It’s not often that the Swiss in Switzerland get all excited but with this upcoming winter sports season, they have much to trumpet about, celebrating an important anniversary. Velcro, aluminium foil and astonishingly enough, absinthe, were invented here. Where would we be in motorway traffic jams without the “Name A Famous Swiss” game ? In 1955 they banned all forms of motorsport and recently fined a driver on a public road caught achieving no less than 62 mph, the tidy enough sum of £180,408,00.For the thrill of a bit of a gee up this may seem a little excessive but you would lay out far less than that and, on a good day, far exceed that speed up in the Engadine Valley where, 150 years ago, winter sports in the Alps began, riding on the infamous Cresta Run, the father of the Skeleton sport.
In 1865, the owner of the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz set a wager to his British clients visiting in the summer months that the winter season that began in December was as mild and invigorating as in July and August and if they came then and were disappointed, he would cover all their costs. Naturally this was a very astute move by Johannes Badrutt; up until then the British indulged in their “Alpinism” without so much as a sniff of a snowflake, and with his large hotel practically empty in the winter months save for staff, he had little to lose. The Swiss Alps were already fashionable for those who chose to rest their delicate lungs in the healing yet heady climate, the altitude massaging the brain cells encouraging the creative mind .John Addington Symonds, Frederic Neitzsche, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name a few of the minds who were inspired here by its forbidding tranquillity.
The British had the money to spend then, the flames and brimstone of the Black Country factories poured the necessaries into their pockets while engourging their lungs with pulmonary tuberculosis . Naturally, the British travellers took up Badrutt’s wager, and were astonished to arrive at the Kulm Hotel in December, the sun blazing, and the genial innkeeper there to greet them in his shirt sleeves leaning on his snow shovel, already tasting victory of what was a pretty safe bet. What Badrutt had done was to have sown the seed of alpine winter holidays; the Brits,as always restless when abroad, thought it an enormous lark, no doubt testing the Swiss sense of humour, to indulge in racing the toboggans or “schlitten”, vehicles on runners that the locals used just for getting about, and discovered that with some modifications, you could really get the speed up and have some real fun. 1875 began the village tobbogan run in St Moritz that quickly became competitive timed events. By 1885 the first purpose built iced run was made from St Moritz sweeping down to the village of Celerina, known as the famous Cresta Run, now 130 years on, more popular than ever, it’s to be ridden from around December 18th this season until March. The good news is the Cresta is open to anyone willing to have a go.
There are thrills, spills and sometimes tragedy in it’s long history. A notable sad event was the death of Henry Pennell, falling at the notorious Shuttlecock left- hander, built deliberately shallow to catch out the unwary that can launch a rider right up and out of the run if not taken with care. Pennell, a decorated hero who won the VC during the Tirah Campaign in India succumbed fatally to his injuries in 1907 doing just that. A faller at Shuttlecock is then entitled to wear the famous Shuttlecock Tie.
In the 1930s one Errol Flynn attempted the Run; the great movie swashbuckler posting perhaps one of the slowest times ever, clambered into the back of his limousine at the Finish, making off with some of the club’s equipment, was never to be seen again. Clement Freud remarked that the Cresta is the greatest laxative in history, as if the fruit and fibre of a muesli breakfast wasn’t enough.
By the early 1900s, ski-ing had been taken up as a recreational endeavour with the first ski races taking place soon afterwards. No longer a spa town in summer and a timber yard in winter, St Moritz growing in popularity with those who knew how to party and spend, bigger and grander hotels began to take shape on the shores of i,s famous lake and the enterprising Swiss were soon to capitalise, hosting winter Olympic tournaments in 1928 and 1948. This season they launch off with a brilliant illustrated book, “Snow, Sun and Stars” by Michael Lutscher and the prospect of some exciting events and races to celebrate these 150 years.
If you spot a nicely turned out fellow wandering around the village as though he’s just stepped out of a Downton Abbey grousemoor sequence with the demeanour of an 18th century macaroni on Rotten Row, the chances are he’ll be a Cresta rider, and for a payment of 600 swiss francs and booking a slot on their website, (www.cresta-run.com ) ,anyone, providing they’re male and over 18, can take the beginners course and start to enjoy its beguiling pleasures. One immediately notices how completely a British institution the St Moritz Tobogganing Club is.
