Extreme Sport

Just off to the bank

Anticipating a novice blast down the legendary Cresta Run is terrifying enough. And then Simon de Burton was shown X-ray images of those who had come to grief before him.

February 07 2010
Simon de Burton

“I ran over them with the knives and for months they looked like ratatouille – but they came back OK,” said Arnold von Bohlen und Halbach, holding up his two nonmatching small fingers for my examination.

Arnold is living proof that the legendary Cresta Run is not only dangerous but dangerously addictive. He first rode it in 1957, became a member of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC) in 1959 and is now one of its most revered “gurus” – the name given to the riders who turn out at dawn in all weathers during the 10-week Cresta season to mentor hapless beginners, fools such as myself who have spent years, even decades, longing to hurl themselves down this meandering chute of sheer ice.

I didn’t think twice when a phone call came offering me the opportunity to tackle the run in its 125th-anniversary year – but there were second thoughts galore once I was in the clubhouse at 7.30am with 20 or so other beginners. We were there to be told that what we were about to do was not as fearsome as legend has it. It was more so.

David Payne, the SMTC’s secretary, began by showing us an X-ray of a human skeleton made from composite images of members past and present who have come to grief on the run. Every bone in the body was represented, including Arnold’s pelvis and the neck of the late and much lamented former club secretary Lieutenant-Colonel Digby Willoughby, who had a spectacular crash in 1990 that required his head to be reconnected to his shoulders by a set of metal bolts and bars. He happily carried on for another 17 years.

“There is no one here who can say that they have not been warned of the dangers,” said Payne, gravely. “If you wish to stand down now, we’ll refund your money and you may leave. You won’t be the first to take that decision, nor will you be the last.”

Outside, the electronic timing board flashed up the thought for the day, courtesy of Sir Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” It wasn’t helpful.

Against better judgment, I decided to follow Winnie’s advice and headed to the locker room so that Victoria Bibbia, an elderly, kind-eyed Italian who has ruled the domain for 27 years, could fit me with my Cresta safety kit – comprising two pairs of ancient leather pads for knee and elbow protection, a set of gladiatorial-looking hand guards topped by riveted aluminium plates designed to prevent shattered knuckles, a not-especially-reassuring crash helmet and boots fitted with vicious-looking toe spikes, known as rakes.

On the ice, Arnold began guruing by showing us the right way to pick up a toboggan. We’d be riding the traditional type with round, steel runners that terminate in razor-sharp edges – the “knives” that almost amputated Arnold’s fingers – and with a square, padded top that slides from front to rear. Forward for speed, back for control.

The weight of this device comes as a shock. It’s around 85lb, which enables it to gain momentum quickly but turns it into a lethal weapon if the rider comes off and finds himself being pursued by it. Imagine being hit by a fully caffeinated coffee table travelling at 60mph.

Arnold emphasised the importance of early “raking” – digging in the spikes – on the first descent to maintain as much control as possible; he told us to stay back on our runners; he warned us of the dangers of the legendary Shuttlecock, a high-banked, horseshoe-shaped curve that spits out anyone who fails to treat it with respect (surviving crashers can buy the Shuttlecock tie). He told us to aim for around 70 seconds and, above all, to enjoy ourselves. That last bit didn’t seem possible.

“De Burton to the box,” ordered Payne from the control tower. This was it, the hideous moment of truth, the realisation of a 35-year ambition, the most nauseating feeling I had ever had.

Lying face down on the toboggan I could only be thankful that beginners were obliged to start from “Junction” rather than “Top”, reducing the course length by 1,000ft and lessening the average gradient from one in nearly six to around one in nearly nine. Then the words of Sotheby’s deputy chairman Harry Dalmeny, a veteran competitor of 21 years, came to mind: “You’ll make your first ride in a rigid rictus of terror, like a cat sliding down a curtain. But then you’ll probably start to enjoy it.”

The bell sounded a single “ding” and gravity slowly took effect. Down the ice, heading for the first foreboding turn, a right-hander called Rise, the scraping of rakes and runners grew rapidly louder.

I felt totally, utterly out of control in a way that hadn’t seemed possible. I was a leaf in a torrential river, a runaway train without a driver – in short, a 45-year-old idiot heading for a frozen hell on a demon-possessed sledge.

I exited Shuttlecock before I realised I had arrived, only to be confronted by the intimidating rise of Stream Corner, after which they say you’ll probably make it to the end if you can hang on. But then came a series of shocking, side-on impacts with the hard-as-concrete ice wall followed by a burst of acceleration along Bledisloe Straight before a daunting darkness signalled another bend – either a left-hander or a right; I didn’t have time to make it out. But the toboggan knew, skimming around it, sucked onto the wall by G-force. Next, under the Road Bridge (spectators watching), around the relatively gentle Charybdis bend, over the Cresta Leap (I stayed firmly on the ground) and over the finish line to discover that I had been seized by an attack of hyperventilation.

“That’s normal the first time. It’s the adrenaline,” explained an old hand, lobbing his toboggan into the van known as “the camion” that returns riders to the start.

“De Burton, 83.96 seconds,” came Payne’s voice across the Tannoy. Not great, but not entirely disgraceful and not slow enough to earn the derogatory title “Speedy Gonzales” applied to anyone who enters 100-second territory, attracting the embarrassing accusation of time-wasting from the control tower. I probably crossed the line at a feeble 40mph. The quick men exceed 80mph.

Did I want to go again? Frankly, no – but I forced myself, and halfway down, I was completely hooked. In eight subsequent runs I trimmed more than 20 seconds off my time; only a desire to return to my family in one piece prevented me from carrying on.

I was merely the latest victim of the Cresta spell, which was cast in 1884-85 when a British Army major called W H Bulpetts organised the first toboggan race on the ice run that he started constructing down St Moritz’s Cresta Valley a few months earlier, with the SMTC being founded in the winter of 1887. At the time, Cresta riders were officially the “fastest men on earth”: their terminal velocity was greater than that of steam trains and Karl Benz had just got his Patent Motorwagen on the road.

The town’s popularity with well-to-do English tourists, and the daredevil nature of the Cresta, led to it becoming a very British institution, attracting adventurous members of aristocratic families and, by the 1950s, Europeans of noble descent. Americans also joined in, with the legendary Billy Fiske still hailed as one of the greatest, and today’s 1,300-strong members’ list includes counts, princes and lords from around the world.

The social side is possibly more dangerous than the run, certainly for the liver: proceedings end at noon when the sun begins to soften the ice, and there are long afternoons and longer nights to fill with partying. Results and footage of the day’s events are available at Hotel Steffani, while the Sunny Bar at the Kulm Hotel is dedicated to Cresta trophies and artefacts. A set of monkey rings hanging from the ceiling illustrates the boisterous activity with which the days often end. It is not unknown for New Year’s Eve revellers to turn up at the clubhouse on January 2, still in black tie, for a hangover-curing blast down the run. And a more sobering thought is difficult to imagine.