Downhill ski race, St Moritz, Switzerland

Facing the amazing ‘Free Fall’ start of the race.

You step gingerly to the precipice and peer over the edge. A cliff face falls away from you – you can barely see the foot of it, far below. And even there the ground isn’t flat. It is no longer a vertical drop, but still giddyingly steep.

You’re safe, for the simple reason that you’re tethered by a strap to a hut near the brink of the void. That’s what you need to do if you insist on a close-up look. If you weren’t and you made a false step – it would be freefall.

And that’s exactly what they call this spot. Free Fall. It isn’t actually a cliff, but the next best thing. It is, astonishingly, the start of the men’s downhill ski race at St Moritz – the steepest on the world ski circuit. It looks more a Flying K course than a downhill.

I thought the start of the Hahnenkamm on the Streif course at Kitzbuhel was steep. But it’s a bit flat and slow compared to this. On St Moritz’s Corviglia course, the first 150 metres has a gradient of 45 degrees (which also represents a gradient of 100 per cent, but that’s harder to explain). Racers accelerate from 0 to 140 kilometres an hour in just six seconds. That’s a shade quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera S (and the Porsche would be all over the place in these conditions).

The World Ski Championships

Downhill ski race, St Moritz, Switzerland

The precipitous start of the men’s downhill at St Moritz

You can see how the planet’s best downhillers handle the challenge at the Alpine World Ski Championships. Either live, if you make your way to the resort, or on TV. St Moritz hosts the men’s downhill ski race and more between February 6 and 19. Of course, the start isn’t the most difficult part – merely the most spectacular. Well, that’s what the course designer, Bernhard Russi, says anyway.

The spot to watch out for he says is the Suvretta Kante, shortly after the start. Here the unwary racer can come unstuck in a big way. As well as the Larchensprung, approaching the finish.

Downhill ski race, St Moritz

A racer in action on the St Moritz course.

Russi, no slouch himself as a former downhill ski race world champion and Olympic gold medallist, reshaped the Corviglia course for the previous World Championships at St Moritz in 2003. The terrifying start point came about because it had to be relocated 150 vertical metres higher to meet the 800-metre vertical prescribed by the International Ski Federation.

This will be the fifth time that St Moritz has hosted the world championships, welcoming 600 athletes competing in six disciplines.

The women downhillers gained their own new start up on Piz Nair at the World Cup finals in St Moritz last winter. Their course’s name is Britannia, to honour the pioneering British tourists who founded winter holidaymaking in St Moritz in 1865.

The British Connection

The strong British connection with St Moritz has been further underlined for these championships. The medal ceremonies will take place in the Kulm-Park, beside the historic Ice Pavilion, belonging to the elegant five-star Kulm Hotel. Built in 1905, the belle époque pavilion was a symbol of the Winter Olympic Games held here in 1928 and 1948, but had fallen into disrepair. The resort turned to renowned British architect Norman Foster – Baron Foster of Thames Bank – to carry out a multi-million pound stylish and imaginative restoration.

Hotel owners the Niarchos family have pledged to open up the two-storey pavilion to the local community after the championships. This unique venue will be made available for sporting and cultural events. It will be a superb legacy of the 2017 event – and with a fabulous British contribution.