We Travelled To St. Moritz In Switzerland And Went Behind The Scenes At The Cresta Run
80mph on a glorified tea-tray might sound scary, but for toboggan riders in the Engadin it's a way of life.
“A lot of bones have been broken here. A lot. Broken bones in the feet, the hands, the shoulders, collarbones definitely, hips, skull fractures, broken necks. I don't know if it's broken every bone in the human body, but a lot of bones have been broken here."
I’m in St Moritz, home to the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships in 2017, talking to Gary Lowe. Gary, who’s wearing a spectacular pair of red trousers, is the new Secretary of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (the SMTC). Sat together in the confines of the empty clubhouse bar, he’s reeling off the various bones the Cresta Run (aka the Cresta) has claimed like they’re items on a particularly morbid shopping list. The season hasn’t got under way just yet, so the clubhouse isn’t officially up and running, but Gary has kindly offered me the chance to take an exclusive access-all-areas tour anyway.
"People do get addicted to it..."
“I was hit in the back of the leg a few years ago by my toboggan and let me tell you - that hurts. I was on crutches for some time after that. I've had the odd broken finger, stitches in the eyelids, stitches in the eye. I've had long thoracic nerve damage, and radial nerve damage. These injuries were the bad results of two unlucky crashes," he tells me, when I ask him what wounds he’s suffered over the course of his 700 rides down the Cresta.
Depending on who you speak to, St Moritz can conjure up very different ideas in people’s heads. For some, it’s a wealthy person’s playground where the richest of the rich go to spend incomprehensible amounts of money on designer clothing, expensive dinners, posh hotels, and horse-on-snow-based activities. For others, it’s a mecca for winter sports; the place where it all began, the Big Bang. Nowhere in St Moritz, it seems, encompasses both these perceptions of the place quite like the SMTC and the Cresta (although, as of yet, nobody has ever attempted the Cresta on the back of a horse).
Started in 1885, with the club itself being formed in 1887, the Cresta Run cuts through a corner of Switzerland’s breathtakingly beautiful Engadin valley like a racer snake in a David Attenborough documentary. The run, built every year out of snow, ice, and banks of earth is one of the only tracks in the world dedicated specifically to headfirst tobogganing (not to be confused with skeleton bob and luge).
Top level Cresta riders can hit speeds of 80 mph. Course record holder Clifton Wrottesley, the only man to go sub 50 seconds from top to bottom, went even faster than this when he clocked 82 mph in 2015. For car drivers, that’s a letter in the post and a fine. For Cresta riders, it’s a reality made more frightening by the fact they’re lying on their stomachs and the course has points on it which have been designed to literally eject them if they pick the wrong line or approach turns too fast. These “safety valves" on the Cresta, also described as “emergency exits" by Gary, are known as Thoma and Shuttlecock.
The Cresta’s all-male club, founded by British military officers, prides itself on being a bastion of amateur sport in an increasingly commercialised world. The run has featured as an Olympic venue for the skeleton twice before - in 1928, and 1948 (the only times that event appeared until its reinstatement in 2002). Over the years, it has claimed the lives of four people and badly injured countless others. Its history books are bursting with heroic feats, brutal crashes, and names so long you have to pause for breath if you ever try to say them out loud. Winner of the 1955 Cresta Run Coronation Cup, John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara - we’re looking at you.
"I've had the odd broken finger, stitches in the eyelids, stitches in the eye."
“I understand what journalism is all about. People want to read something that's sensational, and occasionally we have big crashes. But it is a sport, and a very exciting one at that," Gary tells me, keen to emphasise that behind the legendary mythology of the Cresta is a legitimate sporting pursuit done by genuine athletes.
For Gary, a former investment manager no stranger to the balance between risk and reward in the business world, it’s all about approaching the Cresta with the right kind of mindset; about appreciating its dangers and pinpointing where exactly the line that separates fast riding and dangerous riding is situated.
“You have to enjoy taking risks, but we’re people who enjoy taking calculated risks. I’m sure most people could go faster. Everybody can go faster, but it’s how fast can you go and stay in the course. Everyone here is trying to find out where the limit is. It’s a dangerous sport, but you don’t have to be crazy to do it. I think you have to be interested in doing something really fast, exhilarating, and athletic. And reaping all the rewards that come with that," he tells me.
“People do get addicted to it though, no doubt. There are riders and members champing at the bit through most of the summer and autumn, desperate for the Cresta to open. And I think that's a lot to do with the run, but it's also a lot to do with the camaraderie of the group and the membership really."
With Etonians, Lords, Viscounts, Barons and millionaires making up their number down the years; the legend of the STMC membership has taken on a life of its own. Throw in the fact that the club still upholds a widely thought of as sexist ‘no women riders’ policy, except on their annual Ladies Day, and it’s easy to see why the Cresta membership is such a sticking point for many.
“It's lost in the mists of time. There's a myriad of theories, and I've read them all," Gary tells me when I ask whether he knows why women were banned from riding in 1929, “From the thought that it could perhaps be a cause of breast cancer, to the theory that it happened because a member’s wife beat him in a race and he got upset about that. I honestly don’t know. The fact is that it did change, and ever since the late twenties women have not been allowed to ride save by invitation. The ladies day though is very popular and probably just as competitive as any other race we have here."
“Will it change? I don’t know. Is there a lot of lobbying to change it? I don't think so. Is there some? Yes. One or two girls want to do it, and I suspect they want to do it because they can't ordinarily. It's not some burning desire to be competitive on the Cresta Run. It's not a burning desire to go quickly on ice and experience a lot of G-Force because if that's the case, you can go pretty much get the same speed on the bob as a skeleton and get a lot more G-Force with arguably less danger."
