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French Alps: Europe’s longest toboggan run

26 January 2009 No Comment

Chances are, if you were wandering around Switzerland or the French Alps in the late 19th century, you would be tripping over English Army officers taking a spot of rest and relaxation. Bored with downing gin and polishing anecdotes about Bechuanaland or the North-West Frontier, the officers donned their furs, climbed mountains, learnt to ski and – having borrowed trays from hotel kitchens – slid down the slopes on their bottoms. Mountain men with whiskers like old lions may have shaken their heads, but this was the birth of tobogganing in Europe.

Inspired by what I had read, I travelled to Val Thorens in the French Alps to try their invention for myself. About three hours’ drive from Geneva, this ski resort was founded in the Seventies (hence the rather brutalist architecture) and sits at the gateway to the biggest ski area in the world, the 600km (370 miles) of piste of the Trois Vallées.

Because it’s the highest resort in Europe – at 2,300m (8,200ft) – it has reliable snow and enjoys a long season. Because it is small and only yards from the piste, it can also become busy. But I wasn’t there for the skiing. A few years ago the local authorities decided they wanted a nice long toboggan run. In fact they decided they wanted a really long one and kept on developing it until it ran to 6km (3.7 miles), the longest in Europe.

Those wishing to attempt the run must first collect a toboggan from the grandly named Chalet de Toboggan. But, as I soon discovered, it’s not the wooden beauty you might have expected, but a rather flimsy looking piece of plastic with two levers as brakes. The Chalet de Toboggan also kits you out with a hairnet and helmet (another handy piece of equipment is a hip flask) and then it’s off to the gondola and up to 3,000m (9,800ft), where the toboggan piste begins. If you’re tentative, you might try the little run around the Chalet de Toboggan, but as this is just as likely to put you off as encourage you, my advice is just to go for it.

I got off the gondola with my toboggan at the foot of the Peclet glacier and, for a few hundred yards, I shared the piste with skiers. Skiers are much taller than installed tobogganists and they go much faster; they whoosh past and as you have no rear view mirror, you can’t see them coming. But after five minutes you’re on the run and from there it’s all plain sledding.

At least in theory. I was lucky enough to have a guide, Laetitia Jacquemard, who chaperoned me around the course. For amateurs like me, she said, it should take 45 minutes to get down. But because of my unusual approach – one Laetitia said she had never seen before, and which I like to call “freestyle” – my first attempt probably took a bit longer. However, the assured and the competent can actually finish the run in about 10 minutes, averaging 22mph.

Laetitia was annoyingly proficient, giving the brakes on her toboggan the tiniest tweaks, and swerving elegantly while I zigzagged at full pelt, forgetting how to use the brakes until I was past the point of no return. After a while you realise you are never, ever going to get these brakes to work, so you stretch out your arms as if you’re playing aeroplanes at school and punch the snow when you want to achieve a change of direction.

I confess that I’m a man of magisterial frame and once I built up speed I realised there was little to stop me safely except a massive bank of snow. There were a few hairy moments: crashing into a bank that turned into a cliff; dodging large boulders of snow and ice which, rather oddly, sat in the centre of the run; and evading snowboarders and, er, other sledders. I can now see why cricketers call their abusive exchanges sledging.

The run can actually be quite dangerous – not just because of me – as you cross the piste a couple of times and reach quite high speeds. I came across one girl who was in floods of tears having crashed quite badly and lost all feeling in her legs. Her friends called the emergency team and they got a skidoo out within minutes. It was all rather sobering and I took another snifter from the hip flask.

Having a helmet, however, gave me a sense of fierce invulnerability, and I was probably madder and faster in my attempts at bends than I should have been. This resulted in me ricocheting from the sides like a pinball. Luckily there were only a dozen other people on the run, most of whom passed me when I was tipped out.

But there were advantages to the crashes. Lying face up (if you’re lucky) you get time to admire the mountain scenery.
The blue is bluer, the white is whiter and the crests of the peaks are etched in the ice-sharp air. However, such reveries are quickly interrupted by the shrieks of those on your tail.

Towards the end of the run – possibly because of snow blindness – I couldn’t actually see its limits. Usually you can make out the fluorescent poles marking the track, but if there are lots of corners all the poles coalesce like a bed of reeds, and that’s when the carnage begins.

By the finish you are completely exhausted and if you’re tall the dimensions of the toboggan and steering yourself by hand will have you aching as well. You are also a lot heavier than when you started as your salopettes will almost certainly have failed to be waterproof and the snow will have become ice encrusted in every crevice you possess.

Val Thorens is not really a vin chaud and raclette kind of place, but the resort offers a fine selection of bars for après-toboggan, some of which are among the highest in Europe.

On my visit they were mostly crammed with British university students. Drinking is along national lines. The Danish have Café Snesko, the Dutch have Le Monde bar while the British seem to have half a dozen bars, pubs and clubs, including the Frog and Roastbeef, Europe’s highest pub.

The last was where is where I met Steve Galbraith, a student from Manchester who had also been tobogganing. We compared bruises over toffee vodka. “The most difficult thing,” he said, “is steering. After a while you realise that you can only really direct yourself by moving your arse to left or right which after a while becomes a little painful.” It’s true, and probably the reason we were standing up.

A place worth sitting down is Oxalys, the highest restaurant in Europe with a Michelin star. The chef, Jean Sulpice, takes his inspiration from hearty Savoyard ingredients to produce something sophisticated and delicate. He plied me with amuse-bouches, including an egg and mushroom soup in the shell and a deep-fried snail on a stick which tasted like a cripsy, garlicky chicken nugget. Sulpice also offered a wine tasting – the Savoyard whites are generally quite light and fresh but the reds (using the Gamay grape) are a little thin for me.

Suitably wine and dined, I then hit the toboggan run again. That’s right, you can do it in the dark… There are no floodlights but you’re given a glorified miner’s light to put on your helmet.

I don’t remember much about this second run except the sudden impact of snow bank on body and the brief panic that sets in when the head torch goes missing and you still have a couple of miles to go. There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of hurtling through the dark completely blind.

All in all, tobogganing down Europe’s longest run is the most fun you can have with lots and lots of clothes on. And after you’ve done it, you can drink a toast to the British soldiers who brought this madness to the Continent.

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