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Switzerland: The pull of the wild

Looking for an extra shot of adrenalin while you ski? just add a horse — and focus

Switzerland: The pull of the wild
Image: Alamy

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“Bring the front of your skis together in a pizza shape to slow down”, my ski instructor Jacamo had told me. I keep repeating it over and over in my head. It all seemed so exhilaratingly easy on the nursery slopes of St Moritz ski school that morning, surrounded by toppling kids. I’d mastered the basics of skiing relatively easily in three hours of training, and had a bit of a thrill taking a blue run back down the mountain. But now the moment of truth had come. Could a complete novice skier take on skijoring?

Relatively unknown in the UK, skijoring is a Scandinavian sport where a skier is pulled along on the flat by a horse, dog or occasionally a snowmobile. Think of waterskiing, but on snow, and with a horse, not a boat, providing the propulsion. I made the mistake of watching some YouTube videos of the professionals before leaving home — expert skiers being pulled at high speed, performing impressive jumps over snow ramps, grabbing point-gaining rings from mid air and weaving in and out of obstacles, like a terrifyingly high-adrenalin, winter version of Super Mario.

It quickly becomes clear that the tourist version is a little less hardcore. No jumps or breakneck speed for us. Instead, we’ve got jockeys controlling our horses and our course is two straights connected by semi-circular turns on a flat piece of land next to Lake Silvaplana in St Moritz. If I’m going to go down, at least it’s in beautiful surroundings. Craggy, snow-dusted peaks form a dramatic valley, bathed in the crystal light of a late-winter sun. It’s all quintessentially Alpine.

We get matched with our horses and one of the more experienced skiers volunteers to go first. They set off at a gallop and he carves his way around two perfect turns before coming to a graceful stop with a bow in front of some onlookers. Two other long-time skiers have slightly less luck with spectacular falls, but arrive back uninjured. I don’t feel encouraged but it’s my turn nonetheless.

Crap da Sass Castle, Lake Silvaplana

Image: 4corners

The jockey takes it mercifully easy and we trot off at jogging pace. The rope slackens and snaps taut again as I struggle to maintain a consistent speed, but I make it to the end of the first straight in an upright position before awkwardly walking my skis around to point in the right direction.

I spend the next couple of runs getting my confidence up, gradually going faster and faster. By the time my final turn arrives I’m starting to get into it and my jockey asks if I want to take it up a notch. I try to look confident as I nod yes. We fly off at a gallop and the end of the first straight and my first corner fast approach. Can I remember enough of my lesson to hold it together? The horse stops and starts turning on the spot as I fly past and into the curve. The rope goes slack before snapping taut again as I cling on, leaning into my skis to carve around in a passable semi-circle. The horse takes off again, and the kick back on the rope almost sends me flying, but I manage to hang on.

With adrenalin pumping and feeling delighted with myself I let out a little cheer. It turns out a total beginner can handle skijoring, and not just manage but enjoy it as well. Maybe I’ll even manage a triumphant bow at the end. The second and final turn approaches. It feels like we’re flying, but buoyed by my success so far I go for it. I pull a perfect turn and crack a smile, feeling elated, but my joy quickly turns to terror. I’m going too fast. “Make a pizza! Make a pizza! Make a pizza!” I scream internally but it’s too late and I crash into a barrier. 

Essentials

The Kulm Hotel St Moritz organises skijoring packages upon request from CHF350 (£271) per person per hour. Accommodation at the Kulm Hotel starts from CHF675 (£523) for two people sharing a double room on a half-board basis. Fly with Swiss Airlines from the UK & Ireland to Zurich or Geneva from £54 one way. kulm.com swiss.com swisstravelsystem.co myswitzerland.com

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)