The Cresta Run

Vera Barclay was one of the daughters of Florence Barclay. The family used to have holidays at St. Moritz, and Vera went down the famous Cresta Run. After her time, the Cresta Run was forbidden to women.

Here is an account from a book about the Cresta Run, with information supplied by Vera's youngest sister, Angela:

Young Vera Barclay, who had started tobogganing on the Village Run in 1911 when she was a girl on 15, had so gained confidence an ability that she graduated to the Cresta Run. One day she rode from Top, to be followed bya young American, Charles Lowe Boorum Jnr, who said "See you at the finish". Boorum was a noice, but had been riding consistently well enough throughout the season from Junction. Experienced rides explained to him that riding from Top was a very different propostion - but despite their warnings, Boorum started too fast. He rode into Church Leap at such a speed that a fall became inevitable, and crashed at Shuttlecock. Hit by his tobaggan, he died of a fractured skull in the early evening, the third Cresta fatality. Racing from Top was abandoned for the remainder of the season.

Vera Barclay on the Cresta Run

Miss Vera Barclay preparing to start from 'Junction'

Two years later, Vera Barclay was summoned one morning to see Miss Wheble in her suite at the Kulm Hotel. Miss Ursula Wheble, with her brothers Gerald and Leo, had frequently visited St. Moritz at the turn of the century. Totally devoid of fear, and a keen sportswoman, she rode the Cresta on equal terms with the men... When Miss Barclay was ordered to see so illustrious a personage, it was tantamount to a Royal Command. After the usual pleasantries had been exchanged, the nervous Miss Barclay received the full force of the intended broadside. "I watched you miss your fotting at the start today - and your "DAMN" echoed around Junction. I must ask you to moderate your language which will otherwise give lady riders a bad name."

Angela, Vera's youngest sister, recalls those times: "... The sister next above me [Claudia]. a "flapper of those days, had a skeleton toboggan, very heavy and made of steel; this was de rigeur for the Dimson Run, a step up from the Village Run. My oldest sister [Vera, in fact only the oldest of the youngest 3 children] had to have a special skeleton with a sliding seat, as she was a Cresta Run rider and the real expert on winter sports in our family. For several seasons, I believe, she was the only girl rising the Cresta. What is so fantastic is to remember that in those days trousers for women had not arrived, and that all these sports (very fast and some of them highly dangerous) were accomplished in skirts. We had a circle of wide elastic which was slipped round the thighs just above the knees to stop the hold the skirt from flapping about. My Cresta Run sister occasionally wore riding breeches, but this was frowned on as looking very "fast". We wore gaiters or puttees to keep our legs warm and snow from getting into the top of our boots.

The following story is in Danny again by Vera Barclay. It was a collection of stories for Cubs. I think it gives some of the excitement that Vera must have felt about being abroad, and winter sports. The story has a footnote: "This story is partly founded on fact, though the incident did not happen at St. Moritz, but at Maloja, a place some miles away from St. Moritz, but also in the Engadine."

A Sporting Kid

The glorious day had come at last - the day when Harry and his mother and little sister were to start on their journey to Switzerland. They were going out for the whole winter, and Harry was frightfully excited about it. Fancy being up 7,000 feet in the mountains, and seeing nothing but snow, snow, snow, everywhere! And being able to toboggan and skate and ski all day! And then the journey - to cross the Channel, and then go in a train all day and all night! The day had come, and Harry was safely in the train on his way to Folkestone. Crossing the Channel was great fun. It was rather rough, and all the old ladies sat tight in red wooden chairs, tucked up in stuffy old rugs. They got greener and greener and looked very unhappy. But Harry and his little sister went up on the top deck and ran about and enjoyed themselves hugely. It was very hard to walk straight, because the ship rolled from one side to the other, and you felt just as a fly on the wall must feel, clinging on with the soles of your feet.

