September 04, 2008

“Goblins and devils have long vanished from the Alps, and so many years have passed without any well-authenticated account of a discovery of a dragon that dragons too may be considered to have migrated.” So the Alpine Club was informed in May 1877 by Mr Henry Gotch, the secre-tary, and the news set off great celebrations among sporty but superstitious Englishmen. The golden age of mountaineering, as it was then known, began in 1854 and ended with a bang around 1865, the year five Englishmen fell to their death climbing the Matterhorn. Among the dead was Lord Francis Douglas, whose older brother went after Oscar Wilde some 30 years later. A little known fact is that when the bodies were found, mostly shredded and unrecognisable after a fall of more than 4,000 feet, and brought down for burial, a young man by the name of Carson was in Zermatt following the gruesome proceedings. Carson was the QC the ghastly Queensberry chose to defend him against the playwright’s suicidal libel suit. Even more amazing was the presence of Alfred Wills, later Sir Alfred, the man who presided over the trial and the first to conquer the Wetterhorn in 1854. Today, any shyster lawyer would have got Oscar off on conflict of interest, mountain climbing, but those were more innocent days.

Many strange things happen in the mountains, and 20 minutes from where I live in Gstaad is the village of Diablerets, named after the devils inhabiting the surrounding gorges. Although the Alps today are the playground of the rich and ugly, only 200 years ago they were a wilderness of fear and superstition. Just above the pastures of Switzerland, it was believed dragons and ghosts existed, inhabiting the glaciers and snowy peaks. No one in their right mind thought of going up and disturbing the devils, and many a naughty child was warned that a dragon would snatch it away if it didn’t behave.

Then, in the late 18th century, scientists got involved. Seeking knowledge of glacial formations and the earth’s origin, the learned ones managed to do what they always do, ruin the Alps’ fearsome reputation as well as that of the dragons, ghosts and devils who lived there. It was one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time. Just imagine the Alps without Mark Rich, fat Russian oligarch crooks, oily Saudi thieves, and disgusting nouveaux-riches hedge fund conmen. No choppers, no ski lifts, no snow boarders, no social climbers. Just a few sporty types like myself, walking up mountains in summer and using skins in winter. We would never go near the top and disturb the devils. A one- or two-hour climb, then a quick descent by ski and live to tell the tale. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, there would be no private ski clubs as no one in their right mind would be willing to work there and be snatched away in the middle of the night. And fire-breathing dragons are no laughing matter. Only 50 years or so ago, another fire-breathing animal was spotted above Gstaad, a fierce monster whose breath literally knocked out people, but it turned out to be Charlie Clore, the multi-millionaire Cockney shoe salesman, now selling air conditioners in that sauna-like place below.

After the scientists got down and done, the romantics flocked to the Alps. The savage beauty of the mountains inspired thousands of young men to get their courage up to try to undress their girlfriends. (In the case of the English, their boyfriends.) Then, in the 1850s, came the climbers, many of whom went up only to come down rather suddenly. It got so bad that the pre-Murdoch Times asked, “Why is the best blood of England to waste itself in scaling hitherto inaccessible peaks? In staining the eternal snows and reaching the unfathomable abyss never to return?” The London Illustrated News was hysterical at the thought of a lord falling off a cliff, “an event which threatens the very fabric of society.” Very well put, except that, if it were true, the Alps today would be called the Blairs.

Never mind. What the climbers didn’t manage to ruin, the social mountaineers did. After the Alps were finally conquered, spas sprang up in the surrounding foothills. Places like Evian and Leukerbad, Kleinen Scheidegg, Grindenwald, and, yes, Gstaad and St Moritz. The last two were for social climbing only, with both resorts having signed a charter forbidding sports of any kind. The first Arab visitor to the Alps was a camel by the name of Nustradin, and its name is etched in gold in both Palace hotels in Gstaad and St Moritz. This was in 1947. At present the Alps and Alpine resorts are under Russian siege, thousands of whom are flocking here as if the Alps were Noah’s Ark. Their manners are enough to chase the few remaining dragons even further into the mists and glaciers of the peaks. In the resort of Diableret, I heard a local lady warn her grandson to behave, otherwise an ugly fat Russian oligarch would grab him. The poor kid howled for an hour.

Mind you, the only ones who can afford Alpine prices nowadays are the ghosts. Many a time I find items on my bills that have been tacked on as extras and which I never ordered or consumed. They are obviously for the phantoms, or so the locals tell me when I complain. Still, it’s lovely to be up here, nearer the dragons and ghosts and away from the scum on the Riviera. Give me a dragon any day.


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