sledding” (Sommerrodelbahn) was before I came to Austria. Back when we were preparing to move here (and I knew nothing about Austria other than apple strudel and ‘The Sound of Music’), we watched a Rick Steves show about Vienna and the surrounding areas, and he mentioned it. I really knew nothing about it, and I came away with the impression of it being something done on luge tracks or something, but during the summer months.
Then we moved here, and I remember reading something about it again. Whatever it was that I read about it gave me a slightly better idea of what it was about (and I remember reading that it was “fun for the whole family!” or something like that), but it still sounded very fast and a little scary, and I came away with the idea that it was something we might be able to do with the kids one day, if we stayed here long enough for them to be a bit bigger.
Then, last spring, during a visit with our pediatrician, we were chatting about our respective plans for the summer, and I mentioned that we were going back (again) to one of our favorite places near Salzburg. “You’ve done Sommerrodelbahn, right?”, she asked. I was surprised, because I had a definite impression of it being for bigger kids, but my pediatrician obviously knows how old my kids are, and she told me that she’s taken her 4 year old twins summer sledding before, too. She assured me that it was age-appropriate, and that we would all love it. Based on that recommendation, I decided we should give it a try.
I knew that the area in the mountains near Salzburg was well known for good summer sledding locations, and I looked up 2 places near where we were staying. I still really had no idea what to expect, but when I looked it up, it seemed a little expensive for what I expected it to be. Still, I thought we’d give it a try.
We drove over to the other side of the valley, very nearly to the German border (as in, it was a few hundred yards away down that same road) to the place we had chosen. We waited in line and bought our tickets. I had no idea whether we were going to like it, and since it was a little expensive, we just bought a single trip up and down for each of us. I still really didn’t know what was going on, what to expect or what to do next. But, it looked like everyone else was waiting in line for the ski lift, so that was what we did, too. (You’d be amazed at how many of your actions are determined by what other people are doing when you live in a foreign country.) I’ve never ridden on an open-style chair lift with my kids, so that was intimidating enough (we’ve done lots of cable car/gondola style lifts, and once a drag lift when we were skiing, but never a chair lift). I spent the first trip up with my arms wrapped around Benjamin, fearful that he’d slip out, or that he’d do something crazy, not understanding the potential danger. (Neither of those things happened. We had a lovely — if a little sunny — ride up and got an amazing view of the valley. I’m guessing that a sunny ski lift is a bonus in January. In July, it’s just 20 minutes of sitting in the sun without any shade, which I had never thought about.) On the way up, we got a few quick glimpses of people “sledding” down, and I began to see why I hadn’t really understood the concept before. Sommerrodelbahn translates as ‘summer toboggan run’, and the little sleds do look a lot like large, plastic toboggans, so I see where the “sledding” part comes in. But the “sleds” run on a metal track (so there’s no need to steer), which is, I think, where the “luge” concept kind of comes in. I was thoroughly intrigued, and a little freaked out — they looked like they got going pretty fast!
We got to the top and were treated to an amazing view. We followed some signs which led us (oddly) into and through a restaurant, down some stairs, and out the bottom of the restaurant, where we waited in another line, and where we could watch as other people climbed aboard their sleds. The sleds came down the line, and an operator collected the sled and helped to park it while the rider (or riders — it was very common for small children to sit on their parent’s lap, which was what we intended to do) climbed in. The rider got seatbelted in, waited for the green light to signal that there was enough free space between them and the rider ahead, and off they went!
I was grateful that we’d gotten to see a few people go through the process before it was our turn. We decided that Dan would go down first, because there was no question that he’d be going faster than I would be. B chose who he wanted to ride with (Dan, and I figured the boys would both prefer to ride with him, because he’d probably go faster), so he & Dan were up first. They climbed in, got seatbelted (there was even a special double seatbelt for kids riding in laps!) and headed off down the hill. Liam and I followed right behind.
I was nervous, and overly cautious. The only control we had was a lever that we pushed forward to go faster and pulled on to slow down. At periodic intervals along the track, there were signs that signaled that it was time to apply the brakes, and I dutifully followed the directions (although I didn’t get going fast enough to really need them on that first run). Though it looked like a cross between a sled and a luge, the sensation was most similar to being on a very small, individually controlled roller coaster. We snaked down the hill, through the woods and then out into the clearings again, under the ski lift, down some steep drops and through a tunnel.
It was fantastic.
Benjamin and Dan greeted us excitedly at the bottom of the hill. Benjamin’s exclamation of, “Holy schnitzel, that was fun!” was maybe the most perfect description possible for the experience. Without question, we waited in line for another round of tickets — and this time, we bought 3 round trips. Again, B & I rode up together (I felt safer having Dan ride with Liam, who is wigglier) but, I was pleasantly surprised (actually, I was thrilled) that when it was Liam’s turn to pick a riding partner for the next trip down, he elected to stay with me. We went down for the second time, and it was even better — in part because I was less fearful, and actually let it go a bit on the straight sections. (We did end up stuck behind a REALLY cautious woman and her daughter on one trip down, which was both a little frustrating and a little dangerous — she didn’t just slow down, but came to frequent complete stops on the track, leading to a bit of a pileup behind her.) The sleds are limited to a certain speed, so you can’t get going too fast, but they go fast enough to get a bit of a thrill.
(After our second trip, we decided to actually stop in the restaurant at the top to get some lunch. I knew we were close to the German border, so I looked it up while we were waiting for our food . . . and discovered that we were, quite literally, ON the border. I actually don’t know which country we had lunch in. That is a pretty strange sensation, as is the fact that crossing international borders has become completely routine. When we first moved here, I was attached to my passport like it was some kind of life preserver. I didn’t leave the house without it . . . no kidding. I remember that when mine expired, after we’d been here about a year, I had some massive anxiety about being without it for a few days while it was being replaced. Now, though I do travel with it — because you never know — I don’t worry about it all that much, and I’ve made several international border crossings without it. Including, it seems, a few times on foot.)
We made our last few trips down (each time, I rode up with B, and down with Liam), and each time, we went a little faster. We got pretty brave about it. This definitely goes on the list of great experiences we’ve had while living in Austria, and I would say that it’s something not to be missed if you ever get the chance to do it. No exaggeration, it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.