The Cresta Run in St Moritz is a sport with a thrill like no other. So grab your tweed and head for the mountains.
The Cresta Run is held every year in Switzerland’s glitziest town. So when the shooting has finished and the hunting frozen off reserve your place on the Cresta Run, for thrills and spills aplenty. The St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC) is over 125 years old, and only those with suitable dash and a dollop of vim seek out the thrill of the ultimate downhill ride.
The Cresta Run, indeed, all winter sports in the Alps, have their origins in a bet made in September 1864 by Johannes Badrutt, the proprietor of the Engadiner Kulm hotel in St Moritz, to four English guests. The hamlet had an average of 322 days sunshine a year, a dry, invigorating climate and mineral springs renowned for their curative properties, and was a popular summer destination for Britons seeking the thrill of mountaineering or suffering from tuberculosis.
At the end of the summer Badrutt attempted to convince his guests that winter in the Alps was just as attractive as summer. If they returned in December they could stay as long as they liked at his expense and if he were wrong he would reimburse their travel expenses.
The Englishmen had a glorious time in the sunshine, skating on the lake, wallowing in the baths and tobogganing on schlittli; they returned home to spread the word that winter in the Alps was an experience not to be missed. Thus the Alpine winter season was born and with it an enduring Anglo-Swiss relationship.
THE CRESTA RUN, THE BEGINNING: RACING THE STREETS OF ST MORITZ
Until skiing started in the 1890s, tobogganing was the principal entertainment and newly established winter resorts reverberated to the hoots and yells of Brits of both sexes racing one another down the busy, winding streets of towns such as St Moritz, Davos, Aros and Chamonix.
Clubs and committees were formed and races organised on the icy downhill roads. At one time, there were more than 40 “village” pistes across the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, the most challenging being the steep 3.2 kilometre post-road from Davos to Klosters.
In 1883, John Addington Symonds, the British author and poet, founded the Davos Toboggan Club and organised the first international races. These took place over a week of balls and dinners, with seven nations represented among the 21 competitors. This led to the Symonds International Challenge Cup and, a little later, the Freeman’s Trophy for women competitors, named after Edith Freeman who rode her toboggan, The Behemoth, with total disregard for her own or anyone else’s safety.
Among the St Mortiz contingent in Davos were members of the British Winter Residents Outdoor Sports Committee. Realising that Davos had stolen a march on St Moritz, they enlisted the help of Peter Badrutt, Johannes’ son, who was now running the much-enlarged Hotel Kulm, to build a toboggan run.
They staked out a three-quarter mile course following the contours of the valley from the Hotel Kulm, past the hamlet of Cresta to the outskirts of Celerina, and when the snows arrived in November, they set to work.
SKELETON RACING ON SNOW. CREATING THE CRESTA RUN
Roger Gibbs, in The Cresta Run 1885-1985, describes the committee, their boots swathed in coarse bandages and arms linked, trudging time and again along the staked-out line until the snow was trampled down for the frost to harden.
Creating earth banks for a framework on which to pile snow was a drawn-out business and icing the Run required endless buckets of water but with labour and materials provided by Peter Badrutt, it was completed in January 1885.
The Davos Toboggan Club was invited to compete in the first Grand National Cresta Run on 16 February, and, to the chagrin of the course builders, the visitors won. However, the celebrations in the Kulm’s Sunny Bar eclipsed anything seen in Davos.
The Cresta Run was a rough-and-ready affair down which men and women careered sitting upright on their schlittli and steering with their heels or wooden picks, but improvements and innovations were quick in coming.
A Mr Cornish astonished everyone by lying head-first on his toboggan to ride the 1887 Grand National Cresta Run, a position universally adopted, except by women, in 1888.
That year a skeleton-framed toboggan was introduced to the Cresta Run, with steel runners and a pad on which the rider lay, using metal rakes on his boots to brake and steer. This was further refined in 1902 with the sliding seat, which allowed riders to move their weight backwards and forwards as they negotiated the banks.
By now the design of the Cresta Run was established as a serpentine ice tube of 10 banked corners, approximately 1,212 metres in length with a drop of 157 metres and a gradient of 1 in 2.8 to 1 in 8.7, down which experienced riders hurtled at speeds approaching 112kph.
THE MODERN CRESTA RUN
Open from just before Christmas until the end of February, the Cresta Run is still hand-built from scratch every year with costs met by the SMTC and its 1,300 members plus active support from the Kurverein, the St Moritz town council. It follows the original route and is recognisably the same as the 1885 construction, although constant upgrading of bank design and icing quality enables riders to reach speeds of 128kph on the modern Cresta Run.
The Cresta Run has survived partly because it is unique and riding it is probably the last truly amateur sport; partly because over the years the Kurverein has supported the Club through financial vicissitudes; and partly because the Run is an extreme sport that provides a thrill unlike any other. The SMTC is generous in providing time and expertise to encourage beginners, many of whom become devoted members.
In February 1973, I was in St Moritz for the last race of a season’s bobsleighing and thought I would stay on to try the Cresta Run. I remember my first ride far more vividly than any of the runs on various bob tracks – even the one by moonlight on an old practice bobsleigh with a pot-valiant Frenchman at the helm.
At 8am I was at Junction, two thirds of the way down (where beginners start), clad in leather knee and elbow pads, gloves with metal plates, helmet, chin guard and spiked boots. Air Marshall Ramsay Rae, the SMTC secretary, announced over the tannoy that the Run was free and with a series of kangaroo hops I pushed the toboggan off. Immediately things went awry. I landed too far forward and was badly out of alignment, banging from side to side as I picked up speed down Junction Straight, slithering round the first corner, Rise, like a drunken crab, hitting the wall an almighty thump as I came out.
Battledore was negotiated rather niftily but then the Run dropped away and Shuttlecock, the long, raking left-hand bank, was upon me. I slewed dangerously to the left, dug my right foot in frantically, almost became unseated, bounced round Stream Corner and wobbled down Bledisloe Straight, entering the sharp left-hander at Bulpetts too high and earning myself another clout as I exited.
Down the long straight to Scylla I whizzed with surprising grace and on to Charybdis, with the ice rumbling inches below my face and an unbelievable impression of ever-increasing speed. Heart in mouth, I cleared Cresta Leap to cannon painfully from wall to wall down the last stretch, arriving at Finish to hear the Air Marshall announce that J Scott appeared to have arrived in one piece.
It was a deeply humbling experience, made all the more so when some of the Cresta Run riders presented me with a cup inscribed, “Johnny Scott, Cresta King”, but the abiding memory is of having achieved something remarkable.
Over the decades, the lure and excitement of the Cresta Run has attracted people of many nationalities and backgrounds, a loyal following of millionaires and nobles, commoners and royalty. Yet it has always been democratic. Membership of the SMTC is by no means exclusively aristocratic or even particularly wealthy.
Indeed, two of the very best riders were St Moritz shopkeepers – the great Nino Bibbia, a grocer, and Paul Felder, who owned a clock shop. From its beginnings the SMTC has been a partnership between the people of St Moritz and the British, and the town would not be the same without it.