Monday, January 15, 2007

Business & Pleasure, Part the Second

Continued from a previous post, we rejoin our protagonist the morning after a rather painful return to the ski slopes, high in the magical Bernese Oberland.

Just after dawn on Sunday morning, I limped back to the cable car through light drizzle; a blanket of low cloud gave the valley a rather melancholy look. Rather than continue to Murren, I stopped at Winteregg; at this height, the weather was a little better - snow was falling. An old chairlift dropped me off at the head of a couple of friendly-looking blue runs - deserted, except for a small group practicing with a rescue sleigh. Making cautious turns on the empty pistes, I soon realised that something had changed overnight: my balance, and the rhythm of my turns were transformed.

I rode the Winteregg lift once more, but this time turned my skis south, towards Murren. Emboldened by an uneventful run down a red piste, I decided to give Birg one more try. Good decision: long before it reached Birg, the cable car broke through into clear skies. Although some cloud remained on the Schilthorn and across the valley a mantle of cumulus hung across the summits of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau; a brisk breeze whipped around the Birg, and I began the traverse that leads from the peak into the valley below.

Minutes later, I knew my old "ski legs" were back at last; I let my turns lengthen, relishing the freezing wind on my face as my skis cut a fresh path down near-empty pistes. The vanished clouds had left a sprinkling of fresh powder, and each turn kicked another puff of snow into that clear, clear air; as the piste steepened, the falling powder began to keep pace with me, and I, tightening my turns, cut through the tumbling debris of my own descent.

Riding a chairlift back up so as to have another run to the Kandahar station, I had the leisure to discover an eerily beautiful example of turbulence in action; the high ridges above me were continuously throwing off weird eddies in the air - currents all turned in upon themselves, horizontal twisters, made visible to me by snow crystals they carried, more brilliant than any diamond against the deep, deep blue of the high-altitude sky.

That morning is still fresh in my mind; the thrill of rediscovery as I took again the steepest line down the piste, rhythm and balance restored, careless of gradients that I would hardly dare tackle on foot; how the cloud veil fell silently into the valleys, until sheer self-preservation brought me to a halt at the margin of the piste, so that I could stand in silent and awestruck wonder, that any living land could be so beautiful.

A week on, my business in Stuttgart completed, a certain date in February beckons from my calendar; more Alpine adventures to follow...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Business & Pleasure

Business brought me to Europe; pleasure led to arrive on a Friday rather than a Sunday, in Zurich rather than Stuttgart, and to take a succession of (very punctual!) trains to the village of Lauterbrunnen, in which I arrived around 22:30 to find the valley moonlit and snowbound.

The next morning, I rode a cable car up to Grutschalp; our cable car was met by a tiny two-carriage train, and a gigantic luggage tray was lifted by robotic forklift from beneath the cable car on onto a kind of trailer on the train. After a minute or two, we moved off, gliding almost silently in the direction of the village of Murren; a short run, but one of the most beautiful train journeys that I have ever taken. The track traversed a very steep slope, about 2,000ft above the valley floor; all about us stood a pine forest, with snow thick on the boughs. Between the trees, I caught glimpses of an epic scene to the east - the great trio of the Eiger, Monsch, and Jungfrau, all over 13,000ft in height, the old green ice of the gravity-defying glaciers on their northward faces just visible beneath thick blankets of fresh snow; on their lower slopes, great pine forests grow on improbably steep slopes and at the very lip of tremendous cliffs; here and there, mysteriously treeless ground reveals the violence done by the avalanches from winters past.

Skiers rise past the infamous Eiger Nordwand

I last saw Murren on a misty day in late May; this time, I arrived in bright sunshine to find the narrow streets covered not, as I remembered, with wet tarmac, but with snow. Murren is a car-free village (except for a single 4 wheel drive taxi), and people with things to carry (such as luggage or small children) tow small wooden sleighs behind them (just like the ones in Victorian Christmas cards). Although there appear to have been one or two unfortunate lapses of planning in the ‘60s or ‘70s, much of the village is postcard-pretty. A short stroll took me to a cable car, which whisked me to a height of 2600M or so - which is where the trouble began!

The rest of Saturday, I remember as a blur of majestic, awe-inspiring landscapes, skies of a blue that verged on Indigo - and a regular series of spectacular wipeouts, in which practically every piece of equipment became liberated at one time or another. At one point, in fact, I was under the impression that a particularly violent fall had sundered the bones of one of my favourite legs; on another occasion, after a fumbled turn at the edge of a steep and unguarded drop, I departed the mountain altogether, my descent only arrested by the pliant but sturdy branches of a serendipitously placed bush. After 8 hours or so of such performances, it was a very sorry-looking figure indeed who steered gingerly past a piste-basher beginning its night shift, removed his skies, and trudged slowly, painfully, back to his lodgings.

To be continued...