March 03, 2011

GSTAAD—From my study’s wide-open, icicle-covered windows, one feels cocooned from the elements, as if in a prison cell but with the doors unlocked. The snows have finally come. The horizons are totally white. Clouds and snowy peaks intermingle in a rhapsody of snow-white, pine-green, and sky-blue.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I took a ski-plane up the Jungfrau, landed on an upward slope, and skied down to Kleine Scheidegg, a vertiginous trip that resulted in one of our fellow skiers getting sick while small avalanches hissed past us. Two people quit halfway down and asked for a chopper to pick them up. One—the mother of my children—was pregnant but unaware of it. Two stayed with the guide: Roman Polanski and yours truly. Roman complained a hell of a lot on the way down, but he’s a strong skier and just the right size for the dangerous terrain. It took us close to three hours, but we arrived safely and looking very green. Our guide was kind and full of praise for our endurance. The only thing I said was that however tough the trip, it beat the “foehn winds” anytime.

“Clouds and snowy peaks intermingle in a rhapsody of snow-white, pine-green, and sky-blue.”

The Bernese Oberland’s foehn winds can generate stunning power. They are said to hold an excess of positive ions that can drive people nuts. The suicide rate goes up accordingly, and it used to be said that the Swiss courts would take the winds into consideration for crimes committed during the foehn period. It is a dry, warm wind that makes one feel achy and bad-tempered, and I suppose it is nature’s revenge for the horrors we inflict on her mountains every day. Mind you, the mountains’ real beauty is from ground level, something available to almost everyone. Yet we still say we “conquered” a mountain once we climbed it. I’ve been looking at the mountain I skied with Polanski so long ago, and it looks a hell of a lot more impressive from the bottom than it did from the top.

Although I still ski downhill, I now prefer cross-country skiing, especially in Lauenen, a tiny village four miles east of here, a place where I will finally end up, as the rich and vulgar keep pouring into Gstaad. All last week I skied cross-country in splendidly cold and piercing conditions, setting out late in the day when the trails are empty and the only sounds come from crows, mountain dogs, and the swishing of my skis as I glide along. It is this Alpine spiritual element that I find wonderful, but one has to be alone.


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