Wednesday , February 1 2023

Let’s go bogganeering! How I invented a winter sport on my trip to South Tirol, Italy

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I have invented a new sport, one that will almost certainly catch on and become a Winter Olympics classic. And it is one in which Team GB can narrowly grab fourth place, over and over again. It is wonderful to leave something behind, a legacy that will benefit humanity. It is called “bogganeering”.

Travel-South-Tyrol-sledging-

It begins with a trip to Italy, the German-speaking part. That is an important factor. Südtirol has not always been an enthusiastic member of the Italian republic. Tucked up in the extreme north-east of the country, its snow-capped mountains are dotted with farms where the old men still wear Tirolean hats and greet strangers with a cheery “Servus!”, like Bavarians do. This is hybrid country par excellence, a rugged amalgamation of the best of northern and southern Europe, the perfect place to blend, meld and weld.

The South Tirol is exhilarating for winter walking.
The South Tirol is exhilarating for winter walking. Photograph: Alex Moling

I arrive by train from Austria, with my partner Sophie, through the Brenner Pass, which retains the chilly whiff of old Mitteleuropa empires. We then squirrel up a huge valley, the Ahrntal, whose flat, arable base contrasts with the 3,000-metre peaks all around. We are staying in Ahornach, a village on the south-facing slopes, and our plan is to take winter hikes, nothing more. At our hotel, owner Max points out potential walks on a map. “There is a lot of ice this winter,” he warns. “Maybe start with this hike to the Knuttenalm hut?” He lends us spikes to strap on to our boots – essential items as it turns out.

The path winds up through snowy fields and past icy waterfalls until we reach the entrance to Rieserferner-Ahrn natural park. We go to inspect a map and information board and read: “8,000 Italian ‘names’ of villages, mountains and rivers in South Tirol were invented by the fascist dictatorship in the process of ‘italianising’ our region … the Republic of Italy has never apologised.”

This refreshingly forthright statement, on a leisure information board, is a reminder that a good hybrid should take the best of two worlds and make something bigger and better. But I’m getting ahead of myself: I haven’t invented anything yet.

The Pircheralm mountain hut terrace serves shots of pine cone liqueur.
The Pircheralm mountain hut terrace serves shots of pine cone liqueur. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

The walk is on well-tramped snow, a lovely trail that winds up a side valley to a delightful mountain hut with sunny terrace. Sophie and I bask in the sun, then I leave her there and yomp quickly up to a frozen lake, Klammlsee, which is a few steps shy of the Austrian border. It is that extra effort that, when I return, makes me look at the sledges standing outside the Knuttenalm hut.

“Can we hire a couple to get back down?”

The waitress laughs. “Of course. That’s what they’re for.”

“But will we have to bring them back up?”

She pulls a face. “Of course not. Just leave them at the bottom of the hill.”

This was the first building block in my hybrid. In Germany and Austria, you rent a toboggan and return it when you’ve finished. Logical. In South Tirol, a little Italian flair creeps in: you rent the toboggan and dump it at a marked spot at the end of the run. No long walk back. Genius. We do the three-mile descent in about 10 minutes, then continue on foot.

Back at the hotel, Max confirms that all the sledge runs have the same policy. I head for the sauna and close my eyes, thinking deeply. Some might say this is a very British reaction to finding yourself in a steamy room full of naked people, but actually I am hatching an idea.

I shout “Eureka!” and rush back to our room, pausing to grab a towel, because nudity inside saunas is healthy, but nudity in hotel corridors is weird. In the room I lay out the map. My finger traces routes. Yes! It is possible. Hike up here, sledge down, hike up there, sledge down, hike across there, sledge …

Kevin Rushby by a frozen waterfall in the Ahrntal valley.
Kevin Rushby by a frozen waterfall in the Ahrntal valley. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

Over a sumptuous Tirolean dinner (the Moosmair Hotel keeps a good table), Sophie raises a problem. “That’s too far for me.”

“OK. We take the cable car here.”

It’s brilliant. A cross-country winter experience, on ridges, summits and valley bottoms, covering distances impossible if you walked.

“It’s a new sport,” I tell her, “Called … ‘bogganeering’.”

The next day we put the world’s newest sport to the test. A sharp descent on foot through forest (spotting deer along the way) brings us to a cable car station. We glide for nine miles up to the Speikboden ski area, a place busy with practitioners of outdated winter activities like snowboarding.

Opposite the cable car station is a rental place that charges us just €7 each for toboggans (try to get ski kit for that amount!). Excitement mounts as we cross the slopes to the head of the toboggan run. A teenage girl skis backwards while taking photos, but not of us: she’s missing the historic moment.

The 12km run is a joy. I can hear Sophie’s screams of pleasure echoing through the pine forest as she misjudges yet another corner. At the bottom we abandon the sledges next to the sign and hike up the Weißenbach valley, stopping for a coffee en route. We climb past the Innerhofer hut into a fabulous upper valley where waterfalls gurgle mysteriously beneath nature’s twisted sculptures of ice. Finally, we reach the Pircheralm hut, a traditional mountain cabin, tucked on a high ledge beneath peaks of rock and ice, where they serve dishes such as kaiserschmarrn (scrambled pancakes) and graukäse (low-fat mountain cheese thick with grey mould). The waitress insists on shots of zirbenschnaps, a local speciality made with pine cones. This tasty digestif actually makes the grey cheese edible. Hybridisation works.

Sophie setting off from the Speikboden ski area on the sledge route down.
Sophie setting off from the Speikboden ski area on the sledge route down. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

For €3.50 we rent more sledges and set off on a wonderful run back down to Weißenbach. The inaugural day of bogganeering has gone superbly. Looking at the map, I can see many other possible days of linked hikes and toboggans, particularly for non-purists who don’t mind adding a bus ride (Südtirol has excellent services). As president of the ruling body, I’m against that sort of heresy, but Sophie overrules me. The sauna is waiting.

The trip was provided by Inntravel, which has a week at Naturhotel Moosmair in Ahornach, from £1,702pp including rail travel from London (£1,195 with flights from Gatwick or Heathrow) seven nights half-board and free local bus travel. Holiday Extras provided UK accommodation, parking and transfers

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