Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Tobogganing terror at the Cresta Run

I am traveling to Switzerland to watch my friends hurtle down a mountain on a tea-tray
January 24, 2024

I can remember the exact moment when my love of skiing died. I was following a friend who was a far better skier than me down a black run. He had insisted I was more than capable of this feat, despite the fact I’d spent the rest of the week on the reds. Halfway down we stopped at the edge of an escarpment of sheer ice. “Ah yes,” said my friend. “This is the bit the World Cup skiers jump over.” 

Lacking the chops for aerial manoeuvres, I inched my way down the piste that was no piste, the ungainly planks strapped to my feet conspiring with gravity in their murderous attempt to hurl me to the bottom. I was freezing cold, and burning hot, and every muscle in my body screamed with effort. When I made it down, we still had half the run to go. 

That was more than 15 years ago, and I haven’t missed skiing at all. The faff-to-fun ratio was never in the right proportion for me anyway. Carrying around equipment that weighed the same as a weekly grocery shop, long uncomfortable walks to long uncomfortable lifts, the numbing of toes and fingers and face for the sake of a fleeting hit of adrenaline… no, my friend did me a favour with that surprise World Cup run. He gave me the motivation that I needed to quit. 

No other winter sport ever took its place. My body doesn’t especially enjoy sub-zero temperatures and my one experience on a curling rink taught me that winter sports are just as cold indoors as they are outside. I appreciate that the activity itself will warm you up if you give it enough oomph—but that tells you all you need to know about my oomph. 

It is therefore an unpleasant shock to report that I may soon be hurtling down a mountain on the tobogganing equivalent of a tea tray. By the time you read this, I could be recuperating in a Swiss hospital. 

A longstanding obsession with the glamour of the interwar period and its golden age of travel has persuaded me to join a trip to St Moritz, alongside a team of friends who are taking on the infamous Cresta Run for charity. First completed in 1885, the Cresta Run is a one-person bob-run akin to the “skeleton” event at the Olympics, except you’re permitted to attempt it after three days of training rather than three years. 

My intended position on the team is that of observer

The average descent covers three quarters of a mile in just over a minute, although practised athletes, who reach speeds of 80mph, can do it a lot faster. Apparently “only” five people have died in the attempt, which is considered a reassuringly low figure across the event’s 139 years. This is largely down to the fact that the legendary “Shuttlecock” bend, halfway down, acts as a safety valve, spitting out riders who are going too fast at a dangerous angle and ejecting them off the course onto a bank of hay bales and powdery snow. 

I have no daredevil aspirations. My intended position on the team is that of observer—to record and promote my friends’ efforts in order to raise as much money as possible for good causes. And yet, there is a long tradition of journalists finding themselves roped into the very event that they were sent to cover. I have now seen my name on the team sheet as “first reserve” and given the chances of injury—not to mention the dropout rate when people see what they’re actually facing—there is a genuine danger of my own participation. 

Among my research, I found a report by Ian Wooldridge, one of the greatest sportswriters of all time, who was persuaded to take on the Cresta Run for a Daily Mail feature. He wrote afterwards that it was “the second greatest thrill that life has to offer.” He also said he was so “enduringly terrified” that he would never do it again. 

I don’t want to do it once. And yet I am aware that, until 2018, women were not ordinarily allowed on the course, and the fighting-feminist part of my brain is threatening to override every safety protocol I usually cling to. The first of which is: don’t throw yourself down an icy incline on a tea tray.