Switzerland: Wild winter adventures in the Bernese Oberland

Daniel Seydoux grins a boyish grin as he guns the engine of his quad-bike and prepares to pull out onto the cold, wet road. "No risk, no fun, huh?"

With that he thumbs the throttle and tears off into the distance, out through the quiet, rainy streets of Interlaken and off towards the snow-capped mountains in the far distance. My friends and I glance at each other and realise we should be doing the same thing, so we race after him, ignoring the patter of rain on our heavy coveralls, concentrating instead on the fun part, on the thrill, on the adventure, on the joy. This is good stuff. This is what we came for.

No risk, no fun. That will turn out to be something of a motto for our entire stay in Switzerland, a modus operandi, a maxim to be muttered as we pitch head-first out of an aeroplane soaring above the mountains, or scream downhill on a wooden bike, or fly high in a helicopter, or roar down a dark ski slope on a small sled. Switzerland in winter is fun; it's all sorts of fun. To get the most out of it though, you have to be prepared to take the odd risk.

That's all in the future though. To start with, the only thing I'm risking is weight gain. We're in Grindelwald, one of those postcard-perfect mountain towns that Switzerland does so well, a hamlet of wooden farmhouses and snow-blanketed pastures deep in the Bernese Oberland, about 90 minutes by train from the Swiss capital of Bern. This is a famous highland area: the mighty Eiger stands high above the town, dominating the skyline; the Jungfrau, one of Switzerland's highest peaks, lurks in the background.

This evening we're making our way by train from the centre of Grindelwald to a tiny mountain village called Alpiglen, where a guesthouse glows with warmth in the dying light of the day. Inside that guesthouse, at a long wooden table, a feast of fondue awaits: bubbling pots of molten cheese paired with bread and boiled potatoes, with beer and wine and kirsch, the local cherry brandy, on the side. Anyone who thinks fondue is tacky hasn't tried it in Switzerland. It's a cherished staple here, a time-honoured stomach filler.

It's also the sort of meal from which you'd usually recover by lurching towards a couch and crashing out in front of Married At First Sight for an hour or two. But not in Alpiglen. In Alpiglen you mop up the last dregs of melted cheese with a hunk of bread, slug the last of a beer, then pull on your coat and your gloves and head outside into the dark and the cold. And that's what we do. We pick up a "Davos sledge", a traditional Swiss toboggan, and drag it to the start of a winding downhill course that's floodlit and freezing.

Sledging is pretty easy: you sit on the small wooden toboggan, point downhill, lift your feet, and let gravity – assisted by a heroic amount of fondue – do its thing. Pretty soon we're all tearing down the mountain, throwing the little sleds through tight turns, screaming as corners appear from nowhere, rattling down the hill in a shower of churned snow and laughter.

The course finishes at a village called Brandegg where, if you've sledded fast enough, you have time to do as the locals seem to be doing and grab a very quick beer at another guesthouse before jumping on the train and heading back up to Alpiglen for another sled run. It's fast, it's fun and it's like nothing you've ever seen before in Switzerland.

See, this country isn't known for these things. The clichés about a Swiss winter mostly involve high-end ski resorts and fur coats. Switzerland has mountains, so it follows that you would come here to ski, often at great expense. But what if you don't want to do that? What if you want to do things that locals in small mountain towns do? It's possible. In fact, it's easy.

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Next up, velogemel: a wooden apparatus that falls somewhere between a bicycle, a rocking horse and a pair of skis. It looks like a bike, but has thin metal runners in place of wheels. This was the traditional transport for postmen in the wintry  Bernese Oberland – these days, however, it's used purely for fun.

We pick up our hire velogemels from the post office in Grindelwald, load them into the gondola and sail to the top of First, one of the ski mountains here. There we jump on the bikes, ignore all the sceptical stares from the skiers, and once again point downhill, lift our feet and let gravity do its thing. Damn, this is fun. Your feet are your brakes. Your bodyweight is your steering.

