Riding the bob sleds of St. Moritz
St. Moritz, Switzerland
By Arnd Wiegmann
In 2000 I covered my first bobsleigh world championship for Reuters in the eastern German town of Altenberg. A lot of world cups and the 2007 world championships in the Swiss mountain resort of St. Moritz followed. Since I moved from Berlin to Zurich at the end of 2007, the annual Bobsleigh World Cup in St. Moritz has been one of my favorite events in our calendar, as it combines working in beautiful surroundings whilst shooting pictures of a breathtaking sport.
But I had never tried to get a chance to feel the speed and gravity aboard a bobsled going down an ice track. A few weeks ago I asked the manager of the Olympia Bob Run Roberto Triulzi for a
permit to place two Gopro cameras on a four-man bobsled to take a video during one of the guest rides, which are offered for interested people. Triulzi agreed and I traveled to St. Moritz to meet Donald Holstein, the leader of the bobsleigh school and one of the pilots for the guest rides.
I placed the small cameras on the four-man in front of Donald and another on the helmet of brakeman Peter Liechti. Once the ride was over, I removed the cameras as my name was called out by the speaker: ‘Mr. Wiegmann, please come to the start!’. Surprisingly there was one place left in the bobsleigh and I was booked for the next ride.
The Olympia Bob Run St. Moritz-Celerina is the world’s oldest and last natural ice track. It was officially opened on New Years Day 1904 by the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club, which was founded in 1897.
In the second part of the 19th century, St. Moritz was one of the first places in the Alps visited by tourists from Britain to spend their summer holidays. St. Moritz’ tourism business expanded sharply after Johannes Badrutt, the inventive founder of the Kulm Hotel, persuaded guests to visit the valley of the Engadin during the winter season. In order to offer entertainment for the guests, winter sporting events were created, the mountain resort was the pioneer of speed skating, curling, bobsleigh and other competitions in the Alps.
More than one hundred years later, St. Moritz is known as host and second home of the rich and posh from all over the world. The prices for properties in the town advertised as the ‘Top of the World’ are at their highest levels ever. Annual sport events like the Engadin Ski Marathon, White Turf horse races and Polo on Ice on the frozen Lake San Murezzan have a long tradition and a lot of fans.
In the meantime, the Bob Run has hosted two Olympic Winter Games in 1928 and 1948, 22 FIBT World Championships, a countless number of national competitions and now I was waiting for the START! The heart of the 1,722 meter (5649,6 ft) long track is the Horse Shoe Corner, a 180 degrees curve following a street connecting St. Moritz and the neighboring village of Celerina.
Every year at the end of November workers from Italy’s South Tyrol region start to build the track by using some 10,000 cubic meters of snow and 4,000 cubic meters of water. It goes through a beautiful forest between St. Moritz and Celerina. They usually need three weeks to complete their work. A walk in the summer along the track shows no remains of the tournament, and no empty concrete tubes like in other bob facilities like Altenberg.
A coach of the German team told me once: ‘Every year I’m astonished again about the perfection with which they build the track’. Nineteen curves are part of the track. They carry names like ‘Sunny Corner’ or ‘Tree’. The ‘Nash-Dixon’ was named after British 1964 Olympic Winter Games British gold medalists Anthony Nash and Robin Dixon. The ‘Gunter Sachs Corner’ carries the name of
the late German-born business man and president of the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club.
The difference in altitude between start and finish is 130 meters (426.6 ft). Brakeman Peter Liechti gave me advice on how to sit in the bobsled: ‘Tense up your muscles and enjoy the ride’. I sat behind pilot Donald, behind me was the second guest, a colonel of the British army, and in the back brakeman Peter.
From the start I was relaxed and had faith in our crew. Sliding down and accelerating, we reached the ‘Sunni Corner’ followed by the ‘Horse Shoe’. This is where I got an impression on gravity of 4.5 G as my head was pressed down towards my legs.
Now we reached the famous Horse Shoe Corner at higher speed, causing more pressure. I had taken hundreds of shots from different positions, choosing various shutter speeds to catch the bobsleds racing into the corner with a speed of almost 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour perfectly. The Horse Shoe Corner never forgives driver mistakes. I widely remember the noise as the bobsled of Canada’s two-women team pilot Kaillie Humphries and brakewoman Heather Moyse touched the wall of ice as they passed through the corner way back in 2009. A colleague and I were on a position nearby as the crashed bobsled sped down followed by Heather Moyse, catapulted out of her bob.
Now, being in the Horse Shoe myself I could feel the forces of gravity stronger than in the first bend, also due to us gaining even more speed. The seconds in the curve seemed to stretch. I was holding my breath until we regained an upright position in a straight stretch.
Following a few more curves we reached the maximum speed of around 135 kilometers (84 miles) per hour on a straight line in the lower part of the track. Crossing the finish line the brakeman stopped the sled and after we got out of the sled the Colonel and I received congratulations, including a diploma.
It was a unique experience. From now on, I will see this unique track with different eyes and enjoy taking pictures of the tournament even more.