The Cresta Run is a serpentine chute made of ice, perhaps four feet wide, and it is one of the most dangerous toys in the world. It winds down the mountainside at St. Moritz, Switzerland. It is a classic, one-of-a-kind creation: the walls are two feet high all the way to the bottom except for a couple of particularly tricky turns where they are banked much higher to prevent the riders from flying out of the chute too often. The course has a vertical drop of 514 feet over about three-quarters of a mile.
Cresta riders make the run lying belly-whopper on a short, heavy sled called either a toboggan, a wagon or, for some arcane reason, a skeleton. The sled consists of a flat, padded surface about 3� feet long which slides so that the rider can shift his weight forward and backward and, beneath it, a set of rolled steel runners. Buff up the runners a bit with emery cloth and the contraption takes off, accelerating all the way. The men who are good at the game average more than 49 mph for the entire run, hitting almost 85 mph near the bottom.
The Cresta has developed a cult of its own over the decades, a loyal legion of commoners and millionaires, with a sprinkling of royalty—men who have tested its mystical drops and curves and competed for its myriad cups and trophies since it was first built in 1884. The Cresta cult is known as the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club, an exclusive organization with headquarters at the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz. And the club exists only because the Cresta Run exists.
When the second Lord Brabazon of Tara was alive, there was no man more dedicated to the traditions and continuity of the Cresta. His father, a member of Parliament, had been a good rider before him and president of the club from 1939 to 1954. He himself had been a young Cresta daredevil. His son has been closely involved. So when the second Lord Brabazon died at 63 last Dec. 11 a link was broken. There was mourning among all riders, for the old man's enthusiasm and intense affection for this strange sport would not be matched for a long time to come.
In the last year of his life Lord Brabazon was a tallish, stooped fellow with thick spectacles, a splendid aristocratic overbite and a dignified mien. He was given to a double-breasted blue blazer with silver buttons bearing the image of a Cresta rider. He and Lady Brabazon had spent most of each January and February at the Kulm for the past several decades so that they could enjoy the high season of the Cresta. This was enormously important to Lord Brabazon, though it had been years since he himself had ridden the chute.
"You see," he said, "all my friends are here during high season. If I were to come at Christmas, I would not know a single bloody soul. The blokes would all be strangers. My parents began coming to St. Moritz in 1911 and I suppose I have been here every winter since—counting out the wars, of course." Lord Brabazon paused and gazed across the vast lobby of the Kulm. "Yes, counting out the wars," he said thoughtfully. "Before the war I was considered rather a promising young rider of the Cresta. I came back to appear again in 1951—14 years, mind you, after my last run. It was only for enjoyment then, not a hope in hell of winning anything. People missed so much due to the war." He sipped a cup of tea. "I haven't been down the run in 10 years now and I'll never go again, never."
When asked why, Lord Brabazon looked gently astonished that anyone would consider such a question necessary. "Because it frightens me terribly." He looked searchingly through his heavy spectacles, as if to be certain that he was understood. Then he spoke slowly, choosing his words with care: "When the exhilaration is worth the fright, then you must do it, you must ride the Cresta. But when the exhilaration is not worth the fright, then you must give it up. That is merely sensible, isn't it?"
Robert C. Ennis of West Roxbury, Mass. is 44 years old, a foreign-car dealer. He is the best, currently, of the half a dozen or so American businessmen who regularly run the Cresta and has won two trophies there. "Americans seem to stay away from the Cresta," he says. "They think it's silly. Also frightening. I'm afraid, too, but I like to use my intellect to overcome my instincts, and finishing a fast Cresta run is just the grandest feeling in the world—you wind up grinning like a fool. The G forces are awful and the illusion of speed is greater than driving a Ferrari at 200 mph. It blows off the whole year's dust that first time you run the Cresta each winter. We see each other here for a month or six weeks a year, no more, and we become great friends—for life, I suppose. The high season at the Cresta is an unforgettable time. There is absolutely nothing like it in the world."
It is high season at the Cresta now, and once more in the cold, golden St. Moritz mornings the riders assemble at Top, smoking cigarettes and speaking in a mix of English, French, German as they wait their turns in the little wooden warming hut with the cupola roof. As always, Cresta riders are a motley crowd, fairly tough-looking. Some have not yet shaved for the day and they are usually just out of bed, so there is some yawning, a little snorting, hawking and spitting. They are wearing the prescribed armor and equipment for their runs—crash helmets and goggles, heavy leather elbow pads and thick knee cushions, metal-plated knuckle pads over leather gloves, big clumsy brogans with the essential Cresta "rakes" bolted to the toes. The rest of their clothing is disreputable—soiled jump suits, old ski jackets, baggy ski pants, Levi's, moth-bitten sweaters, patched knickers. There is, as always, a raffish hint of the seedy daredevil in their appearance, a touch of the carnival motorcycle stuntman, the Roller Derby rowdy, even winterized Knievels. This appearance is deceptive, for riders of the Cresta are, if nothing else, men of respectability. Many are very rich, well educated; some are extremely well-born.
An alarm bell rings and a rider rises from his bench in the warming hut and strides outside. It is lovely at Top in the morning. Behind him, a church steeple looms in the bright sky. Off to his right, another spire rises over the roofs of St. Moritz. And directly below lies the Cresta Run.