When a shrewd hotelier brought winter tourism to St. Moritz more than 150 years ago, the Corviglia entered the spotlight and over the following decades grew to be one of the most renowned winter sports mountains worldwide. Thanks to its fascinating history and the perfect conditions for Olympic athletes, world champions and active holidaymakers, the Corviglia is now one of the most popular of all destinations for alpine leisure activities and sports contests.
If St. Moritz is known as the “Cradle of winter tourism”, the Corviglia should logically be regarded as the “Playroom of winter tourism”, where visitors first fell in love with the joys of snow sports. For about 150 years now, skiers from all over the world have been enjoying its sparkling slopes. The first to glide down the snow on two wooden planks here were – alongside locals – visitors from the United Kingdom, whose legendary sportsmanship changed the Engadin for ever.
Long before they founded Switzerland’s first British ski club here in 1901/02 or established the first bobsleigh run in 1903/04, St. Moritz was already known as a prestigious summer destination with a magnificent mountain on its doorstep: the Corviglia, renowned for its heavenly hiking. The now legendary hotel pioneer Johannes Badrutt believed that this strictly seasonal tourism scene in his beautiful home region had potential to grow. He asked a game-changing question to a group of English guests in 1864 as they prepared to travel back home to London at the end of their summer holidays to escape the supposedly inhospitable Alpine winter. Did they not know that even when the landscape is covered in snow and ice, the Engadin sunshine is so strong that they could sit out on the hotel terrace in their shirtsleeves? The shrewd Badrutt then appealed to their sense of sportsmanship: he suggested a bet they could not refuse. He promised that they would enjoy the St. Moritz winter so much that they would not want to leave; and if they did not like it, he would repay their entire travel costs to and from London. The English guests shook hands on the deal and travelled back to the Engadin as agreed for Christmas 1864. You can guess the outcome: Badrutt won his bet in grand style. The guests from the north stayed longer than four months and only returned home, suntanned and delighted, after Easter 1865.
This legendary bet led to the dramatic growth and scintillating success of a winter destination – and to the Corviglia becoming one of the world’s highest-profile winter sports mountains. Since then, it has served as the venue for the 1948 Winter Olympics and (so far) five ski world championships, and continues to thrill countless snow sports enthusiasts from countries all over the world every year.
The growing tourism scene benefited from tremendous innovative energy: hardly a year went by without St. Moritz and the Corviglia witnessing technical or sporting firsts that came to be celebrated worldwide. It was here, for example, that ice skaters founded the first club in Switzerland in 1868; the first curling club followed in 1880, while the world-famous Cresta Run was first built in 1884/85.
The dramatic story of the Corviglia ski area began in 1913 with construction of the Chantarella funicular. Originally planned to bring guests from St. Moritz up to a sanatorium, it soon became highly popular with skiers and tobogganists who thereby could enjoy their thrills without a laborious walk uphill. When St. Moritz first hosted the Winter Olympics in 1928, the Corviglia was not yet a competition venue, but interest in skiing and ski holidays boomed. The local council decided unanimously that access to the Corviglia must be improved so that it, too, could become a world-class sporting venue. The resultant Corviglia funicular was the first mountain railway or cableway to be built purely for skiers, and became the forerunner for a wide variety of cable cars, chair lifts an
In 1934, the first world ski championships took place on the Corviglia; conditions were so ideal that the organisers chose St. Moritz to host the event again in 1948, 1974, 2003 and 2017.
The Winter Olympics also returned, in 1948, and this time the Corviglia proved to be a perfect venue for international contests in which nearly 700 top athletes from 28 countries took part. The highlight: the dramatic run by Hedy Schlunegger, the “Swiss Amazon”, that won her gold in the Downhill. Despite falling, she managed to regain her confidence and “hurtled down the slopes… getting through all the schusses brilliantly, with a winning time of 2:28” (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 February 1948).
It was not unusual back then for the odd racer to face-plant in the snow, which gave the Downhill run from Corviglia to Chantarella the reputation of being extremely challenging. See for yourself and test your own skills as you glide down the black Olympia piste!