Backcountry sledding finds its way from Europe to Tetonia

Rob Young displays flawless rodel carving form on his snowshoe-groomed driveway. Julia Tellman / Teton Valley News

Julia Tellman / Teton Valley News While Rob Young’s first foray into sledding was on a Flexible Flyer, left, he soon discovered rodeln, a European form of sledding far beyond America’s “slide and scream” style. Pictured are his and his wife’s sport rodels and a touring rodel for big backcountry missions. Julia Tellman / Teton Valley News

Julia Tellman / Teton Valley News Rob Young explains the anatomy of a hand-crafted rodel that he ordered from Torggler, a manufacturer in northern Italy. Julia Tellman / Teton Valley News

Rob Young has ridden a sled down Table Mountain.

One spring day in 2012, he watched Table from his home perch up Packsaddle and knew when he saw the morning sun’s glare off the peak that conditions were ripe for a first descent.

He set out at 3 a.m. with similar intentions as a skier on a spring tour: beat the sun, be off the summit by noon. Except that he didn’t want the snow to soften into corn with the day’s heat. He wanted it as firm as possible for sledding.

He shouldered his European touring sled, called a rodel, to carry it up the steep Face Trail. On the plateau he leashed the rodel to his fanny pack and dragged it behind him. After he reached the summit he sat up there for what felt like a long time, enjoying the quiet and the views.

Then he descended. Rodels are carved from ash and have steering reins and mobile horns that the pilot can steer with gentle foot nudges and weight shifting. On Table, Young used a touring rodel with runners that had a 20-degree cant, better for planing than carving. He had waxed the stainless steel runners as methodically as a Nordic skier would.

He couldn’t sled from the summit block because it was too rocky, but he clambered off the face, sat astride the rodel, and started gliding downhill. He wanted to cover as much ground as possible without losing momentum, so he barely turned and instead rocketed down the hill, reaching speeds up to 60 mph. He slalomed through a couple tree groves and made it to the first flat step on the ascent before coming to a halt and hefting the sled back over his shoulders to hike back to the parking lot.

“Extreme becomes a rather worthless word and I don’t like to use it about sledding,” he said. “All I’m concerned about it the enjoyment.”

Young has lived in the Tetons full time for 40 years and has done every kind of skiing known to man. He got bored of it. That’s when he bought a ’65 Flexible Flyer, the iconic American sled with a cult following. He found it too flimsy though, and impossible to control.

“Most of what we do in the U.S. is the slide-and-scream, where you find a short steep hill (and) jump on whatever you can find,” he said. “If you turn it’s an accident.”

Google searches in English didn’t yield anything worthwhile but when Young utilized a little basic German he came across rodeln (sledding). Rodel types are broken into many categories, including rennrodel, which resembles luge on an icy artificial track. Young decided to order a sport rodel instead, from a company in the Italian Alps.

No one was around to teach him to pilot his new purchase, so he figured it out through trial and error. Now he has the technique dialed and enjoys teaching others on the Packsaddle Estates track, which he and his neighbors groom by snowshoe.

“Nothing says you have to go max warp speed with rodel because you have a good amount of control and braking power,” he said. “A beginner can feel really good on most slopes.”

Young has developed a small but dedicated sledder gang that includes his wife Karen and friends like Mike Piggot, Ben Winship and Greg Creamer. He explained that when he introduces some people to rodeln, they light up.

“The joy comes back,” he said. “They get something out of it that skiing used to provide … As far as I know I’m the only one who brought rodeln here. I’ve been proselytizing and evangelizing. I’m not selling anything besides the idea, the concept. It’s something else to do that’s fun and applies to winter sports — it’s something you do out your backdoor and it makes use of terrain that’s normally ignored.”

Snowmobile trails offer great opportunities for sledding. Young said that when the track is firm, Relay Ridge can be a phenomenal 3-mile ride — after you hike all the way up, of course. Even true backcountry sledding is possible when conditions align perfectly, similar to cross-country crust cruising in skiing.

Young is advocating for Grand Targhee to allow rodeln on the Teton Vista Traverse, saying that it would provide a unique European experience to visitors with no more liability than alpine skiing.

He even has a dryland set-up, a rollenrodel, to play with during the summer. He and Wildwood Room owner Bill Boney have tried out their summer sleds on Old Pass Road and Ski Hill Road, right next to the long-boarders and road bikers.

Young is careful to specify that rodeln isn’t luge, however.

“That’s nothing more than throwing somebody down a trough,” he said. “When I go out I can watch the birds.”

On his Table Mountain adventure, Young recalls seeing a blue grouse and hearing a pygmy owl and a squawking swarm of Clark’s nutcrackers. When he hiked down from the mountain, he discovered fresh bear tracks heading in the same direction he had gone.

The Big Holes should be sledding well this week, since the Pedigree Stage Stop sled dog race just came through.

“They make the snow very compacted,” Young said. “It’s delightful, as long as you get around what the dogs leave behind. You can’t wax for that.”

You can watch some of Young’s adventures on his YouTube channel “Turboganz.”