Clement Freud called it “the most reliable laxative imaginable”. Errol Flynn tried it once and once only. In 2011, having survived unscathed a six-month tour of Iraq, a British army captain parted company with his foot during one hapless ride on its corkscrew curves, which have taken the lives of four men and broken more bones than an abattoir’s crusher. We’re talking, of course, about the Cresta Run, the ribbon of packed and polished ice that has been adrenalin-dosing the more phobophilic denizens of St. Moritz every peacetime winter since 1884.
It’s impossible to overstate what a soul-stirringly horrifying experience the Cresta Run is. The course’s treacherous corkscrew twists fall 514 feet (157 metres) over its three-quarters-of-a-mile-stretch from St. Moritz to the neighbouring village of Celerina, giving it an average gradient of 13 per cent. Skilled tobogganists can reach speeds close to 80m.p.h. The crafts on which riders hurtle down this winding trough, manufactured in a metalworking shop in a sleepy valley between Zurich and Chur, resemble a stripped-down Corby trouser press.
With their eyes poised just four inches above the ice, splinters of ice pelting their cheeks, riders descend to a deafening soundtrack of steel on ice that they are biologically hardwired to associate with our primate former selves’ warning calls. They control their direction, braking and speed — the latter to only a very loose extent — using toe cleats. It’s no surprise that the dreaded ‘Cresta kiss’ — the removal of several layers of skin from the face as it scrapes against the abrasive ice — is a common enough event to put scars on many of the regular faces at the Cresta Club bar, a cosy drinking den near the starting point that houses a patchwork of injury X-rays compiled to make up a full human skeleton.
“People do get hurt,” says Rupert Wieloch, a softly spoken, elegant, retired former British army colonel who, as Cresta Club secretary, is on duty in St. Moritz every day from a month before the run opens, shortly before Christmas, until it closes, at the beginning of March. “The key job I have is to balance the desire club members have to enjoy an exhilarating, fast ride, and go as close as possible to the edge to achieve the best time possible, and the requirement for it to be safe,” he says. “It’s not like sending soldiers into Sangin, Afghanistan, but I do treat it in the same way as I would deploying troops to patrol a hostile environment. I have to understand that risk impeccably, and make the right checks and balances, understanding the conditions on any given day, in terms of building the run … One Cresta Run truism is that members will always find new ways of hurting themselves on a regular basis. The good news is, we haven’t had anyone die on the run since the early 1970s.”