Off-Piste in Zell Am See, Austria.

Trudging through deep snow in the darkness of an Austrian winter’s night, all I had was the meagre light from my phone to shine through the trees in a futile effort to find my run-away toboggan. In a moment of defiance, it had decided to mutiny against me, throwing me from its back and darting into the impenetrable abyss of the woodland.

I was in Zell Am See. One of Austria’s most popular ski resorts, this quintessentially quaint and beautiful town is nestled deep in the Alps. Unlike the many adrenaline-seeking skiers in town, I sought to experience Austria’s strudel, snow and scenery. The town was wearing a thick coat of snow during my January visit. The lake, which sits at the foot of the Schmittenhöhe Mountain, was freezing around the edges, circled by trees dusted with sprinkles of fresh snow.

Walking around the lake, I cast my eyes up to the mighty heights of the Schmittenhöhe. Gradually descending the white facade of the mountain were tiny dots, zipping along, leaving a white spray of snow in their path. I wondered what a rush they must feel, shooting across a ski track while surrounded by these extraordinary views. At that moment, I was jealous. I found myself wanting to experience this ‘rush’, to be able to say that I had run an Austrian track.

Painfully aware of my inability to balance on two skis, I decided to opt for tobogganing. After all, I’d still get the experience of racing an Austrian track, but I’d do it with my backside parked on a wooden structure.

‘Some people are surprised by how fast it goes’, the rep warned me. Sensing my reluctance, she reassured me that ‘there are no sharp turns in the track, and it is great fun’. In a moment of flippancy, I decided to go for it. How hard could tobogganing be? The previous day, I’d seen children on a toboggan gracefully sailing along having the time of their lives.

That evening, a group of us from Zell boarded a coach to begin out adrenaline quest. Most of them were clearly experienced skiers, kitted out with all the gear. Then there was me, someone who had never set foot on a ski track before.

After a journey of forty minutes, we arrived at the base of a floodlit track and were transferred to cars which took us up the winding mountain roads to the track’s beginning. This route was popular with skiers too; a pair of them shot past as we arrived.

After a Perching at the track’s summit, I peered down to see a series of sharp turns and perilously steep descents until they gave way to the darkness below.

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At the perilous track’s start

 

 

Remembering what the rep said about ‘no sharp turns’, I wondered if she was talking about another track. This one looked like it would have given Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards a test of skill, never mind the embodiment of clumsiness that is yours truly.

After a demonstration of the toboggan’s operation, we began the journey down the mountain, one by one. Eager to be the last off, I watched my precedents fly towards the darkness below, their shrieks of either excitement or fear swallowed by the night.

Eventually, it was my turn. I plonked onto the toboggan and shimmied myself over the edge before its metallic tracks gained momentum over the snow.

I have honestly never moved so fast in my life.

Hurling down a steep descent, I quickly reached the first turning. Digging my right heel into the track, I leaned every ounce of my weight towards to the right. To my surprise, it worked. I proudly made the first corner with ease, gliding along like a not-so-gracious swan on a lake.

My confidence built. I was overtaking people, whizzing around the bends and relishing the fresh mountain air upon my face. I was loving every second. Then, I saw the finish line. But first, one final corner; the sharpest left until last. Now over-confident, I whizzed towards the corner and engaged the usual turning routine. But, the toboggan only partly turned and I was destined to fly straight off-piste. With one last attempt at turning, I thrust all of my weight to the left and dug my boot so hard into the track, I was surprised I hadn’t left a black rubber mark in the snow.

I realised this was too much when I found myself sitting on the middle of the track, helplessly listening as the toboggan shot towards the darkness of the forest. I knew it had abandoned me. As I got back to my feet and dusted the snow off myself, I sheepishly looked around to see if anyone saw my mishap. The others, who I had confidently overtaken earlier, now came rushing past relishing in some payback.

I looked down the track and over the ridge of snow beside it, but no toboggan. I pulled out my phone to use its torch and shone it towards the trees but this proved useless. The mutinous toboggan was gone.

Admitting defeat, I sheepishly walked the rest of the course, eventually arriving at the finish line where the others were enjoying a post-toboggan drink in the bar.

After explaining to the rep what happened, I said what I thought many others would say: ‘I’m sure this happens all the time, right’? The rep replied ‘um, no. You’re actually the first person to lose the toboggan. At least you’re in the history books’.

When I began my adventure in Zell Am See, I did not expect to be leaving a week later with any kind of skiing or tobogganing accolade. But there we have it, the first person to lose the toboggan. In a paradoxical kind of way, I’m proud of that.

I often wonder if that toboggan was ever found.

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