July 20, 2012

GSTAAD—Mountains in summer have a faraway astral beauty, snowy and shrouded in cloud peaks like old men wearing spats. Danger lurks in such mountains. Colin Thubron wrote about Tibet’s Mount Kailas, where locals offered sacrifices to Yama, the Buddhist god of death. Only last week eleven people lost their lives on Mont Blanc, and the numbers will likely reach close to one hundred by summer’s end.

Mystics see icy mountain lakes as purifying. Hindus and Buddhists bathe in them, drink the water, and carry it away. Up in the Arnensee, a few kilometers above from where I live, I used to tell my small children about a terrible monster that lurked below the lake’s dark waters. The monster specialized in grabbing children and taking them under. Even during heat waves they wouldn’t dip their toes, especially when I would pretend I was being pulled below. To this day, my little girl—not so little anymore—ventures in only knee-high. Once he was grown up, my son called me a bullshitter and swam the length of it.

Every mountain holds a million myths. The ancient Greeks thought the heart of the world was Mount Olympus. (Hades occupied a less savory body part.) I’ve been up Olympus, but there were too many tourist signs to feel Zeus’s presence or even Apollo’s. Dionysus was nowhere to be found, as I had no booze with me. My fellow climber, a karateka, complained about his knees from the word go, so instead of letting my imagination consort with the gods, I spent the time urging him on. I regret not having gone up alone. It is an easy track, and anyone can do it (more about knees later on).

“I’ve been up Olympus, but there were too many tourist signs to feel Zeus’s presence or even Apollo’s.”

The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological ruse that keeps fear in check and keeps you climbing. Then comes the pain in the chest, the need for more oxygen, the regrets of having had one cigarette too many the night before. After that it’s the alien world of black rock, blue ice, and the blinding white snow in the distance. The views, however, are downright halcyon, with Tiepolo clouds perpetually playing games above. It’s nature at its best. Some good Dôle wine and brown bread make everything sublime.

The Swiss have mainly two things to look at: lakes and mountains. For some this might sound depressing, but for an old sea lover such as myself, it’s paradise. The sea in winter I find very sad, and in summer it’s spoiled by the tourists and the mega-yachts of gangsters and arms dealers. Now that my sailing season is over, it’s long meadows, steep slopes, and glaciers, those beautiful but quickly disappearing icy rivers that man’s technological achievements will soon make redundant.

The Alps were and are Europe’s most majestic mountain range. Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci climbed what may have been Monte Rosa near Zermatt. The legend is based on his impressions, which may have been exaggerated. Even the great Leonardo would have found it hard to go up 15,000 feet above sea level and live to write about it. But one never knows, especially where Lenny baby is concerned.


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