Skeleton? You catch a snippet of conversation between the guys standing next to you at a drinks party, gibbering on about how brilliant it is. Surely you must have misheard?
No he’s not talking about a pile of bones, although the modern name for this sport does allegedly derive from the bare-bones sled (which vaguely resembles a human skeleton)… Think adrenaline, speed, and lots and lots of ice. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
It’s Not as Scary as It Sounds
Sure, the slightly intimidating title of “Skeleton” may bring to mind images of contemporary Olympians in racing gear, but the sport can be traced back to British soldiers in 1882.
These guys built a toboggan track between the Swiss towns of Klosters and Davos, decidedly distinctive from other existing toboggan tracks due to its super sharp bends and curves. Whether this was constructed as an innovative battle tactic or simply to have a bit of a laugh is ambiguous.
But as the video above shows tracks like that of Innsbruck are now thoroughly slick and modern, which is why we offer an exclusive opportunity to join Amy Williams for The Skeleton Experience at this legendary Olympic track.
But first, on to the origins of the sport…
Introducing the Mother of Skeleton (Although Girls are Banned)
It would just be wrong to talk about Skeleton without first mentioning the St Moritz Cresta Run.
Many of us have the Cresta Run on our bucket list and I was definitely one of them. For many people this is a crazy British-inspired descent of the world’s most famous toboggan run. It takes less than a minute to ride this three-quarter mile stretch of polished ice – oh, and rather a lot of courage.
So, I’ve got your attention… now how do you do it?
There Are Two Ways of Getting in on the Cresta Action
Much like many aspects of St Moritz, the Cresta is all about privilege. If you know the right people, you will be invited into the inner-circle. I was fortunate enough to be challenged by my good friend Sammy Salm who was running the St Moritz Tourist office. This added a further degree of fear for me, knowing that not only would I experience this ultimate adrenalin rush, but I would also be taking part in a duel with a local.
So off we went, without a drop of British blood between us, to make our debut on the Cresta Run at first light one early January morning in 2000.
The second, more realistic option is to buy a temporary membership. This is available to pretty much anyone for 500chf, lasting for just one season. All you need is the cash and sufficient bottle, resulting in five rides after which you just pay a supplement of 50chf for each additional ride.
This works out initially at £80 for each 60-ish seconds of scaring yourself sh**less and as you build your confidence (if you haven’t already given up), it’s then £30 for each injection of adrenalin thereafter.
The only pre-requisite unfortunately is that you are male…
How a Cresta Day Takes Shape
It all began on a dark, breakfast-less, coffee-less morning at around 7am. I felt the familiar dread of long-forgotten school days, with the painfully early start and the briefing that followed, from Lieutenant Digby Willoughby, CEO of the Cresta Club.
We were shown a montage of X-ray plates of various broken bones to form one complete skeleton – this was not something that escaped me easily as I waited my turn. There was lots of talk about gathering “momentum” which, despite my ever-growing tension, put a brief smile on my face.
The training was mostly theoretical – with no real instructions – after which we were issued with helmets, studded boots with metal spikes coming out of the toes, plus elbow pads, knee pads and knuckle pads. At this point Digby pointed out the distant village of Celerina to me and said: “I expect you to be there under a minute!”
The First Run:
They say you never forget your first time. Is it insane to voluntarily hurtle at motorway speed through icy bends, when the risk of injury is forewarned and laughably high? Almost definitely.
I remember plucking up the courage to look up early on during my 60 seconds of insanity and seeing Celerina as a tiny dot in the distance, way down the valley below.
After that I could only think of the speed. Sheer speed and my racing heart as I desperately tried to stay in the turns. And then there was a bizarre element of almost peacefulness as I felt myself reaching the last straight stretch.
I banged side to side against the walls as if I were an ice hockey puck, and tried to remember some of the tips we had been given. Surprisingly these didn’t come to me easily, but I hardly had time to feel my much-anticipated fear.
