In December 1996, I found myself standing in the main hall of Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (central train station). I had just returned from spending Christmas with friends in the village of Fieberbrunn, in the middle of Austria’s share of the Alps.
It had been a most instructive visit. Apart from doing some very important formative drinking, I learned that there are still people who decorate their Christmas trees with actual candles, and – as the ache in my left leg constantly reminded me – that “sledding” means different things to different people.
This particular discovery I made one early afternoon, when my friend Paul, with whom I had been staying, announced that there was such lovely snow that we should really take advantage of it and go “sledding”.
Like most people from the Midwestern US, sledding, to me, meant going a few hundred yards up a gently sloping hill, and then speeding down it in a contraption that looks like it might have jet propulsion or, at a minimum, an ejector seat. With this image firmly in mind, I set off with Paul, my other friend Rudi, and one of their friends, wearing some snow gear that Paul had lent me, which consisted of what looked like an oversized snowsuit in prison orange and a pair of his brother’s boots from his year in the army. His brother, as it turned out, had very small feet.
And so we proceeded through the village in the direction of the mountains. In retrospect, this is when I should have begun to suspect that Paul and company might have a rather different image in mind. However, I was too concentrated on the pain in my compressed feet to think much about that.
The hill we ultimately chose was not so much “gently sloping” as brutally inclined. We slogged up for what felt like at least an hour, during which time I had to take five breaks to avoid collapsing, which my companions found quite entertaining.
By the time we had reached an altitude they deemed satisfactory, I was already exhausted. Only now did I notice a few rather important details: First, that we were so high up, and the path was so winding, that I couldn’t see where we’d started. Second, that the path was only about two feet wide. Third, that the sleds looked more like something Norman Rockwell would paint a person sledding in than something that sane people would actually sled in. Lastly, I became aware that the path had a steep rock wall on one side and a thirty-foot drop on the other.
“Let’s race!”, Rudi proposed, nicely rounding out the experience, “Two to a sled!”
All agreed that this was an excellent idea.
Paul and his friend took the one sled, while I found myself clinging for dear life onto a sled I shared with Rudi. As we got underway, Rudi decided to utter the least reassuring words in any language:
“Don’t worry, just trust me.”