Illustrating the thrills and spills of sliding
As a prelude to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, I volunteered (in a moment of madness) to travel to St. Moritz, high up in the mountains of Switzerland, to take part in a couple of winter sporting challenges. The first being the notoriously dangerous Cresta Run, followed by the inaugural British Mono-Bob Championships.
Having a particularly high centre of gravity, I normally try to avoid slippery surfaces. Holidays in the sun, lying safely horizontal on a beach, have always taken preference to winter breaks (spent trying to remain upright on frozen ground). However, it occurred to me that ‘Sliding’ – the collective jargon-term for riding the Cresta, the Bob, the Luge and Skeleton, is an area of winter sport where, for the majority of time, competitors are either sitting or lying down. With this comforting thought, I signed up for the trip before considering further peril.
Dressing for the occasion: Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks wearing a magnificent teddy-bear coat in St Moritz (1931)
A meeting was held in London a couple of months in advance of the excursion and I had the opportunity to meet my fellow participants, almost all of whom were seasoned sliders. This was the chance to voice any concerns that I may have, and being involved in the clothing industry I had one important question, “What should I wear?”. “Old clothes” came the reply, followed by, “… and a back-brace”. Unsure whether this was a serious remark, I didn’t take the enquiry any further (although I had been warned that at least one member of a party like this often ends up in hospital). In late January I changed out of my bespoke finery into worn clothing and set off to Switzerland.
The spectacular train journey from Zurich to St Moritz
There are a total of 16 bob-runs in the world. Almost all are constructed from reinforced concrete and fitted with ammonia refrigeration pipes to keep the track cold. The one exception is the legendary St. Moritz-Celerina Olympic run which was opened in 1904, making it the world’s oldest and only remaining natural ice bob-run.
Gentleman racers at the 1928 Winter Games in St Moritz
The turns and banks of a bob-run are designed to keep the rider on the course. If a curling stone is released from the top of the run it would find its own way down to the finish line. The Cresta Run is an entirely different story – it is not a bob-run, it is totally unique, and somewhat perversely designed to throw the riders off the course… the curling stone wouldn’t make the first turn! It is therefore altogether a much more dangerous proposition.
How to impress the ladies at the Cresta Run
As with the Olympic bob-run, the Cresta is a natural run, built from scratch every year with snow which is then iced – as it has been since its inception by the British Army in 1885. It starts in St Moritz and winds its way down a narrow valley to the village of Celerina. It is approximately 3/4 mile (1,212m) in length with a drop of 514 feet (157m) and a gradient which varies from 1 in 2.8 to 1 in 8.7. Riding the Cresta is to be our first challenge, and at 7.00am on the morning after my arrival in Switzerland, I approach the venue with great excitement and a degree of trepidation.
Cresta Riders ready for a new season
Following registration, confirmation of adequate insurance cover, and signing of disclaimers, we join the Cresta Run beginner’s class for the ‘Death Talk’. This covers a number of damage-limitation safety rules followed by evidence of the hazardous nature of the run – beautifully illustrated by the image of a human skeleton created from a collage of X-rays of the injuries endured by some of the club’s committee members – these include broken fingers, wrists, arms, ankles, legs, pelvis, collar-bones, ribs, and, of course, broken back and neck!
Warning: this is a dangerous sport
Before we go to pick up our toboggans and commence our first lesson, we are reassured that only three riders have died on the Crest Run in its 128 year history, and are given a final opportunity to ‘scratch’ (chicken out). Nobody seems brave enough to make that call, so we secure our hand, elbow and knee protection, don our helmets, and head for the starting area. The most important element of the equipment we are wearing is the footwear. The heavy boots (which are unique to the Cresta) have spiked toecaps (rakes) – which effectively act as a braking mechanism… and the only means of keeping the beginner-rider on the run.
