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).
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.
Other legends are slightly more gruesome. Pilatus was said to be the home to a race of malformed and malevolent subhumans, 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. That’s when 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 river. 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 Léman. Once again a catastrophe followed and once again he was removed, this time to a lake above Geneva. His wife Procla was also dumped into a nearby lake. The storms have been phenomenal ever since, including those of last week.
Until 1741 people believed that dragons inhabited the Alps. Reliable witnesses compiled a list of what these dragons looked like. One had a snake’s body and a cat’s head. Others were snakes with a 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 forever 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 on both ankles after 60 years of high-end sport, I tried a rather fancy mawashi geri (round kick) last week, and the terrible sound of ligament, muscle, and bone being ripped apart was heard all the way to Lausanne. The standing leg collapsed, my knee gone for the duration. It could have been a dragon let loose by some avalanche that got me. Pontius Pilate’s curse yet again.
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