Switzerland’s perilous Cresta Run is finally open to women after a 98-year ban — how have things changed?

Penetrating the chauvinistic world of the Cresta Run — Switzerland’s legendary natural toboggan run — was previously forbidden for women. But now that it’s letting them in, what’s the experience actually like for a female skier?

By Abigail Butcher
Published 13 Mar 2020, 11:23 GMT, Updated 21 Dec 2020, 17:54 GMT
We find out what Switzerland's Cresta Run is actually like for a female skier.

We find out what Switzerland's Cresta Run is actually like for a female skier.

Photograph by Melissa Michel

I’m digging my toes into the ground harder than I’ve ever dug before; my tense body doing a desperate ‘plank’ for all its worth. I’m straining to look ahead, yet part of me doesn’t want to: the ice tunnel looms menacingly, the walls passing fast, and with every drop in altitude, I’m picking up speed; the metal teeth attached to my boots doing little to slow my plunge.

Through Rise, Battledore and Shuttlecock, I fly, wondering when this torture will come to an end; ricocheting off one ice wall, sending me drifting uncontrollably into the other side, bashing my wrist and hips in the process. Finally, after a death-defying race down the Bledisloe Straight, under Railway Bridge and through Cresta Leap, I spy three blue lines in the ice that signify The End. Not a moment too soon. As my toboggan slows, I realise I’ve held my breath for what seems like the whole 88 seconds of my first ‘dart’ down the famous Cresta Run in the ski resort of St Moritz in Switzerland. But I’m alive.

I get off my toboggan like jelly; making my way up to a warm portacabin where others await — my 40kg metal toboggan removed on a meat hook by an ‘arbiter’ (course helper), one of many strange terms I’m learning in this world of Cresta craziness. I sit down dizzily, wondering how I’ll manage to ride the run again. I’m usually unquestionably fearless, yet I admit to myself that over the past minute and a half, I’ve been absolutely terrified. The ‘death talk’ (aka, safety video) and briefing we had an hour before the run did little to explain exactly what riding the Cresta Run was like.

Soon, my fellow beginner riders Sean and Mark appear in the cabin, both in much the same state as me, which emboldens me to ride again. You see, as a woman I’m in a privileged position. Until December 2018, women were only permitted to ride the Cresta Run for one day a year —the last day of every season. A 98-year rule prohibiting them from practising and competing was finally overturned in a narrow vote at the 2018 AGM.

The iconic, nearly 4,000ft run has been the preserve of men for so long that a sign on the changing room door proclaims ladies are strictly prohibited from entering. But now they can, thanks to the British military, which told the St Moritz Toboggan Club a couple of years ago that it could no longer justify holding its annual Inter-Services Championship at the Cresta unless the sport became more inclusive.

“They didn’t pressure the club to allow women, the case was simply stated,” explains St Moritz Toboggan Club secretary Gary Lowe. “So, a rule change was voted in — I won’t pretend it was without controversy, but it was narrowly passed by the two-thirds majority required.”

The Cresta Run might have been one of the last bastions of the Western world to prohibit women, but now ladies are in the door, they’re flying. Women are competing in some men’s races, and members are making full use of the right to ride. But it’s not all rosy: while most were extremely cordial and welcoming, some men I encountered refused to meet my eye, or bristled when I tried to speak to them. Others felt women did a good job of ‘decorating the place’.

That sort of atmosphere brings out my competitive side and, determined to improve on my dismally slow first ride, my second run took 76.25 seconds and my third a shade over 69, with a top speed of 47.62mph.

With the rule overturned it’s open to all, but even so I’m not sure I’ll return; though I’m very pleased to announce that I thrashed the ‘boys’.

A 98-year rule prohibiting women from riding the Cresta Run for was finally overturned in a narrow vote at the 2018 AGM.
Photograph by Getty Images

Like the sound of this? Check out three more fearsome events for women in Switzerland

The Engadin Marathon
The largest crosscountry ski marathon in Switzerland (and the second largest in the world), this race hit the headlines in the UK when Pippa Middleton took part in 2013. There’s a specific women’s race, over 17km, on 1 March 2020. Some 140,000 skiers from 65 nations battle it out over the Grisons valley.

The Inferno
The world’s longest and oldest amateur downhill ski race has been held in Mürren, at the end of January, since 1928. With the start line at Schilthorn (9,744ft) and finish line at Lauterbunnen (2,625ft), skiers race over 14.9km and a huge drop in altitude. In 2019, Swiss skier Marianne Rubi set a new women’s course record of 14:34:22. The BBC’s Ski Sunday presenter and former British ski racer Chemmy Alcott took part this year, finishing third. 

Patrouille des Glaciers
This international ski-mountaineering race takes place between Zermatt and Verbier, via Arolla, every two years. Organised by the Swiss army, the gruelling ‘PDG’ is known for being one of the toughest in the world and runs this year from 27 April until 3 May. Teams of three — men, women and mixed (civilian and military) — race overnight between the two resorts, a distance of 53km. During the last race, in 2018, an all women team of Swiss and French skiers set a new women’s record time at is seven hours and 35 minutes. If you think you can better it, start training now for the 2022 race. 

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