March 11, 2010
Gstaad. A lovely liquid lunch in a mountain hut with my friend Nicola Anouilh after two hard runs. Blue skies, gentle winds, a few puffs of white cloud, and the sound of bells from the nearby cow shed. If there’s a better way of communing with nature, I haven’t come across it yet. The natural beauty of the Alps is unspoiled and majestically alluring. White wine helps one dream and feel at peace with the world, until, that is, we’re back on skis and losing altitude fast. The bumps come up fast and in a blur, and turning uphill in order to avoid them one feels he’s about to ski off a crest and into the valley couple of miles below. But it’s only the wine doing its work on one’s head and legs. Weaving through the pine trees toward the bottom, past wooden huts and beginner skiers, we finally reach the parking lot—as unromantic a finish after the stupendous scenery as I can think of.
I once flew from Saanen (a tiny airport near Gstaad) with three friends to some moon-like place, where a guide waited. It was exactly 33 years ago because the mother of my children was pregnant and the guide advised her not to try it. Roman Polanski, Ludovico Antinori, and I took about three hours to reach Kleine Scheidegg, and when we got there we were informed that we were white as sheets from exhaustion. Those were the days. Polanski was and is a tough skier, and I could carry my weight, as they say, but we sure gave it to poor Ludovico when at the Eigergletscher he momentarily lost his nerve and asked if we could signal a chopper to come and get him. In 1975 there were still twenty years to go before the world’s most annoying invention came into being. So on we went, skiing, turning, braking, desperate for breath, our legs on fire, but we made it and if memory serves, no food or wine has ever tasted better once in the inn at Kleine Scheidegg. In more than fifty-five years of skiing I’ve had some memorable runs, none more than when Sadruddin Khan, Caroline Townsend, Nikki Rommel, and I went down the front of the Vidmanette mountain in Rougemont, in 1959, the year before it was closed to skiers because of the danger involved. If one falls one keeps falling until they can fall no more. Once we got down we were busy congratulating each other when we spotted three Swiss guides shussing down the front. All three were carrying accordions and were playing them rather vigorously. We kept the bragging to a minimum after that.
Now that the ribs are mending I’m back skiing, however gingerly. This week I will drive to Lenk, a 30-minute drive and ski down to Adelboden and places I haven’t been to in years, Anouilh as my guide. That’s the part of the Bernese Oberland I love the most. The craggy peaks of the surrounding mountains in their pink haze, and the majesty of the Jungfrau make for some breathtaking viewing. There is no glitz there, no choppers disgorging tarts on high heels, or fat Russians with cigars sticking out of their mouths. In 1860, the burghers of Grindelwald had begun to hack away at the glaciers. It was the beginning of the rot. By 1866, 100,000 francs’ worth of ice had been packed in straw and dispatched to Paris and beyond. The good time Charlies chez Maxim’s could enjoy their oysters at last. In no time ice had become a major export. The railway system came next, a funicular railway that wound its way from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch, traversing the Eiger on its way. Similar plans were made for the Matterhorn, but the wise Swiss soon put an end to them. Grindelwald, Murren, Villars, Adelboden, Kleine Scheidegg, all wonderfully old fashioned ski resorts without an Abramovitch in sight.
And then there’s Verbier, or oik haven, a place where John Terry would feel at home if he weren’t busy vacationing in Dubai. I’ve spent two nights in Verbier, and although I was there to attend Jamie Blandford’s wedding, and a very good party it was, I hated the atmosphere. The main street was like the King’s Road, with more drunks due to the altitude. Verbier is for the birds, as they used to say, but now my fight is right here in Gstaad, trying to stop progress, a synonym for ill mannered nouveau riche, unacceptable Hummers carrying old women in furs with very fat lips and stretched foreheads, and the dreaded Russkis. Oh for the days when we feared their tanks and their intercontinental missiles. Those were nice Russkies, with cheap suits, rubber shoes and wide peasant faces with mouths full of gold. Today’s bunch are bad, fat, covered in gold but with dead eyes and manners not seen since the fall of Berlin. Back in 1900, cautionary novels and articles warned peasants in Alpine villages not to sell to foreigners, depicting them as thieves. “Don’t sell your soul for lucre,” was the message. The peasants ignored it. The Cresta Run first appeared in St. Moritz in 1884, and skiing was introduced from Norway in 1892 by the British travel agent Henry Lunn. His son invented the slalom some thirty years later. It’s been downhill ever since. Still, I’d rather be here than in Dubai, or Palm Beach for that matter.