Standing above The Cresta Run, a ribbon of ice ¾ of a mile long that the fastest riders complete in just over 50 seconds and reach speeds approaching 90 mph, I make a mental list of the protective gear I’m wearing; leather knee and elbow pads that Cresta riders have used since the turn of the 20th century, check, a neon pink and blue full face helmet straight out of the 80’s, check, a pair of riveted steel plates covering my knuckles and a draconian pair of boots with sharpened metal spikes attached to the toes that look like sinister ninja weapons, check and check. Then I see the first crash. A disjointed conglomeration of hands, arms and legs combined with snow and hay comes rocketing off the track below me. The crowd moans, and then goes silent. I don’t see any movement. Even with all my protective gear I feel strangely vulnerable, and also very, very scared.
After five minutes a polite British accent on the loud speaker announces the news in a calm, just-another-day-at-the office tone. “Could we please have an ambulance to Shuttlecock, an ambulance to Shuttlecock Corner please, it seems as though Sir Devon has broken his hip.”
There were seven of us sitting in the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club’s clubhouse at 7am this morning when that same courteous voice we just heard over the loudspeaker, which belongs to the club’s secretary David Payne, became deathly serious. It’s referred to as the death talk, mainly because it begins with the solemn statement that four people have died on the Cresta Run.
“Gentlemen, please do not underestimate The Cresta Run, you must always respect the danger it possesses, if you don’t, you will get hurt.” David states matter-of-factly before showing us a composite skeleton made up of various x-ray images taped together. Every part of the body on display has some form of horrific injury. There are pins and screws, shattered bones and broken necks. “Every one of these x-rays shows an injury that has occurred on The Cresta,” David continues, “many of these unfortunate riders had a lot more experience than you, so pay attention to your guru, and please listen to what he says. I wish you all the best of luck.” I can see the two guys from Saudi Arabia sitting next to me start to fidget and whisper intensely to each other. I go completely silent, noticing mutely as the saliva drains out of my mouth.
After the crash, the two Saudi’s have seen and heard enough, they call the whole ridiculous thing off. This leaves five of us standing outside the junction hut, listening to the ambulance’s siren get louder, watching the sun rise over the picturesque Engadin Valley, and quietly waiting for our turn to slide down this icy monster. A smattering of spectators has begun to gather, having heard about a group of rookies about to take their first ride. Apparently it serves as good entertainment. I feel like an unsuspecting goat being led blindly into a hungry lion’s cage as I waddle towards the start area carrying my eighty-pound toboggan.
“Lie on the toboggan like so,” Nigel Broadhead, our group’s Cretsa Guru, instructs me as the starter places my sled on the ice at the same time the ambulance roars by. “Face first, place your balls at the back of the sled, keep your elbows in, your feet 18 inches apart and don’t forget to rake goddamn you, rake! Your lack of speed is the only thing that will get you around Shuttlecock safely!” Raking is when you drag those sharpened toe-spikes on the ice behind you to slow down; they are the only brakes you have and besides learning how to lie on the sled and hold on, which both seem sort of self-explanatory, using them is all the instruction you receive before your first run down The Cresta.
Beginner’s on The Cresta Run start at Junction Hut taking the steeper Top section out since it requires a tremendous amount of skill to navigate the three fast turns above Junction. Most riders don’t start from the top until they have 25-30 rides under their belt. That’s not to say that starting at Junction doesn’t have its own challenges. The most dangerous turn on the entire track, a sweeping 270-degree hairpin called Shuttlecock Corner, lies twenty seconds or so in front of you. If you come into that corner too fast for your ability, it is designed to eject you from the course “for your own good,” Nigel assures us. I’m not sure if the poor chap who just broke his hip would agree but that is the consensus, and since The Cresta Run has changed little in the last 125 years I suppose they know what they’re talking about.
When the Cresta Run’s ice track, which drops 514 feet as it swoops and bends down a natural ravine from St. Moritz to the town of Celerina, was built in 1884 it offered those who rode it a certain type of immortality. Riding The Cresta was the fastest a human being could travel, and live to tell about it. Well, at least most of the time. The last person to die riding The Cresta happened in 1973. The fact that it still offers one of the fastest rides available without an engine boggles the mind. Before racecars, airplanes, motorcycles, and every other machine designed for speed, there was the icy Cresta Run, and the thin, rickety sleds that looked disturbingly similar to skeletons.
For the last 125 years a small group of men (women were banned from The Cresta except for one day a year since 1929 after a series of horrific crashes) have challenged this icy run for no other reason than the pure thrill of frictionless speed. It is the great grand daddy of Olympic events like The Skeleton, Luge, and Bobsleigh and arguably the birthplace of adrenaline junkies and daredevils. Even today The Cresta Run offers one of, if not the only, venues where complete beginners and rank amateurs can easily reach speeds of 50 to 60, even 70mph with no engine or exterior form of propulsion.
