September 11, 2009
GSTAAD—From my desk facing the garden I look out on a vista of wooded green hills with an unblemished blue background. Far beyond, the mountains are grey and white-capped on top. The sun is blazing, the cows are grazing, and I have to leave this paradise for karate and judo training in the Bagel. Plus I have a broken fourth finger on each hand, as if turning 73 wasn’t enough. But I’ve been mountain climbing, and I’m in good shape despite the boozing. The Ionian had purple hills and beautiful seas but this outstrips them all. There is nothing like mountain scenery when there’s an orgy of nature bursting all around. (Or any other kind of orgy, for that matter.)
Ruskin was raving a bit when he accused climbers of having ‘made racecourses of the cathedrals of the earth, the Alps’. What bothered him even more were those who treated the mountains as ‘soaped poles which you set yourselves to climb and slide down with shrieks of delight’. I suppose Ruskin was lucky not to see what later generations have done to the Alps. At least climbers did not deface the mountains with ski lifts and gondolas, but made their way to the top step by step, sweating and groaning all the way. As with conquering a woman, it was eventually well worth it—or not, as the case may be. A little, or lots, of resistance, never hurt nobody, as they used to say in old Zermatt—or was it Brooklyn? Ruskin described climbers as ‘red with cutaneous eruption of conceit and voluble with convulsive hiccoughs of self-satisfaction’. Trollope, too, wasn’t a fan. Ditto Dickens. The latter scorned them for climbing the Matterhorn and the Eiger instead of concentrating on ‘bestriding the weathercocks of all the cathedrals of the United Kingdom’. Again, go figure.
In my experience, mountain climbers are the exact opposite of social climbers. They’re brave, healthy, adventurous and down to earth, pardon the pun. I’ve done my share of climbing small mountains, and the way up can be hell. Reaching the top, however, always brings a rarefied feeling of blessedness. The sorrows of intoxication the night before are evident throughout the climb, especially as the air grows thinner and one’s breath heavier. But then comes bliss and a desire to get back down and start drinking all over again. I’ve only once gone up tied to a guide, on an overhang, and the way down was hell. I had ideas of conquering the Matterhorn, but my guide, known as the human fly, said no way, José. Vertigo is my problem.
Explorers in the Alps in the 18th century used to brag that the rocks with which they grappled had never before been touched by human hands. And historians shot them down by pointing out that, while arguing among themselves about which route Hannibal had taken, they had learnt about the Bronze Age from arrowheads that had been discovered at the top of some mountain by American tourists. Apparently even hobbits had made it to the top, and I don’t mean poor Bernie Ecclestone, who owns a chalet near mine. Mind you, doctors insisted that an Alpine holiday was the best cure there was for most ailments. Tuberculosis sufferers agreed. They all got their rocks off in the mountains as if there was no tomorrow. Clergymen, of course, saw the mountains as natural steeples, leading them ever closer to God. All I know is that the Almighty cannot be happy with the latest bunch making its way up towards him. Poor, honest, hard-working peasants are slowly being shunted aside by nouveaux-riches body-waxers, vulgar hedge-fund wallet-lifters, Hollywood name-droppers and other assorted friends of Marie Christine of Kent. It is enough for God to distance himself, even from the Alps.
Off season the Alps are as good as it gets. I have good friends here: the Gibsons, the Fairchilds, the Weisses, the Nicholsons, and so on. We get together in each other’s chalets, I get drunk, and they tell me stories. As there is Aids all around us—Aids meaning Acute income deficiency syndrome—many of the most egregious types, who give lavish parties for people like Bianca Jagger, have already gone back to places like Milan, Brussels, Geneva, even Athens. Gstaad is now almost on the same level as it was 25 years ago. The barbarian invasion is still threatening but the locals are doing something about it. We have all signed petitions and have written to the local newspaper saying that the mad building has to stop. One German billionaire has bought almost half the town and nobody seems to know what he plans to do with it. I know the man and he’s not as bad as people think. It’s the wife who worries me. It’s all in her name. Still, one has to live in hope, and despite man’s greed, this place is too beautiful to be ruined for a few dollars more, no pun intended.
Someone once said that man was vile and nature sublime. I totally agree because that someone did not mention women, who are as sublime as nature. That someone also saw more spirituality in a glacier than he did in his fellow human beings. Something to do with the movement of ice and the passage of a soul to heaven. Personally I cannot go that far, although I go on glaciers all the time. Except that I prefer glaciers to any football player, especially those who play for the Big Four of the Premier League.