Gregory Peck prepares to ride the Cresta Run (1953)
Toboggans at the ready, we are given rudimentary instruction on how to manoeuvre them and, most importantly, how to apply the brakes. We then line up to take our first ride. My name is called, and I raise my arm to indicate to the control tower that I am ready (whilst praying that I am able). I am not ashamed to admit that this was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, as I realise there is no turning back and that within seconds I will be hurtling towards the notorious Shuttlecock corner.
Receiving final instruction
Shuttlecock is the part of the run that is guaranteed to catapult riders into the air if they are not in control of their toboggans. Riders who fall at this corner are permitted to wear the Shuttlecock necktie – which is available at extra cost from the clubhouse… they must be doing a roaring trade. The average fall:ride ratio at Shuttlecock is approximately 1:12, although it is higher for beginners.
The point of no return
A long-standing member of the Cresta club had told me that my first run would feel fast although, in fact, I would be traveling relatively slowly. Actually, it felt very fast. It felt ‘out of control’ fast. As I approached Shuttlecock, I held my breath and dug my rakes into the ice using all of the nervous energy that had been storing itself in my body from the beginning of the Death Talk. Our instructor declared that if we made it through Shuttlecock we would undoubtedly cross the finish line.
Although my senses were almost totally numbed, I suddenly became aware that I had got through the merciless corner and all that was left for me to do was hang on for my life as I turned into the long straight home. Unfortunately, the line I had taken was not the most direct (or stylish) route, and I bounced along the last leg of the run like a human pinball, colliding painfully from the bank on one side to the opposite and back again for the rest of the journey. The crash-landing into the mats that lie beyond the finish line was deliriously satisfying, and in my heart-pounding, hyperventilated state of euphoria, I felt the strangest urge… I wanted to do it again!
Ready for more
We continued to ride the Cresta until lunchtime, before making our way just a few hundred metres to the Olympic bob-run to begin our Mono-Bob training. Traditionally, bob racing has involved either two-man or four-man sleds. In 2008, a small number of enthusiasts in St. Moritz built, and began racing, single-man bobsleighs, and in 2013 a number of members of the British sliding community decided to engage themselves in the discipline and devised a plan to create the British Mono-Bob Championships.
The next challenge
Buoyed with enthusiasm from my Cresta morning and relaxed in the knowledge that bob-runs are designed to keep riders inside the run, I arrive to be met by a friendly, gleaming smile from a veteran slider, who soon tells me that he lost three teeth in a collision here last year… two thoughts immediately enter my head – this must be more perilous that I had anticipated, and this cheerful gentleman must have a very good dentist.
We can work it out: John Lennon tries a bobsled for size in St Moritz (1965)
Our first task is to ‘walk the run’ with our instructor who explains that if we follow his guidance, we are unlikely to have an accident. Nobody that he has trained during the past six years has over-turned a sled. As we inspect the ‘vertical’ Horseshoe bend (the bob-run’s answer to Shuttlecock) we struggle to understand why this has not yet happened.
Inspecting 'Horseshoe' as we walk the run
Following our tour of the run, we return to the starting point and are allocated sleds. They are really quite beautifully crafted and look as if they are built to go fast. Very fast. The controls that guide the sled’s runners are pointed out to us, then I ask where the brakes are. I am told that the Mono-Bob doesn’t have brakes! Oh dear. I suddenly start to wonder whether, as in the Cresta, we will be given the opportunity to ‘scratch’ this event too.
Monobobs at the ready
In a re-run of the morning’s Cresta procedure, we wait for our names to be called from the control tower in alphabetical order, and I begin to regret that I hadn’t been born a Zuckerberg. An announcement is made, “David Mason to the box”. I raise my hand in acknowledgement and step into the bobsled (running starts are not recommended for first attempts). My breathing has become heavy and my body is shaking – this is no doubt due to the high altitude and the freezing temperature… or could it be that for the second time today I am absolutely petrified.
No turning back
I am released down the run and begin to gather momentum. We had been advised that the sled would be able to guide itself through the first few turns, which was useful to know, as I hadn’t really understood much else that the instructor had said during our tuition. Horseshoe, I recall, was a different story, and if we didn’t ride this part of the run carefully it could hurt… and it did!