As the host of two Winter Olympics, in 1928 and 1948, The Cresta Run in St. Moritz became the only place that the head first style of sliding, now called Skeleton, was an Olympic event in the 20th century, and perhaps the only sport specific to a certain location.
All this means very little to me as I hear my name announced over the loud speaker and a single bell chime, which signifies the start of my run.
It starts slowly enough. The starter, known as an Arbiter, simply removes his foot from under the Toboggan and off I go. Enamored by the silent sliding of the runners and closed in on either side by a two-foot ice wall I forget to rake and it doesn’t stay slow for long. I ricochet from one wall to the other as I feebly start to rake my spiked toes and try to gain some sort of control before entering the first turn, called Rise. My centrifugal force drags me up the banked wall on Rise but I stupidly lean into the turn and my toboggan loses purchase, sliding down the bank and slamming me into the wall. I barely notice the stinging in my fingers because the next turn, Battledore, is already upon me. It goes smoother than the last and I am able to compose myself somewhat and rake furiously as I come skidding out of Battledore and get my first look at Shuttlecock, which looms ahead like a vertical wall ready to launch me into oblivion. I barely have time to mumble a few choice expletives and brace for impact before my sled’s edges lock into the steep bank. This time I don’t lean into the turn and feel gravity press me into my sled and my sled into the ice, holding its line halfway up the bank as the track bends in front of me.
Exiting Shuttlecock I let out a silent sigh of relief, slide forward on the toboggan and lift my spikes off the ice. The acceleration is immediate. I fly around the next corner, called Stream, and see a long straightaway stretch out in front of me. The next fifteen seconds are pure joy. I’ve never felt anything like it. The silent, echoing glide, the purity of frictionless speed, and the intensity of that same speed when your head is 4 inches above the ice put me in a euphoric trance (I find out later that I was going close to 65mph on that straightaway). Three banks remain, Bulpets, Scylla, and Charybdis. On each one, I climb higher than the last, completely intoxicated by the speed and the glide. On the final bank my toboggan releases and I slam violently into the wall, pin-balling from one side to the other for the last 10 seconds of the ride reminding me that I am nothing more than a novice. Crossing the finish line the track bends uphill and I slowly come to a stop. An Arbiter appears from beyond the bank and hooks my sled so I can stand up, which I do on shaky legs, shuffling off the track and into the beautiful Swiss sun. My first thought, looking back up the track is obvious if not completely clichéd; holy shit, that was fucking radical. I also realize that, even after one run, I’m hopelessly addicted to The Cresta Run.
After one more ride, mirroring the first in my complete lack of skill and the thrill of a glide so pure and smooth that it doesn’t seem real, our group of beginners is done for the day. The Run is extremely crowded as members and their guests have come for all over the world to celebrate the 125th anniversary and everybody wants a ride. No matter, Cody and I head to the clubhouse bar for a celebratory drink, which would seem odd at nine-thirty in the morning if the bar weren’t so crowded and we hadn’t just sped down an ice track at over sixty miles per hour. What the hell, we’ve just survived the famous Cresta Run, and are standing in the exclusive St. Moritz Tobogganing Club’s clubhouse, might as well have a drink.
The Cresta Run, after all, is about more than just the ride; it’s about living the cresta lifestyle, and celebrating every god damn minute of it. So we raise our glasses with various Lords and Ladies, Barons, Archdukes, Counts and Countesses, billionaires, celebrities, retired British generals and admirals, and a collection of beautiful women from all over the world. Thanks to an inside introduction offered through a friend from Sun Valley, it’s been like this for the entire time in St. Moritz; a non-stop rolling party full of champagne (Krug is an official sponsor of The SMTC), caviar, fine food, beautiful women and of course fur, a ridiculous amount of it actually. There have been German lunches complete with a twelve piece Bavarian band all dressed in lederhosen playing the polka, and a trip to a private nightclub called Dracula’s where I watched an unnamed German billionaire leap off a giant fireplace and crowd surf on the hands of Russian escorts. Between the black tie dinners, bottles of Bordeaux, lobster salads and invitations to private Caribbean islands, not to mention the world class skiing surrounding St. Moritz and watching a horse race on a frozen lake called The White Turf, sleep just hasn’t been a priority.