I was finished. I was, shockingly, alive. Panting for breath, and with such fierce heart palpitations that it made me feel as though my body was punishing me for putting it through such turmoil.
My time was a creditable 74 seconds.
The Second Run
I still had two more descents to go. How did my rational brain allow me to pick myself and my toboggan up and head on up the mountain for a second time? Perhaps I was adrenaline thirsty after my minute-long taste of it?
I felt more confident this time, cocky even, and consequently found myself flying through the air at Shuttlecock corner. I landed safely in the hay bails with no broken bones, thankfully not contributing to the welcome montage of X-ray images.
The Final Run
Yet my confidence was not crushed in my crash. The camion picked me up and I was back for my final descent. Despite my previous wobble, I was determined to go even faster.
I had by this point learnt how to slide the seat of my toboggan forward to gain speed. This made me even more aware that my chin was literally inches from the ice.
My speed reached terrifying proportions but, as my fear grew, so did my excitement. This time I negotiated Shuttlecock with verve, all the while with a look somewhere in between terror and delight. I was even faster along the straight stretch, bouncing even more brutally from bank to bank as the course began to wiggle.
It took 63 seconds this time. Very creditable indeed, I was told. Sammy was home in 64. Both times were excellent for Cresta novices. (And I won).
My Cresta Top Tips
There’s a Hierarchy
Be aware that full members get priority, so you will have to wait around. If it’s a freezing cold January morning, be sure to wrap up warmly for the wait. Stay moving as much as possible (keep fingers and toes wiggling), but maybe allow the cold to be a welcome distraction as you nervously wait for your name to be called by the control tower for permission to take off.
There’s No Health and Safety Guarantee
Cresta is a natural track. It’s hand-made and therefore bloody dangerous so prepare yourself mentally. As I demonstrated, you can in fact come off, due to the absence of netting or protection.
Riding this run is nothing but dangerous and probably a rather stupid decision. But despite the imminent risk of broken bones, the so-called “Cresta Kiss” (when some of the rider’s face comes off in a face-to-surface accident), and even death, it’s good fun, believe it or not. Why else would locals and tourists alike have been risking all of the above for years and years?
Women are Not Welcome
As I mentioned before, the fairly antiquated rule that only men are allowed on the run exists. Whether you agree with it or not, rules have banned women since 1929, with no exceptions.
Adrenaline is Addictive
That’s right, the more you do it, the more your skeleton ego grows and the more confident you become, ever attempting to beat your last speed. Instead of stopping, the “momentum” (yes, that pun again) continued in my head and was inescapable. The experience gets better and better because of this, but be sure to let your rational mind take over when things get out of control.
There are Bodily Effects
After riding, it took about 15 minutes for my body to relax and my heartbeat to return to a normal rate. I felt sick with adrenaline, but my pride and the pure thrill overrode it. Make sure you sit down and allow your pulse to settle before rushing off on your feet after this experience.
…And Visceral Effects too…
You will feel untouchable, ecstatic, supernatural and on a huge high. This is the common symptom of the adrenaline junkie. An extreme sport like this one is sure to get the dopamine going in your brain, which will make you feel AMAZING. But, adrenaline can be dangerous as it counteracts the protective feelings of, well, feeling bloody terrified, which in this case, might be important.
All in All, it’s Pretty Awesome
Be cautious but mostly enjoy yourself, as this is a unique experience that will stay with you forever. And if I survived, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t.
But… There is Another Skeleton Destination…
Sure, the Cresta experience is about as raw and old school as it gets, but it has a competitor.
If you are looking for a more modern, and organised all inclusive event, there is a lot to be said for joining the Momentum Skeleton Experience and riding the Olympic track at Innsbruck.
It is Safer
Naturally there is an unavoidable element of risk in such extreme snow sports. However, Innsbruck’s track has higher banking on those fatal corners, so you cannot come off the track. This increases your safety by a long way, while allowing you simultaneously to reach the same crazy speeds. Olympic gold medalist, Amy Williams, considers it one of the safest tracks to have your first go.
