High life | 21 July 2012

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Mountains in summer are of an astral beauty, the snowy, far away, shrouded in cloud peaks like old men wearing spats. Danger lurks with such men, as it does with mountains. Colin Thubron wrote about a certain peak in Tibet, and claimed that the God of Death dwelled on that particular mountain. One could say that about many places. Only last week more than 11 people lost their lives on Mont Blanc, and the numbers will reach close to 100 by the time the summer’s over.

The ancient Greeks thought the heart of the world was Mount Olympus. (Hades, of course, was the you know what of the world.) The icy lakes of mountains appeal to many as purifying. Hindus and Buddhists bathe in them, drink the water and carry it away. Up in the Arnen See, a few kilometres above where I live, I used to tell my small children about a terrible monster that lurked below the lake’s dark waters. The monster specialised in grabbing children and taking them under. Even during heat waves they wouldn’t dip their toes, especially when I would pretend that I was being pulled below. To this day, my little girl — not so little any more — ventures in only knee-high. My son, once grown up, called me a bullshitter and swam the length of it. 

The problem with climbing a mountain is the mythology of it. I’ve been up Olympus, but there were too many tourist signs to feel Zeus’s presence, or even Apollo’s. Not to mention Dionysus, 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 run wild about the goings-on of long ago among the gods, I spent the time urging him on. I regret to this day not having gone up alone. It is an easy track, and anyone can do it. (More about knees later on.) The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological ruse that keeps fear in check and keeps one going up. 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, and some good Dole wine and some brown bread make it even better. 

The Swiss have mainly two things to look at: lakes and mountains. For some this might sound depressing, but for an old sea lover like me 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 are soon to make redundant. The Alps were and are Europe’s most majestic mountain range. Many more people have died climbing the Alps than any other range on earth. Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci climbed what may have been Monte Rosa, near Zermatt, and the legend is based on his impressions, which may have been exaggerated as 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 


There are other legends, slightly more gruesome. Pilatus, a mountain near Geneva, was said to be home to a race of malformed and malevolent sub-humans, and its peaks inhabited by demons of every kind. Once Pontius Pilate had committed suicide rather than face the wrath of Tiberius, his body was weighed down with rocks and hurled into the Tiber. The weather turned bad and Rome saw the kind of rain that London experienced this month. That’s when the wise Romans recovered his body and took it to Vienna where it was thrown into the Rhône. Again, storms and floods and tempests ensued, and once again the wise Viennese fished him out and took him to Lausanne, where he was thrown into Lac Leman. Once again a catastrophe followed and once again he was removed, this time to a lake above Geneva. You know the rest. His wife Procla was also dumped into a nearby lake. The storms have been phenomenal ever since. Including those of last week.

Until 1741 the Alps were believed to be inhabited by dragons. Reliable witnesses compiled a list of what these dragons looked like. One had the body of a snake and the head of a cat. Others were snakes with bat’s wings. Some had scaly legs and a two-pronged tail. Their eyes sparkled horribly. Then two fool Englishmen went up and reported that the tails were glaciers, the eyes were mountain lightning, and the curled-up tail was La Mer de Glace. Leave it to two English bores to ruin Mont Blanc for ever by exposing it to something far worse than dragons with scaly legs — mass tourism. It’s been downhill ever since. 

Just like Taki. Already crippled by severe arthritis in both ankles after 60 years of high-end sport, I tried a rather fancy mawashi geri (round kick) last week, and a terrible sound of ligament, muscle and bone ripping was heard all the way to Lausanne. The standing leg collapsed, the knee gone for the duration. Mind you, it could have been a dragon let loose by some avalanche that got me. Pontius Pilate’s curse yet again.