Playboys of the Cresta Run

By Andrew Court

Sledding is a true pleasure of childhood.

Around the nation, millions of kids listen intently to the news to see if, in fact, it’s a snow day. When this impromptu holiday is announced, they rush to the local hill with a toboggan, trash can lid, or even a plastic bag to satisfy their need for winter speed. Competitions are created and jumps are built.

Now what happens when adults enter into the mix? And not just any adults, but a collection of playboys with unlimited time and money. What you get is the infamous Cresta Run. The childhood spirit is the same but the hill in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz is much bigger.

Tobogganing down an icy course became popular among the British upper crust in the late 19th century. Johannes Badrutt, an innovative hotelier in St. Moritz, made the town a winter destination by betting his summer patrons the price of their stay that they’d have more fun in the winter. He proposed the construction of the Cresta Run after seeing similar tracks in Davos. First built in 1884, the Cresta Run was made of wooden planks covered with ice, offering an exhilarating experience similar to an old-timey amusement park ride.

In 1904, a natural ice track replaced the original wooden structure. In December every year a dedicated crew faithfully rebuilds it just for it to melt away in the Spring. This version of the Cresta Run has no sides or barriers, demanding participants to navigate solely based on skill and precision. If you break your neck, so be it—health and safety be damned.

Let’s be 100% clear: this is a really terrifying experience. The Crest run twists and turns over its three-quarters-of-a-mile-length from St. Moritz to the neighboring village of Celerina. With an average gradient of 13%, it’s possible—after a lot of practice—to reach speeds close to 80 miles per hour.

The Cresta Run is most famous as the home of the skeleton, a dangerous balls-to-the-wall Olympic sledding competition. Skeleton involves athletes sliding headfirst on a small sled which, needless to say, is more dangerous than a Cool Runnings-style sitdown bobsled. The first-ever skeleton contest took place in 1887 at the track in St. Moritz, leading to its inclusion in the Olympic Games.

Racers control the skeleton with toe cleats.  The “Cresta kiss”—losing some face skin to the ice—has put more scars on St. Moritz residents than bad plastic surgery. The Cresta Club Bar, a watering hole and source of liquid courage near the starting point, displays a patchwork of injury X-rays compiled to make up a full human skeleton.

While the track has encountered challenges such as temporary closures during world wars, it consistently attracts winter sports enthusiasts from around the globe. The Cresta Run has become an adventure that epitomizes the glamor and prestige of St. Moritz.

It has witnessed the daring descents of numerous famous faces. Supposedly swashbuckling Errol Flynn tried it, and could not be convinced to do it again after clocking in with a cowardly slow time. Gianni Agnelli and JFK fared better, and they became regulars.

If you’re lucky enough to race in St. Moritz, there’s a chance you’ll be inducted into Dracula’s Ghost Rider’s Club. This secret society’s lair is in the Kulm Hotel and it’s known for having some of the most debaucherous ragers in all of Europe. The club has limited availability to the public, but the real fun is members only. Once a member, the opportunities to network while shitfaced on schnapps are endless.

Gunter Sachs, heir to the Opel car fortune, was an esteemed Dracula’s Club member who famously bragged, albeit before his suicide, about never working a day in his life. When not pouring roses from his helicopter into Bridget Bardot’s pool, he could be found racing head first down the Cresta. There’s even a turn named for him. Many described him as the last great playboy, but he denied the label and preferred to be called a gentleman. This could be said of many Cresta racers.

As far as global elite institutions go, the Cresta Run is relatively financially approachable. Beginners pay roughly $700 for their first five rides and $60 per ride thereafter, except those under the age of 30 who pay $42 per ride after their first five. This includes the equipment (helmet, boots with rakes, handguards, elbow and knee pads and a toboggan) and instruction. Obviously you have to sign a waiver and you’ve got to book early to get a slot.

For a little bit of money and a bit more risk this is an achievable adventure of a lifetime.

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