Even Celebrities Prefer It
If the photo above isn’t enough to convince you (spot the legends!), even Channel 4 let a bunch of celebrities go down it for The Jump. Knowing how precious celebrities are these days, not to mention the court cases a big TV station would endeavour to avoid, this says a lot.
You Can Ease in Slowly
For first-timers, the tuition consists of starting halfway down the track, learning the technique and gaining confidence before you move to the top. This is definitely a better and less stressful option if you’re a bit nervous. The instruction is more detailed, allowing you to actually learn more about the sport and techniques to maximize improvement. It is a handy way to decide if you want to pursue the sport and try more extreme tracks such as the Cresta.
Women are Welcome
Aha! More fitting with gender equality, how could anyone dispute it? If you’re a woman this one’s for you, as Innsbruck allows you to experience the track. Even young daredevils (they’re always less scared than us) over the age of 14 are welcome, so it is much more family-friendly.
Why Not Increase Your G-Force?
Skeleton isn’t the only opportunity in Innsbruck, you can also ride as a passenger in a four-man bobsleigh for an even bigger assault on your senses. The picture above shows myself, Sir Steve Redgrave and one the participants sending the first group of guests down the 4 man Olympic Bob to experience some unreal G force (almost like being inside a washing machine).
The idea terrifies me even more than my memory of the Cresta, but if it sounds like your thing, go ahead and try it.
Innsbruck is a Better Weekend Destination
St Moritz is a three-hour drive from either Zurich or Milan, while Innsbruck is a 20-minute transfer from the airport. It’s certainly easier, if your trip is only a few days long and you want to ensure maximum Skeleton time.
It Will Be Kinder to Your Wallet
The 5*Grand Hotel Europa is half the price of a five-star hotel in St Moritz, and almost everything is half the price in Innsbruck, from the Wiener Schnitzel to the lovely Austrian whites (Gruner Veltlinnner is one of my favourites).
So Who’s the Winner?
It Depends What You’re Looking For
Both are located in wonderful resorts with totally different atmospheres.
I don’t want to take away from the raw, old school experience of the Cresta having done it myself, but perhaps if you’re thinking of trying skeleton your first ride should be in Innsbruck under the tuition of the amazing Amy Williams. It’s an Olympic track with similar speeds after all, so you’ll have plenty of bragging rights at that drinks party! It is also an altogether more inclusive atmosphere and a more practical option with our excellent pre-organised event ready for you to sign up to.
Don’t Hold Back Any Longer
So are you someone who wants to give it a go but have never quite felt brave enough? Have my tales of speed and terror followed by overwhelming, all-consuming ecstasy won you over?
The Skeleton Experience
We are running the Skeleton experience with Amy Williams over the 10-12 December weekend in Innsbruck. This is an exclusive opportunity to achieve that adrenaline-rush but under expert guidance of the master of Skeleton herself. It also involves the chance to get to know Amy, with personal tuition and there is a ‘light hearted’ competition element to the weekend for those looking to do more than just get to the bottom in one piece.
Soak Up the Atmosphere and Relax
While your time at the track will no doubt be intense it can still be a relaxing weekend break.
Step aside from the adrenaline-fuelled madness, and enjoy the festive Austrian atmosphere. Picture yourself amid chocolate-box Christmas markets in the beautiful Austrian town, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and armed with a warming Glühwein.
Staying at the luxurious Grand Hotel Europa they’ll be plenty of opportunities for post-skeleton relaxation and to trade stories of the day (and the odd bruise) with your fellow Skeleton conquerors in the great hotel bar.
Get in Contact
For more information on next season’s Skeleton event in Innsbruck please contact Jessica Gorman by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). To register your interest, or for further information on St Moritz holidays and the resort’s Cresta skeleton experience, contact us at Momentum Ski on +44 (0)20 7371 9111.
Inspiration for writing this piece came from Peter Hardy’s account of my experience, which was published in the Telegraph in 2000.