James Sunley is President of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club, a.k.a. the Cresta Run. He has been throwing himself down its icy track for 40 years and plans to do so for another 30.
Will Sackville - 4th December 2019
James Sunley and son Casper
James, when was the Cresta Run established?
The first track was built in 1884 by the owner of the Kulm Hotel, Johannes Badrutt. Johannes and his son Caspar were looking for a way to attract visitors to St Moritz in Winter as well as Summer, and thought a toboggan run would do the trick. Their hunch worked and the St Moritz Tobogganing Club was set up three years later.
Anticipating the fun ...
When did the British get involved?
Right at the beginning, because it was wealthy Victorians with time on their hands who the Badrutts were trying to attract. In fact, they insisted that the club was run by a Briton. That tradition has carried on and even now about half of our 1,240 members are British.
The SMTC clubhouse at 'Junction'
For those who’ve never seen it, can you describe the track and the challenge for riders.
It’s 1,214 metres long if you start at ‘Top’ and is made of packed ice. Riders go down head-first on a skeleton toboggan, and the secret is to shift your weight to get the best line and avoid coming out at the corners. As it twists and turns down the track, it drops 157 metres and the gradient in some places is 3:1. The fastest racers reach 85mph.
YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE RIGHT LINE OR YOU'LL FLY OFF AT ONE OF THE CORNERS.
That sounds terrifying!
Well, it concentrates the mind a bit. But we're very safety-conscious. Every year hundreds of people do the Cresta for the first time and not only survive to tell the tale but share one of the most exhilirating experiences on the planet.
Riders are equipped with an advanced braking system
Is it true that if you let a cricket ball roll down the track it will come out at one of the corners, so it’s not enough to be a passenger on the toboggan – you have to navigate it?
It’s certainly true that you have to take the right line or you’ll fly off at one of the corners. 'Shuttlecock’ catches a lot of people out. We even have a special tie for riders who exit there.
"Silk or polyester?"
Have you ever got the line wrong?
Over 50 times, but fortunately all have been Shuttlecock falls.
Fortunate indeed. In the pantheon of great Cresta riders, where do you personally rank?
Anyone who has qualified to ride from Top is a great Cresta rider!
[Note to readers: JS is being modest. He held the record from Top of 50.09 seconds for 16 years (1999 - 2015) when it was finally broken by Lord Wrottesley with 49.92]
Can someone who finds themself in St Moritz just turn up at the Club, or do they have to be a Member?
Absolutely, they can! They can go to our website and book a slot on School for Beginners which is usually early on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
Is there any difference in the way men and women ride the Cresta?
Women riders have the option of shorter and lighter toboggans. Otherwise, no difference.
And the cost – is it a case of "If you have to ask, you can't afford it"?
School for Beginners costs 600 Swiss Francs which includes training and your first 5 rides. After that, it’s 36 Swiss francs a ride if you are under 30, or 52 if you're over.
Which months of the year is the Cresta open?
It depends on the weather – don’t forget, the track is rebuilt from scratch every year. But we usually open before Christmas and continue until the first weekend in March, with races on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In an average season, there are about 12,000 descents.
The association with the Kulm Hotel is still strong, isn't it?
Massively so. After races, members meet in the Sunny Bar at the Kulm for prize-giving. It’s an important tradition. It’s worth adding that we have a strong relationship with the St Moritz community. For historical reasons, the Club has a British feel to it, but we are guests of the Swiss and couldn't function without them.
The Sunny Bar of the Kulm Hotel, heaving with Cresta memorabilia
Last thing – we can't help noticing that your son is called Casper. Is that in honour of Johannes Badrutt's son, Caspar, himself a noted Cresta rider?
If it was, I wouldn't have spelt his name 'Casper', as in ghost! It’s a happily coincidental link.
Thank you James!