Travel and Sports Category—Bronze Winner: The Cresta Run

by Janet Forman

Tobogganing down the Cresta Run makes skydiving look like knitting.

“It’s a hell of a feeling,” sighs former racecar driver Gunter Sachs, “speed and courage mixed with exuberance.”

“It’s like flying loop de loops in a plane,” avows Raymond McKenzie, a strapping 38-year-old venture capitalist from Barbados. “At some points you think you’re airborne.”

Champion Cresta rider Giancarlo Pitsch struggles to put the exhilaration of hurtling 1,214 meters down the steep face of a Swiss Alp, careening around ten sharp testing corners on a sternly honed racing sled at speeds topping 85-mph into physical terms. “You can’t imagine that natural forces will make you accelerate that fast. There’s no motor, but there’s no resistance, either.” A slight smile tugs at his lips as he calls up the complex sensation. “Once you start down you can’t go back. Because of the weather the course is different every day, and in the first ten seconds you have to understand how the ice is going to be. You can actually HEAR whether or not you have ‘grip.'”

“It’s not dangerous if you follow the rules,” maintains Cresta Secretary and Chief Executive Lt. Col. Digby J. Willoughby, MC. “However,” he considers, “you do have to watch out for the ‘Cresta Kiss’. That’s when you have a piece of your face torn away. I’ve actually picked bits of flesh up off the run.”

And people do this — why?

“I like to test myself,” admits corporate consultant Mark Blaisse, one of the few Dutchmen who rides the Cresta. “I like to try things that really frighten me. I want to see how close I can get to the edge.”

Colonel Willoughby, 4th generation Raj and once a member of the illustrious Gurkha regiment, sees a different motivation. “They do it for the honor of getting their name engraved on a decent piece of English silver,” he offers. “Simply for the pride of trying to beat your own time. The Cresta is one of the last amateur sports in the world.” Indeed, the notion of reaping monetary gain from the Cresta is anathema to its participants. “There’s none of this horrible business of getting sponsorships,” Willoughby scoffs.

The St. Moritz Tobogganing Club has organized the Cresta Run for more than a century. But beyond its sportive activities, this is an archetypal British-style gentleman’s club. It’s so gentlemanly, in fact, that senior English and German members who were adversaries in World War II have spent the ensuing decades as the closest of confidants. The Club is also the world’s oldest private sporting association. Some say the building of the Cresta Run in the winter of 1884/5 was the birth of organized winter sports in Switzerland.

Tobogganing may have first been transformed from a chore to a sport in Canada, when members of Montreal’s Tuque Bleue Club rode a version of the North American Indians’ pragmatic birch wood sledge down a 1,350 foot long chute in 1883. A year later in Switzerland, the twisting mountain contours between St. Moritz and Celerina lured English sportsmen to construct a far riskier track.

While the run is still built by hand as it was more than a century ago, the participants’ plus fours and woolen hats have become skintight wetsuits and helmets, and the bulky wooden toboggans have shrunken into slick metal whippets built for speed. The spirit of the sport, however, is unchanged. For Raymond McKenzie the heart of the Cresta is its riders’ camaraderie. “There’s a gentle spirit here,” he observes. “We pride ourselves on being amateurs. We help one another.”

“We have the sort of bond that exists between people who are afraid of the same thing,” notes New York lawyer and banker Mike DiGiacomo, “like a wartime platoon or people in a plane crash.”

“You have to understand the psychology of the sport,” adds master rider Pitsch, an architect from Switzerland. “We wait our turn to go down the hill sitting around a wooden fireplace inside an old eight-sided pavilion. The windows are frozen. The bench is cold. You look at the faces and you can see everyone knows exactly what’s coming.”

In some corners of the world, males can still demonstrate their virility by slaying a behemoth or enduring a painful genital rite. But in a culture that glorifies the art of button pressing the options are more limited. “Nowadays you can’t take a car on the street and go as fast as you like,” Pitsch points out. “In the Cresta you can certainly be hurt, but you won’t hurt anybody else.”

