"The Cresta is like a woman with this cynical difference - to love her once is to love her always."
Lord Brabazon of Tara’s description of the Cresta run beautifully summarizes the allure and excitement the race has had for amateurs and professionals for over a century.
What started as a winter hobby for the British elite and luxury hoteliers in St. Moritz, has since evolved to become one of the most thrilling amateur tobogganing events in the world. It has killed four men, broken the bones of countless others, and recently relieved a British army captain of his foot. Even the dashing Errol Flynn took his chances down the Cresta run, but he only did it once, vowing never to return. (Below, sledder Knapp at the start of the run).
So what is it exactly? The Cresta is effectively an ice slide carved into the snow, 1,200 metres long, it winds its way from above the 'Leaning Tower' in St. Moritz down a steep gully through ten testing corners, past the tiny hamlet of Cresta, to the village of Celerina. Unlike bobsledding, members ride on single sleds, head first, hurtling down the slopes at speeds reaching up to 130 kilometres per hour, steering and breaking only with their feet. (Below, photo courtesy of David Jack/flickr.com)
In the early days of competitive sledding, the predominant style was luge racing, going down the slope while lying on one's back. The invention of the flexible runner sled in 1887, popularly known as 'the American,' led to Mr. Cornish using the headfirst style in the 1887 Grand National (as the Cresta run competitions are called). He finished fourteenth due to some erratic rides but established a trend; by the 1890 Grand National all competitors were riding headfirst. For a time this style became known as 'Cresta' racing. Needless to say, it's not for the faint of heart! Throughout the ride, your nose is just 15-20 cm from the icy track.
The Cresta Run is still built from scratch every year using the natural contours of the valley and earth banks to provide a framework on which to pile the snow. The total drop is 156 metres and the gradient of the curve can vary by as much as two metres.
The Shuttlecock Club
The most famous corner of the Run is the Shuttlecock. This long, low, left-hand bank is about half-way down, and it acts as a safety-valve; if riders are out of control, they are certain to be propelled instantly out of the track, into a carefully-prepared falling area of snow and straw.
In true British spirit, the sport has a wonderful tradition for those who get ejected at this corner: they become members of the 'Shuttlecock Club' and are entitled to wear a Shuttlecock tie (available from the Shop in the Clubhouse). Perhaps not surprisingly, the club has a long list of illustrious members, since at least one of 12 get ejected at the Shuttlecock. The rate is even higher for beginners. (Below, photo courtesy of Kurt Pecnik/flickr.com)
Women are not permitted to ride the Cresta Run. They were banned in 1929; some say because the sport simply became too fast and dangerous. Others speculate that after one rider overtook her husband's record, it was agreed that the sport was not appropriate for the fairer sex. Whatever the case, their ability to compete was revoked. Given the sport’s inherent dangers, no major petitions have been put forward to overturn the rule since. That said, nothing prevented Pippa Middleton from trying the sport in 2009, training with multi-millionaire Trevor Baines as her instructor. Towards the end of the season there is a Ladies Event in which women compete by invitation only.
What to wear
The style of the participants is as unique as the sport itself; given its old-school English tradition, it's quite normal to see cashmere and tweeds (known as “plus-twos”) being worn on the slopes, but the international flavour of the membership also means that participants have been known to don their own national ski sports outfits: everything from lederhosen and thick woollen socks to lycra, Borat-like ergonomic unitards. There are no rules of course, but we find the appeal of the tweeds irresistible on such occasions.
How to celebrate
For every sport there is a watering hole and in this case, it’s the Kulm Hotel and its Sunny Bar, lined with trophies and photos. Right from the start, this is where participants would gather to relive their adventures, tell their stories, brandish their Shuttlecock ties or simply knock off the chill with a cup of hot tea or a sifter of brandy. A well-deserved treat, and one not to be missed. (Below, Sunny Bar, courtesy of the Kulm Hotel St. Moritz).
Ride if for yourself
The Cresta usually opens two or three days before Christmas and continues for nine weeks until the end of February. Riding takes place daily. For more information, contact the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC), www.cresta-run.com. Non-club-members can apply for temporary membership on the so-called Supplementary List, which enables them to ride in early mornings on certain days. The Club provides tuition and the sled.
And good luck!