“I think it's quite a natural tendency for most people, if they're not allowed to do something they instantly want to do it. But it's a private club and the rules are the rules. It's essentially male riding all the time but not to the total exclusion of lady riders."
"Everybody can go faster, but it’s how fast can you go and stay in the course. Everyone here is trying to find out where the limit is."
With Switzerland traditionally being one of the most expensive places to go skiing in Europe, a situation not improved by the pound’s decreasing value, and St Moritz being home to so much lavish luxury it’s easy to assume that all the Cresta members fall into the same socio-economic bracket when you’re on the outside looking in. However, Gary seems keen to play down the widely held perception that the club is in anyway snobbish and instead wants to talk up the membership’s shared mentality and passion for sport.
“There's a myth that this is all just a load of wealthy British guys coming up here, and doing something silly. And people who circulate that myth miss the depth of the thing; that this is a real sport...We have a very close-knit club of like-minded souls, a club that’s quite difficult to get into. It’s rare for an applicant to get in the first time. I didn’t get in the first time I applied and one of my friends said the only reason you apply the first time is that then you then become eligible to apply a second time. But I think it’s a fairly broad church in terms of nationalities, professions, all sorts of income groups," Gary tells me.
Whether a place where the fastest time ever recorded is held by a Lord (Lord Wrottesley) and the slowest time ever recorded from Junction, the start point for Beginners, is according to legend held by one Baron Raunchy can ever be labelled a “broad church" is a matter of debate; one we’ll save for another time. Gary later informs me that the male membership is about half and half in terms of Brits and non-Brits.
“You have to come here and be interested in tobogganing, and the Cresta," says Gary, when I push him on the membership screening process, “You don’t have to be a great rider or a great sportsman, but you have to know people. You have to have a lot of support. We don’t just have a ‘firster’ and ‘seconder’, and then that’s ticked off. You have to have a fairly deep and broad support from other people. You have to be known. But as one of our former presidents used to say, the only real rule is that you can’t be boring. That is the one we try very hard to maintain. You cannot be boring."
One thing nobody could ever lay at the Cresta Run’s door is that it’s boring. In fact, during my whole stay in St Moritz there were very few things I would label as “boring." This whole area pulsates with a ‘go big, or go home’ mentality. Whether it’s the extreme velocity on offer at its local toboggan run, its world cup free fall that will see elite skiers hit speeds of 140km/h in just six seconds, or consecutive nights in La Baracca - easily one of the maddest and most fun bars I’ve ever been to; an establishment run by a man who looks like a cross between Albert Einstein and Dustin Hoffman - St Moritz treats everything with that same approach. Be memorable, or be nothing. Be the best you can be, or don’t even bother. Take things to the limit, go beyond it and then go beyond it some more.
While in St Moritz, I take a tour of the Kempinski’s 18,000CHF (£14,100) a night Presidential Suite and come across the biggest bed I’ve ever seen; a bed I’m convinced is bigger than my entire flat. I attend a cocktail party where the upper echelons of society wine, dine, and win expensive prizes. One night, I make the mistake of agreeing to buy a round of three very normal drinks and almost swallow my own tongue with regret when the barmaid asks for 45CHF (approximately £35). I see how wealthy folk spend their time and money in St Moritz and, if I’m being honest, I bathe in this extravagance more than I thought I would while all the while trying to remain mindful that the world is an increasingly unequal place and that I shouldn’t let this place go to my head.
But, I also see another side to St Moritz and the Cresta Club; a side that’s perhaps become overshadowed by all the discussions of five star hotels, Michelin star restaurants, and Russian oligarchs. I see something true, something real, something authentic and something, dare I say it, vaguely spiritual happening in St Moritz. Chasing adrenaline is the one true religion here and the Cresta Club, where the toboggan experts are called “Gurus", is clearly a cathedral to that religion. Whatever people’s feelings towards the club’s membership, there’s no denying that their sport takes excessive levels of courage.
You can sense the history of St Moritz down every street corner, down every ski slope, and in every square inch of the Cresta Club. Visitors to St Moritz can feel it in the air, and have been feeling it in the air ever since 1864 when hotelier Casper Badrutt planted the seeds of alpine sport with his wager that if British guests returned in winter and didn’t love it...he’d pay all of their expenses. Tobogganing and alpine skiing was effectively born as a result of this bet, and adrenaline seekers haven’t looked back since.
Whenever you get a rush sliding down a mountain, wherever in the world that mountain may be, you owe a debt of gratitude to the mavericks who started it all in St Moritz over 100 years ago. Past glories and daring acts of bravery continue to reverberate in these parts, as well as further afield. And with the immovable Cresta Club, the alpine skiing world championships happening next year, and talks surrounding a third Winter Olympics in St Moritz never really off the table - this Swiss mountain getaway looks all set to stay at the top of the class for sport, as well as luxury, for many years to come.
DO IT YOURSELF:
Swiss International Air Lines
UK & Ireland to Zurich: SWISS (Swiss.com) offers up to 119 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal) and Dublin to Zurich. All-inclusive fares start from £67 one-way.
For more information visit the website, or call 0345 601 0956.
Swiss Travel System
The Swiss Travel System (swisstravelsystem.co.uk) provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £116 in second class and £188 in first class.
For more information, call 00800 100 200 30 or visit the website.
We stayed at the Kempinski Grand Hôtel des Bains (kempinski.com).
If you're a beginner looking to ride the Cresta Run (cresta-run.com), you can book a slot by choosing a practice session slot on their calendar and following instructions from there. All beginners are required to review, and agree to the club's terms and conditions.