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Cresta Run, St. Moritz

St. Moritz, Cresta Run

ABOVE: A rider brakes by sliding back on the sled and digging in his toe cleats.

To most people (especially in North America), the word "toboggan" evokes memories of flat-bottomed wooden sleds bouncing down a snow-covered hill in a neighborhood park. At the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the term has an altogether different meaning: it's used to describe a steel "skeleton sled" that may reach speeds of nearly 80 mph (129 km/h) over its 3/4-mile or 1.2 km course from St. Moritz to the neighboring village of Celerina.

A Victorian legacy

The Cresta Run had its beginnings in the autumn of 1884, when George Robertson and Charles Digby-Jones of the British winter residents' Outdoor Sports Committee staked out a course from above the Hotel Kulm to the outskirts of Celerina. When the snows arrived in November, the five committee members went to work. Their labors are described in The Cresta Run 1885-1985, the centenary anniversary book that Roger Gibbs wrote for the St. Moritz Tobogging Club:

With their boots swathed in coarse bandages they linked arms and trudged their way time and again along the line that had ben staked out until the snow was trampled down for the frost to harden. The building of the banks was an even more complicated drawn out and complicated affair and all in all it took almost nine weeks to build the first Cresta Run. With the help of endless carrying of buckets the Run was iced throughout.

In early January, the new Run's builders invited the British community in Davos, Switzerland  to send over ten tobogganists for a "Grand National" competition, thereby starting a racing tradition that has been broken only by two World Wars.

  • Olympics Note: At the 1928 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, skeleton tobogganing was an official sport: a distinction it hasn't enjoyed since, perhaps because Cresta-style tobogganing--like Swiss wines--is best enjoyed within Switzerland's borders.

A century of evolution

As the years passed, the Cresta Run's toboggans evolved from tall wooden sleds of the classic European design into low, streamlined platforms designed to reduce wind resistance and provide greater stability in tight corners. The riding technique also changed from sitting upright to lying face down with the head forward, using body position and toe cleats to control direction, speed, and braking. (The sliding seat was added in 1902, but some of today's fastest riders are again using fixed sleds.)

Nowadays, the Cresta's skeleton toboggans resemble mechanics' creepers with steel tubing underneath. Athletic "tobogganers" in sleek wet suits and crash helmets grasp handles near the front of the sled, lying flat or pushing themselves upwards as necessary to negotiate the straightaways and treacherous curves of a course that drops 514 feet (157 meters) and has an average gradient of 13 per cent. A skilled toboganner can finish the 3/4-mile run in less than a minute, for an average speed of more than 45 miles (72 kilometers) an hour.

St. Moritz, Cresta Run - Clubhouse

ABOVE: The Cresta Run's clubhouse is located at Junction, below the aptly named Church Leap.

A ride for the fearless

In The Cresta Run 1885-1985*, Roger Gibbs describes a ride down the ice chute on a skeleton toboggan:

In order that as much riding as possible can take place each day, before the fierce sun softens the ice, races start as early as 8:30 a.m. At that hour in the morning it is usually bitterly cold. The competitor waits his turn at the top of the Run, with a feeling of apprehension and excitement. The bell tolls. Although now committed in the Run he is relieved the waiting is over and he is on his way. The first hundred yards are relatively uneventful but the rider knows only too well that the drop in the next three-quarters of a mile is 514 feet, a fall of 1 in 7.7, with his eyes only four inches above the Run.

Soon he is under the road bridge just before Church Leap doing about twenty miles an hour--then a sheer drop of one in 2.8 into three very tight corners--Curzon, Brabazon and Thoma. In a matter of seconds his speed has increased to 50 mph as he flashes past the Clubhouse at Junction, down the straight on his way to the right-handed corner Rise, steadying the toboggan before taking the next bend, Battledore.

Diving off Battledore into the low, raking, notorious corner of Shuttlecock, round Shuttlecock and into the right-handed bend of Stream before speeding on his way down the long straight toward s the road bridge at Bulpetts--doing nearly 70 mph; under the railway bridge at Scylla, left-handed out of Scylla into the final corner Charybdis and down the last leap, crossing the finishing beam at a speed in the region of 80 mph [129 km/h]. An expert completes this course in about fifty-three seconds or even a little less. To win any race on the Cresta is a fine achievement for all races are highly competitive, but there are riders who think that even to arrive safely at the Finish at all is a miracle--and in some instances it is!

And now, it's your turn.

You, too, can risk life and limb on the Cresta Run--providing you're in St. Moritz during the season (which normally runs from just before Christmas through the end of February), are a male over 18 years of age, and can afford the CHF 600 fee. (Women are out of luck--the SMTC is a bros' club.)

Your payment entitles you to a beginners' booklet, a quick introduction to the basics of skeleton toboganning, and up to five rides down the Cresta Run with equipment supplied by the club.

Related Web site and article

St. Moritz Tobogganing Club
The SMTC's comprehensive site has a Beginners on the Cresta page for first-time thrillseekers..

Winter Resort Report: St. Moritz
You don't need a fortune or a title to enjoy Switzerland's oldest mountain resort; a platinum card will do.

The Cresta Run, 1885-1985
    Roger Gibbs
    Paperback, 64 pp., 1985
    Henry Melland Limited
    ISBN 0907929109

About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden is a professional travel writer, book author, and editor who focuses on European cities and transportation.

After 4-1/2 years of covering European travel topics for, Durant and Cheryl Imboden co-founded Europe for Visitors in 2001. The site has earned "Best of the Web" honors from Forbes and The Washington Post.

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