So then, why wouldn’t we have another drink before ten in the morning? I actually have a couple more drinks, wandering around the clubhouse, getting lost in the history and tradition of it all. Sometimes it just gets plain weird. Men in Lycra speed suits and full body armor stand next to gorgeous women in fur coats while the guy next to her is wearing maroon wool socks pulled up above his knees, tweed knickers and a heavy wool v-neck sweater with the SMTC emblem on it. I see one woman wearing what looks to be an entire fox -paws, snout, beady eyes and all- on her head. I talk with an American Cresta member nicknamed Big Bad John from Atlanta about the most famous American Cresta rider, Billy Fiske. It turns out Billy’s love of the Cresta Run along with his British Cresta peers prompted him to join the Royal Air Force when WWII broke out and tragically ended with him earning notoriety as the first American killed in that war. “One of the best there ever was,” says Big Bad John, which earns a moment of silence from all of us standing beneath Billy’s picture.
While in the clubhouse one thing becomes increasingly clear. Riding The Cresta Run has nothing really to do with being the fastest, although the best riders are certainly well respected. Instead, it’s about the thrill, the camaraderie, the stories told and the friendships made. It’s about scaring yourself, but mostly it’s about having fun and going for it. No cash prizes are ever given to race winners (a fact that has led many of the cresta faithful to claim that The Cresta Run and The SMTC are the last bastion of pure amateur sport) and one of the many mottos of the SMTC is simply “you don’t have to be fast…just be interesting!” I think everyone of the 1,300 members got that memo; the SMTC has to be one of the most eccentric, eclectic, and fascinating groups of people I’ve met in the world.
An announcement is made that the top fifteen riders of the day are about to run from the top, so I take my drink outside into the sunshine and hike up the trail towards the top to see how it’s supposed to be done.
From my vantage point I can see it all, and what I witness can’t really even be compared to my own bumbling attempt at riding The Cresta Run.
The first rider I watch from Top is Count Luca Marenzi, one of best riders in Cresta history. Not one to take himself too seriously, his helmet has a couple of little devil horns fastened to it and he smiles as he walks past me. He’s all business once he puts his helmet on, however, and I can see the intense focus that envelops him as he stares down the track. His name is announced and the bell rung, the same as me, but that’s where the similarities end. Pushing the toboggan into a running start, he leaps gracefully aboard the sled and doesn’t even think about raking. He speeds past the famous leaning tower of St. Moritz and under an ancient stone bridge.
I keep waiting for him to rake before the first of three incredibly steep turns, but he never does. Instead, he assumes the kamikaze body position, his hands placed aerodynamically behind him, not even holding onto the toboggan. He doesn’t touch the wall once. Then come the banks and, in all seriousness, he is poetry in motion. Each movement he makes defines precision and none are wasted. Far from the skidding, skittering, scared mess that I was, he makes the turns look effortless entering and exiting them in perfect position. By the time he reaches Junction (where I started) he’s probably going close to sixty miles per hour, again in the kamikaze position, which he doesn’t come out of until just before Rise, and is a blur through Battledore. I hold my breath as he enters Shuttlecock, completely sure he’s going way too fast. It turns out he is right on the edge, literally, coming within inches of the top of the bank and flying off the track. Then he disappears around Stream and I can only imagine how fast he’s going on the straightaway that follows because moments later his time flashes on the large scoreboard, a 51.09, the fastest recorded time of the season and a full twenty seconds faster than my first run from Junction.
Completely humbled and feeling utterly incompetent, I watch a few more riders but none exhibit the same grace and fluidity of Count Marenzi, nor do they come close to besting his time. Nigel walks up behind me and pats my shoulder in true Guru fashion. “I take it you saw Luca’s run?” All I can do is nod my head and mumble, “absolutely incredible.” Now it’s his turn to nod, “One of the best runs I’ve seen in my forty-five years on The Cresta. Wasn’t it beautiful?” I agree with him, and we raise our drinks to The Count’s perfect run and how it should be done. It’s hard for me to believe that Count Marenzi and I are even allowed on the same track, but that’s the beauty of The Cresta Run, and his inspiration has me even more addicted to the bloody thing than I was before.
Later that day, during a splendid lunch at a place appropriately called The Sunny Bar in The Kulm Hotel, where Cresta riders gather after the day’s racing, I find myself sitting next to Count Marenzi. Not only does he know my name, but he also congratulates me on the successful completion of my first ever Cresta run before I even have time to formulate a compliment about his magnificent race. He even says he saw my run and I didn’t look half bad. What could I do? I smile sheepishly, politely call bullshit on his compliment, thank him anyway, and then we clink our glasses together and laugh in the beautiful Swiss sunshine. If that doesn’t define what The Cresta Run and The St. Moritz Tobogganing Club is all about, I don’t know what does.