At last the white cliffs of Dover disappeared, and there was nothing to be seen but sea and sky and half a dozen seagulls following the ship. And then a faint line showed on the horizon ahead, and it was the coast of France! Harry and his sister gazed at it, and thought to themselves that it was the first time in their lives they had seen a foreign country.

At last the boat steamed into the harbour at Boulogne. Crowds of funny old French porters came bustling on board. They were dressed in loose blue blouses, and they all talked in French and wrangled with each other and the passengers, as if they were very angry. But they weren't really - it was only their French way. Harry's mother managed to get hold of one, and he collected all her bags and suit cases and strapped them together on a long strap, and hung them over his shoulder. Harry thought to himself that he had never seen one man carry so many things before. He barged along through the crowd, shouting most rudely to make people get out of his way. He took all the things to a place called the douane - an awful place full of cross officials, who opened the boxes and pulled things about.

"What awful cheek!" said Harry. But his mother explained it was the Customs.

"A rotten custom, I call it, to pry about in a lady's private luggage," said Harry. So his mother explained it was the duty of the Customs officers to see that certain things like food and jewellery and tobacco were not taken into the country without duty being paid on them. When the luggage had all been packed up once again the old French porter, who walked just like a crab, went crawling off with his load to the train. It was a funny train - very high: or, rather, the platform was very low. At last they were all settled in, and in about half an hour they started.

Of course Harry and his sister looked out of the window all the way. It was so exciting to see France. That was before the days of the War, and the little villages were still peaceful and happy, and the rows of stunted willow trees stood along the straight, flat roads for miles and miles, like silent sentinels.

On, on rushed the train. At tea time it was great fun walking along the little wobbly passages to the dining-car. Then again for supper. By that time Harry and his sister were very sleepy. So his mother rang a bell, and a man came along and pressed a button and performed a conjuring trick by which the seats were turned into little white beds, with sheets and blankets and pillows all complete.

He did another conjuring trick, and a little bunk was produced from the wall, and Harry found his bed all ready, a few feet above his sister's.

"When you wake up in the morning we shall be in Switzerland," said his mother.

They slept beautifully. But every now and then they woke up to find the train still rushing on, on, on, in the darkness. Sometimes it rushed into a station and pulled up. It seemed to Harry that the engine heaved a heavy sigh. Then it started on again. It was nearly six when Harry's mother woke them up and told them to dress quickly, because soon they would be at Bale. So they did; and when the train stopped they got out.

They found themselves in a huge station, and it was very cold. Their mother got hold of a porter, and they went along to a big refreshment room, where they had their first Swiss breakfast - coffee and funny little rolls, like half-moons, and honey.

After some time they got into another train, and travelled on until at last, by the afternoon, they had got into the real, snowy part of Switzerland.

Harry had never seen so much snow. But his mother said it would be even more wonderful when they got right up among the mountains to St. Moritz.

At a place called Chur they changed into a funny little train that began slowly plodding up the mountain passes.

Here the snow was wonderful. It lay a yard thick on the mountainside, and was inches thick on the branches of the fir-trees. The train went through many tunnels, and over high, high viaducts; and sometimes the corners were so sharp that you could look out of the window and see the tail of your own train coming round the last curve! The air was so crisp that it seemed to give you new life, and you longed to be out snowballing or doing something active.

The sun went down behind the great white Alps, and the snow began to look a bright bluish purple in the dusk. And before long it was quite dark.

"We shall soon be there, now," said Harry's mother.

After stopping at several little stations the train steamed into St. Moritz at last, and everybody got out.

As they stepped out of the station it was like walking into fairy-land. Snow, snow, everywhere - snow roads, with sleighs on them, drawn by horses with jingling bells on their harness. Through the clear, still blue night, shimmered and glittered a thousand little points of light from the many, many windows of all the big hotels, and from the little windows of the chalets, clinging to the hillside, or crowding down on the edge of the great frozen lake. Above, the stars shone larger and brighter than Harry had ever seen them before.