A beginner on the Cresta may have thought his school (or Squaddie) days were over, but it seems to be happening all over again. It’s Andy McNab meeting Tomkinson’s Schooldays. A beginner, AKA ‘Cannon Fodder”, turns up at about 6.30 am, in pitch darkness and in sub-zero temperature. Is it minus 15 this morning? Excellent! The spray from the water hoses will quickly freeze and make your steel toboggan feel as though it’s slinking and accelerating away on ball bearings. After about half an hour of kitting out, knee pads, elbow pads, steel hand guards, helmet and spiked boots, a little pep talk with the Club Secretary, The “Death Talk”supplying more than enough information to absorb, you’ll be handed over to a club “guru” out in the clear air who will coach and observe your first few rides and will soon be able to assess your progress, or lack of. A reasonably quick time is looked for; if you take a too cautious and slow a run you’ll be holding everybody else up (the run has to be totally clear before they send down the next rider; safety first) and could be subject to a very public dressing down. You’ll be hoping to get down to the “charming little village” of Celerina in about 75 to 80 seconds. The very quick riders can achieve this in about 42 or 43.
With all the risk, thrills,sometimes falls, disappointments and what-if-only’s, it is all that is great of a truly amateur sport (“sport” should at least have an element of physical risk, otherwise it’s just a game).
It was one of the great Cresta riders of the 20th century, Lord Brabazon of Tara, the first British pilot to hold an official flying licence, who introduced possibly the world’s first helmet device for velocity and contact sports; basically a leather dome reinforced by a thick leather band with a chinstrap that immediately made one look like a human cannonball, which is not inappropriate under the circumstances. Before the wearing of helmets became compulsory, Cresta men tackled it in tweed caps, deerstalkers, derby’s, fezs, tubeteiks, taqiyas, unsuccessful attempts with toppers, cricket caps, and various woollen devices held into place with flaps made fast under the chin. One of the founders of the Cresta, Emile Thoma invented a brilliant woollen hat with flaps, not seen for years they were recently re-introduced for the Club’s 125th anniversary, hand knitted in the cairns around Kelty, Scotland, the “Thoma” hat can be had from the Highland Store in Portobello Road for around £38.00 and nothing short of a biblical catastrophic typhoon could wrench it off. Good for fell walking and langlauf too.
Tweeds and plus-fours are favoured with some of the stylish Cresta riders who are not too concerned about breaking any course records, the wiry cloth doesn’t do much against the ferocious wind resistance but its versatility allows you to toboggan in the morning and gambol about town later on in the same clobber. The Cresta being an iced run means that the tweed won’t get wet and heavy, which naturally makes it unsuitable garb for skiing in. It was the famous and eccentric Zurich art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in the 70’s who won many races in his controversial one-piece rubber suit; now similar stretchy “condom suits” are commonplace, beneath that a one-piece “exo skeleton” of protection used by motorcycle racers.
The ever expanding town of St Moritz, expanding in all the glory of new, so- new- it hasn’t –been- minted-yet money and its newly formed poured concrete apartment blocks has a high street that resembles the all too familiar top end stuff that you see in Bond Street; if the Russian oligarchs spilling out of the Palace Hotel aren’t indulging in high-end retail activity, they look as though they’ve lost the will to live.
An establishment almost as old as winter sports, Lamm (www.cashmerelamm.ch) has some very fine, mostly Italian cashmere knitwear and shirts. I’m particularly keen on the ultra fine cotton shirts of Van Laack, the quality of which you would have to pay a premium in the the UK, and in low season there are some very good special offers.
Whether tobogganing or skiing in the early part of the season in the sub-zero conditions, it’s important that you keep warm from the core; Kriemler, via Maistra 7, is the place to visit for very high quality Swiss made thermal underwear, so ultra fine makes it perfect for sporting activity; beautifully crafted tee shirts and long-johns will serve you well for many seasons ahead.(www.kriemler-stmoritz.ch).
What with the 150th anniversary of the event that launched skiing, tobogganing, skating, curling, langlauf, snowboarding, inventive plaster casts and the bobsleigh, what better time to head off to the beauty of the Swiss Engadine and take part.
Clever of the Swiss; good with money too. I was told that a British visitor to the nearby resort of Davos one summer in the 1950s took a cable car up to the Par Senn skiing area to inspect what it looked like as green meadows. On the roof of one of the mountain cafes it appeared that some of the winter snow had remained. Baffled by this, he went for a closer look to discover that what appeared to be snow was in fact hundreds of the previous seasons used tea-bags set out to dry out in the sun ready for the coming winter! See you on the slopes.