After three deaths and countless injuries, Cresta organizers have become vigilant about safety. “We get people who think they know all the answers,” Colonel Willoughby acknowledges, “Canadian ice hockey players, fighter pilots, captains of industry. So when they first come I show them x-rays: the spine of one of our committee members, our vice-president’s right and left femur, where my head is connected to my body by five bits of metal. After that I hand them over to what I call the ‘Baines School of Dancing’; that’s Trevor Baines, one of our vice-presidents who teaches beginners. They’re told that for their first run they have to come in at 70 seconds — experts can do it in 53 seconds or less. If they go much faster I pluck them right off the track.”

“Every beginner gets a personal coach,” explains Mark Blaisse, who although not a Club member has ridden the Cresta a number of times. “My first coach was a guy named Von Ribbentrop,” he recalls. “You see how much protective gear those riders are wearing?” he nods toward the helmets, gloves and elbow guards. “Well, my first time I wore twice as much – the wet suit, rakes on the toes of my boots to slow myself down, metal guards on my elbows. I looked like a medieval crusader. Then I lost half of it on my way down the mountain.” He laughs as he recollects his inaugural run. “You’re lying on your belly with your face three inches from the ice and your coach tells you you can go as slow as you like by digging your toes into the ground.” Blaisse shakes his head. “Well, after about 20 seconds all your strength leaves you and off you go speeding down the hill. You instinctively want to touch the wall to brake a bit, but if you move your elbow half an inch your metal protection gets ripped off. The next thing to go is your sleeve,” he rues. “The temperature was about 20 below, but I was so scared I got really hot and my glasses fogged up. I couldn’t see a thing. I went flying down the hill like a tin can down a garbage chute. It was terrifying,” he confesses. “I know it’s a ridiculous thing to do, but the adrenaline rush stays with you for days.”

Would he do it again?

Blaisse grins. “I think I might.”

I wondered if the wife of septuagenarian Gunter Sachs was concerned about her husband plunging down this perilous course. “Not at all,” smiles Marija Sachs, a ravishing Swede. “He’s been doing it all his life. I’d be more concerned about my 18-year-old son because he doesn’t have the experience. The oldest member that still goes down the run is Prince Tino von Liechtenstein; he’s well into his 80’s.”

“It’s never a question of age,” Giancarlo Pitsch agrees, “because we have handicap races. I won the national this year at 45. A lot of the winners are 25. It also gives people of different ages something to talk about. It’s the same playing field, so an 18-year-old boy has something to discuss with an 80-year-old man.”

While its devotees are passionate about the Cresta, surprisingly few beyond this elite circle have tried it. “Many people think it’s a closed thing,” Mark Blaisse notes, “that it’s only for princes and English officers.” But while the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club is indeed thick with titles from every corner of Europe, newcomers are welcome to ride on practice days, as long as they pay a fee of 450 SFr and take out the appropriate insurance. And oh yes, as long as they are men. Although women rode the Cresta at its inception in the 1880’s, they were officially banned from the run in 1929. The reasons seem a bit obscure. “At that time they were using a toboggan with a crossbar that hit the rider repeatedly in the chest,” Colonel Willoughby relates. “They thought it might cause breast cancer.”

Female guests are allowed to socialize, however, and there are few spots more convivial in all of party-loving St. Moritz than the Cresta clubhouse on race day. “We’re one big family; a brotherhood,” beams Dieter Streve, whose family once owned the 4711 fragrance empire. “We’re like a bunch of big kids.” At the bar, Raymond McKenzie is pouring lavishly from a pitcher of Bloody Bulls – Vodka and Beef Bouillon. When I demur – it’s still well before noon – he urges me gently. “You have to have this,” he entreats, “it’s traditional.” And surprisingly suitable as an eye opener, I find, especially on the morning of the Gunter Sachs Challenge.

