Want to drink in the high life at a private club in the Swiss Alps? First you need to ride an ice track face-first at 65 mph.
As the sound of the ambulance siren fades away, I hear David Payne announce my name. Shortly after that, a single bell chime indicates the start of my run — the starting official, who’s known as an arbeiter, simply removes his foot from my toboggan, and off I go.
In a matter of seconds I’m ricocheting from one wall to the other before centrifugal force drags me up the banked wall of the first turn, Rise, and my sled loses purchase, sliding down the bank and slamming me into the wall. I rake furiously as I come skidding out of the second turn, Battledore, and get my first look at the sweeping 270-degree hairpin called Shuttlecock looming ahead, ready to launch me into oblivion — or, as the official St. Moritz Tobogganing Club warning puts it, “At this point, if a rider is out of control, he will involuntarily leave the track in some airborne manner.” (No hard feelings, though: All “ejectees” are automatically enrolled in the Shuttlecock Club and allowed to don the official Shuttlecock tie.)
Gravity presses me into my sled and my sled into the ice; somehow I’m able to hold my line halfway up the bank as the track bends in front of me at frightening speed.
I let out a silent sigh of relief, slide forward on the toboggan, and lift my spikes off the ice. The acceleration is immediate; I fly into a long straightaway and for the next 15 seconds experience absolute joy. The purity of flying 65 miles an hour with my head four inches above the ice is euphoric. Four banks remain, and on each one I climb higher than the last. On the final turn I slam violently into the wall, pinballing from one side to the other until I reach the finish.
When I stand up, my legs are shaking. I head to the clubhouse bar for a drink. It’s 9:30 am, and the place is packed.
The clubhouse of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club, governing body of the Cresta Run, is also the spiritual home of stylish daredevils. People here like to celebrate every minute of the day. Various lords, ladies, barons, archdukes, counts and countesses, billionaires, celebrities, and retired British generals are among its 1,300 members; since this is the club’s 125th anniversary, there’s an especially big turnout this week.
Thanks to a friend’s introduction, I’ve walked in to a nonstop rolling party full of champagne, caviar, fur, and beautiful women from all over the world. (One of these women is wearing what looks to be an entire fox — hooves, snout, beady eyes and all — on her head.) Over the past few days, there have been lunches with a 12-piece Bavarian band in lederhosen playing polkas, and a trip to Dracula’s, a private nightclub where I watched a German billionaire leap off a giant fireplace and crowd-surf atop the hands of Russian escorts. Between black-tie dinners and invitations to private Caribbean islands — not to mention world-class skiing and a horse race on a nearby frozen lake — sleep just hasn’t been a priority.
Soon enough, one thing becomes increasingly clear: Riding the Cresta has nothing to do, really, with being the fastest. It’s about the thrill, the camaraderie, and the stories. It’s about scaring yourself. Mostly, though, it’s about having fun.
An announcement is made that the top 15 riders of the day are about to run the course again, so I take my drink out into the sunshine to see how it’s supposed to be done.
The first rider is Count Luca Marenzi, whose devil-may-care attitude evaporates once he stares down the track. Pushing the sled into a running start, he leaps gracefully aboard and assumes the kamikaze body position, his hands placed aerodynamically behind him, not even holding onto the toboggan. He doesn’t touch the wall once. I hold my breath as he enters Shuttlecock within inches of the top of the bank. Moments later his time flashes on the scoreboard — 51:53, the fastest time of the day and a full 20 seconds quicker than my run.
Later that day, during lunch in the Kulm Hotel, I find myself sitting next to Count Marenzi, who congratulates me on my first ever Cresta run. I smile sheepishly, politely call bullshit — and then we clink our glasses and laugh in the Swiss sunshine.
The Cresta Run operates from December into March, weather permitting; you’ll need a “supplementary membership” (about $600), which gets you all the equipment you’ll need, plus guidance from a club guru and five runs. Fly into Zurich, then hop a train for a scenic three-and-a-half-hour ride to St. Moritz ($140 round trip; sbb.ch). In St. Moritz, the Hotel Steffani is centrally located (from $210; steffani.ch).
Is St. Moritz a bit of a hike? For a few North American alternatives to the Cresta Run, click here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.