Magazine article The Spectator

Best Foot Forward

Magazine article The Spectator

Best Foot Forward

Article excerpt


Walking up mountains is not only healthy, it gives a man time to think. In fact, climbing in solitude offers one marvellous inner adventures, with epiphanies being the order of the day.

There are no boulders where I climb, just a lot of green, steep hills separated by gorges, with lots of cows to keep me company.

About 15 years ago I tried climbing up steep mountains tied to a rope, but it wasn't for me. I suffer from vertigo and the way down was hell. But I did manage to conquer the steepest overhang of Videmanette, the highest mountain in the region. Never again.

The fact that the only thing preventing me from flying off into space was a rope attached to a man above me and two thin steel picks helped make up my mind. Judo, tennis, skiing and karate, yes, overhangs, no.

Still, I occasionally dream that I'm fighting for my life perched on some perilous slope and what a pleasure it always is when I wake up. The pain in one's chest when walking up a mountain is the only thing that bothers me nowadays. The legs can go on forever but the lungs ain't what they used to be.

The booze and the smokes do not help, but I get around the lung problem with frequent stops, even a smoke now and then. The few people who walk up mountains around here usually attach all sorts of contraptions to their chests and necks, tiny gadgets to monitor their heartbeat and blood pressure. A bit like having a brain scan between rounds while boxing. A generation ago they would have been laughed off a cliff; today the laugh's on me, or so I'm told.

A week ago, climbing with Charlie Glass under blue skies, fresh mountain breezes and a few puffs of Tiepolo clouds, it was as good as it gets. As we walked, the old wedding cake, the Prisoner of Zenda Palace Hotel got smaller and smaller, and as we plugged on the air got thinner and the legs heavier.

Getting to the top is a wonderful feeling, because one did what one set out to do, and also because the torture is over. Mind you, the real torture is on the way down, when the knees take all the weight as well as the beating, instead of the much-abused heart.

(Anyway, my ticker is by now immune, what with the way my fiancée -- the deputy editor of The Spectator -- has treated me lately. ) We crossed wheat-covered fields, forests with sweeps of meadows and wild flowers, smelled rosemary and cow dung, and then, suddenly, we were in thin air and free from pylons and other modern inventions man uses against nature.

As I said, I like to walk or climb alone, but as I hadn't seen Charlie in a couple of years -- he has been busy writing a book about Americans in Paris during the occupation -- we shot the breeze all the way up but I didn't do much day-dreaming or thinking. …

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