Magazine article The Spectator

Nancy to the Rescue

Magazine article The Spectator

Nancy to the Rescue

Article excerpt

TRYING to arrest tyrants like Robert Mugabe is a tiring, stressful business. Even I need a break. So I headed for Palm Springs, California, to indulge my passion for mountain hiking.

Palm Springs is no ordinary desert resort. A mere half a mile from the main street, mountains rise steeply to nearly 11,000 feet. During winter, while the town basks in 28 deg C sunshine, the peaks are sub-zero and snow-capped.

The morning after my arrival, I set off for the summit of Mount San Jacinto (10,804 feet). Surprisingly, I was the only hiker. But that was fine by me. Like Greta Garbo, sometimes I love to be alone. From 8,000 feet upwards, the air was a chilly 2 deg C and the trail was dotted with snowdrifts. With the sun blazing fiercely through the cloudless, thin atmosphere, I soon worked up a sweat. Everyone warned me about the cold, but not about the heat. I didn't bring any shorts. What to do? Since no one else was hiking, I did the practical thing. Stripping off my jacket, shirt and trousers, I stuffed them in my backpack and headed upwards through the snow, wearing nothing but my boots and underpants.

The combination of icy wind and warm sunshine on raw skin felt deliciously exhilarating and vaguely sensuous. Or perhaps the oxygen-deficient atmosphere was messing with my brain cells. Hiking through boulder-strewn pine forests, across wildflower meadows and up snow-covered valleys, I was deliriously happy. As I progressed higher, the snow got thicker and the trail vanished under deep drifts. Eventually it became ascent by trial and error. I began to leave marks in the snow to aid my return journey.

At lunchtime I reached Wellman's Divide, a ridge between two valleys, at just over 9,000 feet. Climbing on a giant boulder overhanging an escarpment, I had an awesome view of a dozen lower peaks. My glorious solitude was, alas, rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a panting, unsteady fellow hiker. Gary was a macho, all-American kind of guy in his mid-forties. My near-nakedness startled him. His obvious exhaustion alarmed me. I asked whether he was fit enough to make it to the top of San Jacinto. He appeared to take this suggestion as a slight to his manhood, and took off along the summit trail.

After lunch, I resumed my upward trek. The snow got deeper, the trail tougher and the temperature colder. Time to don my shirt and look respectable again. I soon caught up with Gary. He was puffing and disoriented. Despite my attempts to dissuade him from continuing, he remained adamant. Concerned for his wellbeing, I felt obliged to walk with him. …

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