It was freezing hard, but somehow no one seemed to feel cold. Everybody was dressed in woolly garments - white sweaters and coloured mufflers and woolly caps. And everybody seemed to be laughing. Some were pulling toboggans home, others carrying skates, or shouldering their skis. Harry and his little sister began to laugh, too, and ran out on the snow. But soon they fell down, and found out that they must be careful how they walked until they had spiky nails fixed in their boots.

They were to stay in a lovely, big hotel, up the hill. Jumping into an open sleigh, they drove briskly along, gliding smoothly over the snow, their bells making a merry jingle on the frosty air.

That night they slept very soundly, and the next morning they hastened to look out of the window. All was a dazzling white, and the sky was bluer than they had imagined it could be. They dressed quickly in woolly clothes, and put on rubber boots, called "gouties" to stop them slipping; and as soon as they had breakfasted, they went out, and down the little village street.

Tobogganing was the one thing in the world Harry wanted to do. He had already made friends with some very nice boys at the Kulm Hotel, who told him it was the best sport going. So his mother hired a toboggan for him, and he went down to the village run, where he found his friends. They soon showed him how to do it.

The run was like a long curly path, made of hard snow and ice, and very steep. If you wanted to go really fast you took a run, pushed off your toboggan with a final kick, and threw yourself flat on your tummy upon it. As you rushed along you shouted to make everybody clear out of your light.

Harry had a few falls at first, of course, and got a few scrapes and bruises; but every day he would go at it, until, before long, he became the fastest "rider" on the run, and people would clear out of his way pretty quick when they heard him coming.

One day some men he knew at the hotel said he tobogganed so well that they would take him with them on a real, proper toboggan run, all made of ice, called the Dimson Run. Harry was delighted. Tobogganing, here, really was some sport, and rather dangerous too, for the run was very steep, and you went at a tremendous rate. Though he was the youngest rider on the run, he won a silver cup in one of the races!

It was during Harry's last week at St. Moritz that a great adventure befell him.

His best pal at the Kulm Hotel was his uncle, a very cheery young man, much admired by everyone, for he was the champion of the Cresta Run - the greatest toboggan run in the world. Tobogganing on the Cresta is serious work. Not very many people belong to the Cresta Club, and are allowed to do it. The run is wonderfully made. It is nearly a mile long, and full of dips and twists and turns. It is all made of the smoothest, most shining ice; and the riders, lying face downwards on their heavy, steel toboggans, go down at the speed of an express train. The smallest mistake in leaning the wrong way, or taking a corner too fast, and they would be thrown over the banks, and perhaps killed! To round the corners at such a high speed they have to run round right up on the curved wall of ice, which is made the right shape on purpose. These corners are given different names. The two biggest banks, on a part of the run which looks like a big "S" are called "Battledore" and "Shuttlecock" because the rider seems to be thrown across from one bank to the other, rather like a shuttlecock in the game. If they are not very careful, "Battledore" throws them right out over the side, and they fall down about twelve feet into a pile of snow! There are very exciting races on the Cresta. The biggest one is called the Grand National. Crowds and crowds of people come to watch it, and the winner is quite a hero.

When Harry was not tobogganing himself on the smaller runs, his great delight was to come and watch Uncle Hugh practising. He would watch him pass like a flash, his runners making a roaring sound on the ice. Then he would ask the timekeeper how many seconds Uncle Hugh had taken - for each rider is "timed" each time he goes down, to the tenth of a second - and he would run down and tell Uncle Hugh his time (fifty-nine seconds, perhaps), and walk up with him, while an old Italian followed behind, pulling up his "bus" as he called his toboggan.

At last the great day of the Grand National had come. Harry, standing in a huge crowd, watched the different riders tear past. Oh, how he hoped Uncle Hugh would win! The riders had to go down three times. Each time one got to the bottom a man with a megaphone (or speaking trumpet) called out his time. They had all gone down three times, and the great moment came for the winner to be called out. Harry's heart beat fast. Hooray! It was Uncle Hugh. He felt very proud to be the nephew of the hero; and he rushed down the snowy path to meet him. It was then that he suddenly felt quite sure that if only he were allowed to, he could ride the Cresta!

