* Adult language in this story *
Fall of 1993. I was sixteen years old, and was an exchange student living with a German family. We went on vacation down around Lake Constance. During that time we visited some of the extended family. While on that trip we visited the city of Gstaad.
It was a picturesque spot and looks exactly like what you would expect a beautiful Swiss town in the Alps to look.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cameliatwu/6219135856
Host Dad has a brilliant idea. Let’s ride up the mountain and ride the summer toboggan. I had no idea what he was talking about but that wasn’t particularly unusual since I rarely understood anything anyone said if it wasn’t in English. But being a young explorer of sorts, I said I was up for it.
We ride the chair lift up to the top. The beauty of the landscape is hard to describe. It is as if you were looking at an awesome post card with an incredible view. So incredible, that it was hard to imagine that it is a real place. And then you stepped through the post card and were suddenly there. Yeah. Kinda like that.
When we get there I can finally see what this “toboggan” is actually about, and it turns out is has nothing to do with a garment to keep your ears warm. It involves high speed and questionable safety equipment. I couldn’t wait to try it.
The way it works is as follows. There’s a stainless steel half pipe, kind of like what a bobsled would use, except that it isn’t covered in ice. Instead, you get on this contraption that has wheels under it. It’s very much like a skateboard, only longer and wider. You sit down on this wheeled sled of sorts, and you roll down the pipe.
This video isn’t the same place, but the video quality gives you an idea of the speed involved. Even though the person in this video obviously used the brakes pretty often.
So here I am, an American kid, who barely knows enough of the language to ask where the bathroom is. The ancient man running the thing tells me how it works. Just words, no actual demonstration. This turned out to be a bad thing since his little spiel included instructions on how to operate the brake.
I get on that sonofabitch and away I go. When the handle is pushed all the way down, all the brakes are released and it rolls freely (and damn quickly) down the pipe. In order to brake, you had to pull back on the handle. But, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t speak the language and therefore did not know that. Naturally I push all the way down on the handle, fully disengaging the brake…and hold it there so I could lean forward and make a low profile…because I wanted to reduce wind resistance.
The speed at which I went down that pipe is really hard to convey. Let’s just say the course was NEVER designed to be run at top speed without braking. As I made the turns, the wheels were about a half an inch away from jumping over the lip of the pipe. I was leaning into each curve with everything I had. My hair was plastered flat against my head. The wind blew the moisture out of my eyes and tears rolled straight back toward my ears. What I’m trying to say here people is that I was in motion.
At the bottom there were these plastic flaps hanging down. Kind of like the ones you see in a car wash. I guess they are there to force you to slow down. I hit those damn things so hard. They slapped the ever loving shit out of me. At the very end I rear ended someone else’s sled that wasn’t moving fast enough (which may have given them whiplash) and catapulted me into a group of bystanders.
One would think I would have called it quits. Nope. I had to go again. This time I got some instruction from another rider and knew how the brakes worked. Down I went again….and this time when I tried to use the brake lever, the sonofabitch failed. The wheels, which had barely stayed in the pipe on the first run, went out of the pipe in the next turn.
Earth’s gravity was no match for the forces at play here. The sled left the pipe and I hit the grass at what I estimate was 35 mph. The impact removed both of my shoes, ripped my coat off, and grass-stained my pants. I also managed to tear up quite a swath of grass and dirt where I landed. Outside of a few bruises I was uninjured. This is one of many personal examples I have of teenage resilience. I think if I crashed like that today I would be in the hospital.
My German host family made a nickname for me that stuck for the rest of my year there. They called me Mr. Crash. Truth be told, I earned that nickname several times over the course of my stay.
Ah, to be young again. Shaw was right when he said that youth was wasted on the young.
Here is a very young Mr. Crash aka Studentofthegun in Lindau, Germany.