by Mavis Guinard
Hemingway’s tracks in the snow are easy to follow. This was the Hemingway of the 20’s. Back from the Great War, Hemingway was still on his way. A reporter based in Paris for the Toronto Star, a roving correspondent writing down what he saw in typical staccato sentences; he was juggling a vast appetite for life and a tiny budget. Before an assignment to cover the Peace Conference in Lausanne, way before Bumby was born, holidays were spent with Hadley in a cheap pension in Chamby above Montreux-described in the last chapters of Farewell to Arms. The kitsch and cozy pension is now a private home, but there are others around the area, with the same downy feather beds, same views through frosted windows over the lake to the French Alps and the jagged Dents-du Midi.
Serious skiers and snow-surfers have moved to ever higher resorts with tows, lifts, and electronic passes but if given a snowy winter, there’s a laid-back charm to enjoy here. Besides stomping around the paths and hills and woods, you can test one of Hemingway’s favorite outdoor sports, sledding. Though less macho than running with the bulls in Pamplona, or big game hunts in Africa, Hemingway never underestimated sledding in Switzerland.
A dispatch to the Toronto Star Weekly, March 18, 1922 began “The luge is the Swiss flivver…on a bright Sunday you see all of Switzerland from old grandmother’s to street children, coasting solemnly down the steep mountain roads, sitting on these little elevated pancakes with the same tense expression on all their faces. They steer with their feet stuck straight out in front and come down a twelve-mile run at a speed from twelve to thirty miles an hour…” You no longer can sled down the well-salted mountain roads, but you can get to the luge-run by train. The classic family-safe run is at Les Avants, above Montreux, reached by the Montreux-Oberland-Express.
Even the MOB’s Panoramic Express – laden with mink-clad celebrities and Vuitton bags bound for jet resorts like Gstaad – stops at Les Avants to let off bundled-up babies and grandmas for a cozy afternoon’s sledding. Teenagers and Switzerland’s future bobsleigh champions prefer to clatter down the lighted run on frosty nights. Most Swiss families favor indestructible wooden sleds that Hemingway compared to “little girls’ sleds in Canada”. The younger set is into steel sleds or plastic saucers in a range of (fluo) colors, while the grungier guys just pull on heavy plastic garbage bags with holes cut out for their legs.
There are regular sleds to rent for a few francs at the station. From here, a funicular shuttles everyone to the top of the run at Col de Sonloup, a pass 1149 meters above sea level and 700 meters above the lake, high enough to float most of the winter above the sea of fog that blankets Lake Geneva.
Once you can tear yourself from the view of Alpine peaks unlimited, follow Hemingway’s advice: “buy an all-day ticket then spend the day sliding gloriously down the long icy mountain road…You get on the sled, lean far back and the luge commences to move down the long, icy mountain road. If it starts to sheer off to the right you drop your left leg and if it goes too far to the right you let your right foot drag. Your feet are sticking straight out before you. That is all there is to steering, but there is a great deal more to keeping your nerve.”
Hemingway upped the experience to a heady challenge. His description is closer to swishing down a breakneck bob run than a granny run: “The sled goes fast from the start and soon it is rushing faster than anything you have ever felt. You are sitting absolutely unsupported, only ten inches above the ice, and the road is feeding past you like a movie film. The sled you are sitting on is only just large enough to make a seat and is rushing at motor car speed towards a sharp curve. If you lean your body away from the curve and drop the right foot the luge will swing around the curve in a slither of ice and drop shooting down the next slope. If you upset on a turn you are hurled into a snow bank or go shooting down the road, lugeing along on various plane surfaces of your anatomy…”
Try it yourself. A burst of speed on the last slope will bring you to the steps of the Buffet de la Gare for a foamy cup of hot chocolate.
Mavis Guinard was born American, raised in France, and has lived in Switzerland for the last 30 years. Always fascinated by what writers did or what they wrote while in Switzerland, she has done the Sonloup run with her children and now grandchildren.
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This piece was originally published on Literary Traveler on July 1, 1999.