That evening, in the hotel, he asked Uncle Hugh if he would get leave for him to go down just once. Hugh laughed kindly.

"You're too young, kid," he said. "Why you're only twelve! It's not very easy, you know. You'd probably have a bad crash and kill yourself."

Some people standing near had heard. They burst out laughing.

"Do you hear that?" said one of the ladies, "Harry thinks he can ride the Cresta on the strength of his uncle having won the Grand National!"

Everyone laughed, and poor Harry blushed to the roots of his hair. He said nothing, for he knew he could ride the Cresta, if only they would give him the chance, and he determined, inside, that he would manage to go down, somehow, and show them he could.

The next day a small friend of his, Phil, told him something that filled him with delight. The Cresta was closed for that season, for one of the banks was considered too weak, and it would be impossible to rebuild it, for the thaw was beginning to set in. This meant that all the bars would be taken away, and the run left to thaw, and that all the little boys from the village would come and slide about on it, and soon spoil its beautiful, smooth surface. It also meant that there was now nothing to stop any one who liked taking a toboggan, and going down the whole course!

"I'll tell you a secret, Phil,' said Harry. "To-morrow morning, before any one is up, I am going to go down the Cresta from the top. You can come with me, and we'll get Dick and Reggie to come too, as witnesses to prove I can do it, and teach those rotters not to laugh."

Phil was delighted at the prowess of his friend. "What if you get killed?" he said.

"Oh, then it will prove that I couldn't do it, and they were right!" said Harry.

At 8.30 the next morning, just as the sun peeped over the snowy mountains, Harry, with knee and elbow pads, and "rakes" (or spikes) fixed on his toes, crept out, dragging a heavy toboggan. He was followed by his three friends. They walked down by the run first. Every bar had been taken away, it was clear and free.

"Now for it!" said Harry, as he stood at the top, his heart beating fast with excitement. Lying flat on his toboggan, he slid off down the first incline, down towards the steep and sudden dip called "Church Leap."

At this moment his friends saw a tall figure walking down the path by the run, away by the big corners known as "Battledore" and "Shuttlecock." In a moment they recognized him by his orange scarf - it was Uncle Hugh! He had stopped, for he had heard the rush of a toboggan on the run. What would he say when he saw it was Harry? But even as they saw him stop, they saw something else that made their blood run cold!

At the place where the run cuts across the road, and is usually guarded by a man with a red flag to keep people from crossing, a wood sleigh suddenly appeared. It advanced slowly and drew up, the horse standing straight across the run. Once a rider has started down the Cresta Run there is no way of stopping - he must rush on at sixty miles an hour! The three boys' hearts seemed to stop with terror. Hugh was standing still, his eyes fixed on the place.

And what of Harry? Long as this takes to tell, it was all a matter of less than a minute.

Harry had rushed in a glorious, thrilling whirl down most of the run - the worst was over. He was now on the long steep straight, and there were only small corners to get round. The cold air seemed to whistle in his face and make his eyes stream, for he was travelling at a very high speed. And then - then he saw the terrible sight. A horse and sleigh was standing across the run!

There were only a few seconds to think what to do as he flew onwards. But Harry did not lose his head. At one glance he had noticed that the horse and not the sleigh was across the run. The driver was round at the back, fixing up a log that had slipped. Lying very flat, and guiding himself straight as an arrow, Harry kept his course, and passed like a flash beneath the horse, between his four great legs! He was safe!

The three boys, watching from the top, threw their caps in the air, and cheered and laughed for joy! Hugh, standing by " Shuttlecock," his teeth clenched, gave a sigh of relief.

"Thank God!" he said. "Thank God! He's a sporting kid, right enough, and he's got some wits to have done that - it was his only chance! No one at the hotel laughed when they heard the story. Harry was thoroughly scolded, of course. But everyone looked at him with admiration. "Some day he'll be the champion on the Cresta," said an old Colonel, who had won the Grand National many years ago.