It's not long before we're flying down the winding cat-tracks that have been carved across the mountain for skiers to descend in gentle style. There's nothing gentle about our descent: we're throwing the bikes into turns, digging our heels into the snow to brake at the last minute, tearing down and wondering how anyone found the time to deliver letters when they were enjoying themselves so much.

No risk, no fun. It's the Bernese Oberland personified, and it applies to so many activities. Take, for instance, the experience of climbing aboard a small aeroplane in the town of Spiez, overalls on, beanie on, harness on, ready to be strapped to a skydiver and leap out high above the clouds. You can see Mont Blanc from up there; you can see the full splendour of Switzerland's peaks and valleys, its lakes and its little towns.

Of course, you don't really take that in, you don't process it properly, because pretty soon you feel the harness tighten, and see the aeroplane door open, and feel the cold wind as it roars into the plane, and then you're tumbling through thin air, trying to enjoy the rush as you spiral towards the ground. Fun.

Or, take a tour on a quad-bike with Daniel Seydoux, on a three-and-a-half-hour trip that runs in any weather, as we find out today. Despite the cold and the drizzle, we're out on the open road, cruising the streets, heading up high into the mountains where the sad rain becomes happy snow.

Seydoux's tours combine a cultural element with an adrenalin rush, and today's traditional activity is one that's familiar: tobogganing. We park our quad-bikes in the mountain hamlet of Isenfluh, pick up wooden sledges from the gondola station and then ride a rickety carriage up to Sulwald. From there it's a familiar story: bum down, feet up, let gravity take hold. Soon we'll be shooting through the snow-covered forest, laughing and yelling, acting like the kids these sledges are really designed for, before we eventually reach the base and take the quad-bikes home.

It's a little risky. But it's a lot of fun.

FIVE MORE SWISS WINTER ACTIVITIES

1. SCENIC HELICOPTER RIDE

The best way to appreciate the grandeur of the Oberland is to take a scenic flight above it, soaring over glaciers and lakes, passing the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau peaks before settling back down to earth. Truly spectacular. swisshelicopter.ch

2. ICE-SKATING

Each winter the town of Interlaken hosts "Ice Magic", an outdoor skating facility that includes ice rinks, runways, and an ice go-karting track. There are also market stalls to grab a bite to eat and a warming gluhwein. icemagic.ch

3. SNOW-SHOEING

This is a case of less risk, but just as much reward. To go snow-shoeing through the wilderness around Kleine Runde, in the mountains above Interlaken, is to appreciate the gentle beauty of snow-covered wilderness. outdoor-interlaken.ch

4. KAYAKING

Yes, kayaking. This is a legit winter activity, an unforgettable experience that involves heading out onto beautiful Lake Brienz near Interlaken and seeing this wintery paradise from a small watercraft. Just take the right clothes. outdoor-interlaken.ch

5. SPECTATING

Each year the town of Wengen, near Interlaken, hosts the Lauberhorn, Switzerland's most famous downhill ski race. To spend a day mountainside watching the racers is to sink deep into Swiss alpine culture. myswitzerland.com

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

myswitzerland.com

FLY

Swiss Air flies from the east coast of Australia to Zurich, codeshare with Singapore Airlines. See swiss.com or call 1300 290 365.

RAIL

Trains run from Zurich Airport to Grindelwald, and tickets are included in the Swiss Travel Pass. See myswitzerland.com/rail

STAY

The five-star Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof in Grindelwald is a traditional hotel with modern amenities in the centre of town. Rooms start from $640 per night. See hotelschweizerhof.com.

SEE + DO

Daniel Seydoux's ATV tours cost CHF198 (ABOUT $270), see quadtouren-schweiz.ch

For night tobogganing in Alpiglen, see jungfrau.ch

Velogemel bikes are available for hire from the Grindelwald post office, see myswitzerland.com

Tandem skydives in Interlaken cost CHF395 ($536), see skydiveswitzerland.ch

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