March 20, 2009
It’s past midway in March and the slopes still don’t have that used-up look which comes by the end of February. No gritty slush, just beautiful pure powder tracked only by furry things such as foxes and deer. While out cross-country skiing, I feel elated by animal tracks next to my own, a great silence enveloping the bowl where I’m skiing, without a human in sight. It could be Russia, with giant pines lining my path, the river slapping on the ice along the edges. Yet it’s only Lauenen, seven klicks from the glitz of Gstaad. The lake is above me, and it goads me uphill, climbing on my arms, as one’s supposed to do on cross-country skis. Once on top I rejoice and regret. Going up separates the men from the tourists. This is my last week in the mountains, and I’m taking advantage. From the back of my chalet I can see south-facing slopes starting to melt, but in Lauenen the bowl is still pristine and I like skiing it alone, just before sunset.
On alternate days I ski downhill the impeccably groomed slopes of Les Diablerets. They are served by high-speed chairlifts and telecabins, and one’s swooshed upwards to a glorious, seemingly endless descent, a swooping serpentine piste among rocks and gorges set against a vista of endless snow-covered peaks. March is my favourite time of year, especially in the mountains. The rich slobs have left, the crowds have gone back to sea level, and the mountains assume the stillness of the dead. I have started to ski fast again, having lost my bottle for a while. All it takes is confidence, but that’s easier said than done. The trickiest moves when skiing fast on piste or powder are the mental ones, the psychological acrobatics that keep one from leaning back or stiffening up, the natural thing to do where humans are concerned. Glacier skiing is easy in Les Diablerets, a tongue of ice and snow about two miles across and ten miles long, give or take a mile or two. Fifteen years ago, skiing alone, I ran into a wall of snow at full speed, tearing my rotator cuff on my right shoulder and briefly knocking myself out. I think it was the aftermath that turned me into a girlie-man. It was getting dark, I was still on the top ridge, my arm was useless and I was in pain. Worse, I was not familiar with the bloody mountain, having skied it only on very sunny days. Still, I made it down just as pitch darkness set in. The Swiss doc told me to act like a man and ignore the pain. The X-ray revealed a tear the size of Gordon Brown’s ego.
That was then. Skiing alone in the dark was quite dumb, but a marvellous inner adventure. As I get older, however, I tend to look elsewhere for inner adventures—young women, for example—and leave the tough stuff to younger men. Now what could be harder? Seducing a 25-year-old, or tackling the Kornergrat Derby in Zermatt? The former will break your heart, the latter your leg, but either way the old boy will be the loser.
As recently as the very late-18th century, above the pastures of Switzerland, dragons and ghosts inhabited the realms of ice and snow. Or so local people believed. Les Diablerets is a perfect case in point. It means The Devils, and to this day people imagine they can hear the cries of those kidnapped by devils past. When my children were tiny I would terrorise them when driving through Les Diablerets by recounting tales of the different species of dragons who live there. (‘In the 18th century a respected scientist quite seriously enumerated the different species of dragon to be found in the Alps.’) The children would scream, cover their eyes and lie on the floor of the car. ‘Please, Daddy, please stop,’ they’d beg, but I’d keep making dragon-like noises, as if I knew what noise those poor dragons make. Only four years ago, my little girl, aged 28 at the time, screamed in terror when I drove by Les Diablerets at night with her and I began to make noises. But she was just playing with me.
For a long while people of the valleys believed that the peaks were home to an alien race. Back then man didn’t know that he could breathe at high altitude. It was a closed world of aliens, dragons and ghosts, and in a funny way I wish it had remained so. The Greeks had Olympus and its gods, the Europeans had the Alps and its dragons. When in the early-19th century, adventurers began to mosey up the Alps, some of them thought they’d either find God, or confirm his non-existence. Spiritual problems have always been related to mountains, and exploring the Alps was seen by some as challenging superior things and beings.
The wilderness of the Alps was not properly mapped until the late-19th century. Among the last mountains to be conquered was the Matterhorn, in July 1865, with four of the seven-man team led by Edward Whymper plunging to their death when a rope snapped. The perils and triumphs of mountaineering have been chronicled ever since. As I glide down the glacier, doing carving turns or old-fashioned weddel pivots, I look around me at the majesty of nature and curse the modern world and its crimes against her.