Worthy of its raffish sponsor, this race is designed to make competitors even more intrepid than usual. Falling won’t diminish a rider’s score since only the best two out of three times are used. In the Cresta, taking a tumble seems to be part of the game — even a badge of honor — and it’s very easy to spill. “You’ll fall if you pick the wrong line, or if your body is just a little too far back on the toboggan,” Pitsch attests, “and of course we go down at 80 to 100 mph.”

After days of practice, weather analysis and probably a late night party — this is after all, St. Moritz — the race kicks off with military precision at the stroke of 9 A.M.. From his perch in the clubhouse ‘tower,’ Colonel Digby Willoughby fills the post of ‘color announcer,’ and the Club’s fraternal membership revels in his good-natured ribbing. “He’s all over the place,” the Colonel roars into the microphone as one gangly rider careens up an icy wall, “all eight foot three of him.” More often, however, the Colonel will simply utter a frankly admiring, “Well done,” for a fellow sportsman’s daring.

By noon the high-strung band has convened to the outdoor terrace of the Kulm Hotel’s Sunny Bar for lunch; long gregarious tables lined with sleek men and women soaking up the late February sun against a stunning Alpine frieze. The shrill blast of a regimental whistle is Digby Willougby’s call for order. It’s time to distribute the awards. Every winner is roundly cheered, whether his achievement was the day’s fastest time or simply earning his ‘Buttons’. “They’re blazer buttons given to people who finish in the top six for the first time,” explains membership secretary Lady Harriet Brabazon of Tara. “It’s a discreet flagging mechanism for those in the know.”

Like every other Club event, the prize giving ceremony is a mix of champagne euphoria and sly self-mockery. “There’s no perfect shape for this sport,” Willoughby smiles impishly as he announces third place. “This tie demonstrates that a Cresta winner can be tall or short, thin or fat.” With that the short but powerful Giancarlo Pitsch carries his lithe ‘tie mate’ Patrick Diethelm to the podium like a babe in arms. The stunt brings a raucous ovation from the assemblage.

After the arduous race, and an even more strenuous repast, this crowd still hasn’t had its fill of the mountain. By nightfall they’ve regrouped at the clubhouse for what might be the most thrilling run of the year: Dracula’s Ghost Riders – a night race for which the grand prize trophy is shaped like a coffin. This capricious competition is the brainchild of Rolf Sachs, 44, Gunter’s oldest son, who coincidentally runs a private after-hours party spot in St. Moritz known as the Dracula Club.

With torches flame-lighting the switchback course, the sparkling ice takes on an otherworldly splendor while the inky sky makes the event even more hazardous. A hush falls over the buoyant company as the loudspeaker barks, “Gunter Sachs to the box.” The silver maned Sachs lays his racing toboggan on the starting box while the next six riders stand at the sideline, respectfully waiting their turns. His compatriots bellow their approval as this eternal hellcat accelerates down the sharp incline into a black void.

As rider after rider returns from his exploit, the clubhouse fills to bursting with ebullient merrymakers. Gunter Sachs catches my eye from the center of a group of admirers. “How was it?” I ask.

“Perfect,” the Cresta’s elder statesman winks in jest with the same glimmer that beguiled Bridget Bardot and countless other European beauties. “I think I won.”

By prize giving time the din is overwhelming. A well-bred woman lifts a set of perfectly manicured fingers to her lips and emits a head-spitting blast just a few decibels below Willoughby’s military whistle. The roiling cacophony drops to a simmer. The night’s winners are pretty much the same fellows who took the honors earlier in the day, but the unbridled hurrahs are as extravagant as they were in the afternoon. After few more rounds the keyed up crew drifts into the clear cold night. Next stop — Dracula’s. Are they concerned about paying the piper in the morning? Not likely. “St. Moritz is a party town,” advises Londoner Jonathan Bevan as he sails out the door arm in arm with a swarm of companions, “and the Cresta is the best cure for a hangover.”

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