Too high into Horseshoe
The video playback in the after-run classroom revealed that the line I had taken into Horseshoe was too high and the exit too late. This resulted in my sled crashing into the left-hand bank, followed by my head hitting the wall of ice with sufficient impact to flip up the visor of my helmet. Semi-concussed, with cold air whistling into my eyes and totally out of control, I suspected that I could possibly break a record and become the first of our instructor’s pupils to overturn a sled. Completely discombobulated, I dropped my head (thinking it was time to put it between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye) then the oncoming gust slammed my visor back down into the correct position. I could now see that my sled had remained upright and the end of the run was in sight.
Even playing the piano is dangerous in St Moritz
The relief of bringing the sled to a safe halt was overwhelming. I appeared to have come through my maiden bob-ride without injury, until I felt something trickling down my forehead onto my face. I must have cut myself badly. I had visions of making the heroic return to join my fellow sliders at the start-line, face covered with blood, insisting against their protests that I shouldn’t continue with the next run. Maybe I was the one who would be hospitalised. It could be my James Bond moment.
The monobob is easily mastered by James Bond in Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
I removed my gloves and lifted my visor to rub my face so that I would be able to see the scarlet product of my horrific injury. To my surprise, and quiet dismay, my hand appeared to be covered with water rather than blood, and it occurred to me that during the ‘open-faced’ period of my run, a piece of ice must have lodged itself under my helmet and started to melt by the time I crossed the finish line. My moment of glory had instantly evaporated, so it was back to the start for another attempt.
James Bond rides the bobrun without a bob in For Your Eyes Only (1981)
As the week progressed, my confidence and sliding skills had improved, and by day three, other than some serious bruising, there hadn’t been any nasty injuries amongst our group. The mood was becoming bullish. I was amongst a competitive crowd, and fear was making way for the desire to become the fastest man – although today, snow was falling, making the run slightly slower than on previous days.
Preparing Horseshoe for the race
At the Olympic bob-run, a large video screen shows staged progress of the riders down the run. Suddenly, we realised that we’d lost video contact with one of our men. He was seen going into a turn, but not coming out. We waited and waited. Without news or sight of our companion, the atmosphere became solemn. Then the missing sled eventually came into view as it was winched along the run to the finish line, and 20 minutes later our comrade returned with a bandaged head. He had taken the same poor line as I had on the first day and his visor had flipped up in a similar manner. With snowflakes hitting his eyes at 100 km/hour he was running blind, then, totally disoriented, he pulled the controls in the wrong direction as he approached a turn, resulting in the sled flipping over. With record broken, but bones intact, he escaped with a U-shaped cut on his forehead – which we expect will heal to leave a somewhat appropriate ‘horseshoe’ scar.
On our last evening in St. Moritz, everyone was looking forward to the final and most popular event of the tour… ‘Après Bob’. The Champagne was flowing amid a scene of great jubilation. We had conquered our fears and mastered the mountain. There was a sense of great satisfaction, coupled with relief that we had all escaped serious injury.
Drinks served St Moritz-style
In an open display of exuberance, one of the revellers in our ranks attempted to jump onto a table (presumably to show off his disco dance moves) but his timing was poor. He lost his footing and began to fall. We watched helplessly as he made his descent. The all too familiar look of horror that we had witnessed on the Cresta and the Bob-run crossed his face. There had been no warning or training for this, and he was not wearing protective clothing!
Explaining the importance of remaining upright when handling drinks
The crash-landing, headfirst into a clutch of Champagne flutes, was undoubtedly the most spectacular and dramatic scene of the week. Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was impossible to stop the blood pouring from the deep cut above the right eye of our newfound hero, and he was rushed to hospital to have the gaping wound stitched together. We were left to reflect on the fact that sliding is not for the faint-hearted, as danger clearly lurks around every corner. We ordered more Champagne to calm our jangled nerves, and I muttered to myself, “Never again”. Well… not until next year.