Rough Guides editor and adrenalin junkie Helen Abramson is charmed by night-skiing and scared witless by sledging in Adelboden, Switzerland.
I sit looking out over the moonlit valley ahead, dotted with the twinkling lights of Adelboden, transfixed. I am alone, in silence, surrounded by the fierce peaks of the Bernese Oberland in southern Switzerland. If I look hard enough, I can see the beams of headlights winding their way through the villages below and round snaking mountain roads, like slow-motion glow-worms. My buttocks haven’t had this much contact with a ski slope since my first days snowboarding; every now and then I ride down a little further, sit, and take in the view again.
I’m somewhat behind to be jumping on the night-skiing bandwagon, but I am at least making my debut on a World Cup run with nobody on it (late to everything, I’ve left it till almost lift-closing time to get here), perfectly clear skies, in a resort that couldn’t look prettier. It feels like cheating, somehow, to be able to feel so entirely safe, doing a sport I adore, in the heart of an immense mountain range, in the tranquillity of darkness (floodlit piste aside). 2016 will be Adelboden’s sixtieth year of hosting the Ski World Cup, when the population swells from 3600 to over 40,000 across two days. In my current remote state, it’s difficult to imagine so many people here, but it sounds like one hell of a party – more significant, perhaps, to locals than the races themselves.
With 185km of ski slopes to explore, somewhat reluctantly the next day I agree to drag myself away for some sledging – another activity growing ever-more popular in winter resorts and which, again, I feel I’m rather late to be trying. It’s not that I’m totally unfamiliar with it, but this is not tobogganing as I remember. Adelboden has seven special pistes, covering 24km, where no skiers or snowboarders are allowed. The sledges are beautifully carved wooden numbers, with well-waxed metal runners. Getting a plastic tray as a six-year-old and hurtling down a hill near my home in northwest London, directly into the busy road below, with no real concept of breaking and some interesting near-misses with drivers, is pretty far removed from this set-up.
The conditions are not ideal – there’s only a thin layer of fresh snow on the slopes, underneath which is a whole lot of ice. I’m expecting a wide, gentle run down, but I get the opposite: a terrifyingly narrow, steep path curving its way round the mountainside with dozens of hairpin 180-degree bends and a steep drop to apparent nothingness on one side. Breaking is rather tricky with the icy conditions, but I gradually build up a small degree of confidence and speed, and after being overtaken by a young girl wildly out of control and screaming for her parents I decide to follow suit. It’s immensely exhilarating, and I only somersault over the front of the sledge once, the rest of the time sure that this is the corner that will end my life.
Upon returning my sledge, I find a collection of other entertaining-looking objects designed to distract children and adults alike for a good few hours, such as airboards (inflatable boards that you lie on head first) and, unique to Adelboden, Skibocks. Invented nearly a century ago, Skibocks are just a simple wooden seat attached to a single sawn-down ski. Kids here love bombing fearlessly down the slopes on them, but I’m ashamed to say I give the lethal-looking devices a wide berth. I’ve had enough death-defying exploits for one day.
All this downhill action has made me hungry, and I try to contain my stomach-rumbles on the rickety cable-car that takes a group of us up to the isolated plateau of Engstligenalp, with its own skiing slopes, a tempting-looking off-piste area for snowboarders, a single hotel and Europe’s largest igloo restaurant, exclusively serving cheese fondue. Accessible only by cable-car or mule track, this 2000m-high area is a world unto its own. The igloo’s interior is decorated with flowers frozen in blocks of ice, in which some of the petals are surrounded by ink-like, swirly colour trails where the pigment has drained away in strikingly beautiful patterns.
The restaurant is cold - an obvious fact, but one I am hopelessly ill-prepared for, and as my hands seem to be keen to join the art installations, it dawns on me that after years of carrying around hand-warmers for emergency-use only, the time has finally come to give in and crack them open. Half an hour and a lot of cheese later, it seems I waited a little too long to call an emergency – the warmers are three years out of date, and entirely useless. On the plus side, the fondue is the tastiest I’ve ever eaten, and in by far the loveliest surroundings.
A cloud has fallen over Engstligenalp while we’ve been eating, and as we emerge from the igloo into the mist I feel a sense of peace for the second time in my few days in Adelboden – a rare treat in the hubbub that usually takes over ski trips. Eager not to lose this feeling, I return to the Bond-esque Cambrian hotel, where a crackling open fire welcomes me, and head directly to the spa for a dip in the hot outdoor pool with views of the grand peaks soaring over the snowy rooftops of the village. Sublime.
NEED TO KNOW
For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or email [email protected]. Swiss Air Lines offers up to 19 daily flights to Zurich from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester (from £129* return). To book, visit: www.swiss.com. The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination (£92 second class, £149 first class). Visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk for more info.
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