My name is Lucy and I’m an Alp-aholic.
I’ve just returned from a week in the Alps and am suffering from mountain withdrawal. This is a common condition. Most people with any sort of affection for hills who find themselves living in flat places will have suffered from it at some point, whether their appreciation is athletic or just aesthetic. I look up, expecting to see rugged slopes and there’s nothing there expect a few mocking seagulls and a few filthy feral pigeons. It’s dreadfully disappointing and makes the London landscape seem pointless and puny.
The only thing that could conceivably be described as a mountain around me at the moment is my laundry pile. So, to put off having to deal with that, and in a dubious attempt at therapy, I’m sitting here chain-drinking cups of tea and blogging for the first time in nearly a year. It’s a slightly different subject from previous posts, so apologies to anyone looking for mutant squirrels or zombie pigeons – there’ll be more of that this summer. For now, it’s the serious subject of Alpine addiction and mountain withdrawal.
I find the phenomenon similar to the overwhelming sense of dreariness that I felt as a child after the removal of Christmas lights and decorations every January. I suffered from a mild form of Alpine addiction in those days too thanks to several summer holidays in the Alps with my family.
My parents have never been keen on the idea of sliding or slipping down steep slopes, so skiing was never an option, but they both like hiking. My father is also very keen on the minority sport of driving over hair-raising, rock-strewn mountain roads in manifestly inappropriate cars. As children, my sisters and I didn’t mind where we went as long as there was chocolate and swimming to be had, so the Alps were perfect.
In those pre-teen days, the withdrawal symptoms weren’t as pronounced: a mild malaise at the lack of majesty in the landscape, a general ennui at the emptiness of the skies. Hormones, however, are notoriously troublesome when it comes to making bad moods worse, and the onset of puberty proved that Alpine addiction is no exception.
The first big crash came after a school ski trip when I was 13. And it was big – an avalanche of angst. Admittedly, this had quite a lot to do with my having developed an enormous crush on a blonde haired, blue-eyed Swedish ski instructor names Magnus. Six-foot Swedes notwithstanding, the sudden lack of mountains that January 20 years ago made life seem as flat and dull as the bare, brown fields that surrounded our house.
Since then, my life’s been a series of sporadic but hedonistic mountain binges. Student summers and autumns were spent in orgies of hill walking in Ireland and Scotland. There were a couple more ski sojourns to France, a transatlantic trip or two to take in the Rockies, and even a two-day train ride through the Taurus Mountains from Turkey to Syria.
Most recently, I’ve been getting my hill-thrills almost exclusively from the Scottish Highlands, and, thanks to Mr SB, have found a way to increase the intensity of the hit tenfold. It was his idea to take a couple of days’ stag stalking on our honeymoon. This not only got me hooked on hunting, but also transformed the way I saw the hills around me more effectively than any mind-altering drug.
As I learnt to look and listen to the land around me, I noticed the birds and animals, the plants, the wind, the water that gurgled through unseen gullies. Of course, these things had always been there, but now they were brought beautifully into focus. The same could be said for the hidden work of human hands that helps keep the hills alive with the sounds of nature.
The mix of life, landscape and meteorology makes a symphony for all the senses at once, and, on sensitively-managed moors and mountains, this is largely thanks to the unseen efforts of gamekeepers and stalkers. As with the wildlife itself, however, it can be practically invisible to the uninitiated so often goes unappreciated.
These insights made mountains even better for me, but they’ve also increased the addiction. Like dragging more deeply on a cigarette, they see to it that a higher dose of the drug gets into the system: they make the highs higher, but the lows awful. Whenever Mr SB, Miss SB and I return from the Highlands these days we’re horrible people for 10 days afterwards – cross, snappish, prone to blue furies, and seeking solace in John Buchan and single malt.
Addiction at altitude
Last week’s Alpine jaunt was the first time I’d been to France – or anywhere outside Britain and Ireland – for almost six years. I’d forgotten just how big the Alps are and had to make a conscious effort to stop my jaw hitting the floor on the coach as we wound our way up to Val d’Isère. I recovered my composure and cursed the fact that I hadn’t brought my binoculars as eagles and vultures soared among paragliders, taking advantage of the thermal currents in the strong April sunshine.
Over the week that followed, we were phenomenally lucky with the weather and I got properly plastered on mountain air and panoramic views. These were topped up with the occasional sighting of marmots and chamois, a great ski group, and good company back in the chalet (plus the occasional bière…).
What goes up…
But what goes up must come down, in our case onto the Tarmac at Gatwick. The physical landing was smooth enough but the sight of the M25 was brutal enough to kick start the post-holiday hangover. Within minutes, I found myself fretfully browsing ski websites and weather forecasts, looking to them to give me what Surrey could not.
Two days on, I have managed to limit my Alp-aholic web activity to a couple of hours a day. I hope to be down to one weather check and two Facebook photo trawls by this weekend. In the meantime, I must get beyond base camp on the laundry mountain and tackle the North Face of the Ironing.