Strewth! Butch Boris goes skiing with no paraphanalia, just a tweed jacket! Eccentric or what? Boris describes in the Daily Telegraph
, yet again, he likes to live dangerously.
“Strewth, I thought: look at the size of that thing. There it was, beetling in the distance – a scowling black triangular cliff surmounted by a quiff of wind-whipped snow. It looked like the Eiger, for goodness sake. We were never going to get to the top of that. These people had to be joking, I thought. Weren’t they?
A few months ago I had a brilliant idea for a cheapo weekend break. I love skiing in the Italian alps, and especially the magnificent Val d’Ayas that leads to Monte Rosa
. I had always wondered what it was like to go there in the summer.
So I had truffled up some low-cost plane tickets to Turin, and for ages I had been dreaming about it. I saw a kind of air freshener advertisement, with a bit of breakfast cereal thrown in: upland pastures with evergreen scents and butterflies; lovely streams to splash in; the clonk of cowbells – that kind of thing. At any rate, that was the concept I had sold to my wife Marina: ambling gently through the buttercups followed by prosciutto and prosecco.
I emailed a friend who runs a hotel in Champoluc and sketched out my ideas. He responded enthusiastically, and said that I would need a guide. A guide? I emailed back. Surely we would be OK on our own. Why would we need a guide? “Because of the crevasses,” he said – and I must confess that this warning totally failed to sink in. When we turned up at the hotel on the Friday night, it was clear that we had come ill-prepared for what our hosts had in mind. Gloves? I said. Hats? Goggles? We didn’t have any of that malarkey. As for waterproof jackets and trousers – well, I proposed to go in my tweed jacket, if that was all right with them. They laughed, in a slightly incredulous way. Stefano, our guide, indicated where he proposed to take us, and that was when I began – as I have said – to feel a twinge of alarm. The mountain did seem very high, and very big – probably one of the largest and coldest objects in the whole European landscape. I looked anxiously at Marina, but she seemed to be taking things in her stride. The truth is that I don’t think either of us fully grasped, even then, what we were letting ourselves in for. The next morning we set out at 10.30 with Stephano, and I was relieved to find that we were going by car. We drove up and up in a Mitsubishi 4 X 4, and, as we passed the pistes, I marvelled at the expense and energy that goes into bulldozing the rocks out the way. The result is that in the summer the ski slopes become lovely undulating meadows. I thought perhaps we might stop, and meander among the wildflowers. Oh no. Stephano had other ideas. We finally came to a place that already seemed impossibly high – at the top of the highest ski-lift. Was that it, then? Was our excursion complete? It was not. By this stage I was starting to feel the effects of hauling my 17 stone up the mountain, and Stephano made a sympathetic puffing noise, like a walrus. “Are you all right, Boris?” he asked. “We can always stop or go back if it is not possible for you.” Well, there is only one way to respond to a challenge like that, isn’t there? We kept going, Marina much more nimbly than me. By mid afternoon we came at last to a “rifugio” – a kind of pinewood cabin just below the snowline, where Stephano proposed that we spend the night. In the morning, said our guide, we would make for the summit. Why wait? I said, with all the bravura I could muster. Why not keep going? Stephano looked at me and smiled. We passed a fitful night, surrounded by exceedingly serious Italian mountaineers, all of them bedecked with ropes and pitons and ice-axes, and all of them roasted by the sun to the colour of Nutella. At 4 am we rose and put on miner’s headlamps and crampons – the first time I have ever worn crampons – and began the final assault. By now the whole mission was turning in my imagination into some Everest disaster epic
. We staggered on up a wide and steep plain of ice and snow, fissured by crevasses. As the wind started to bite us – penetrating even the waterproof I had borrowed from the Mayor of Ayas – my morale began to sink yet further. I fell over as I negotiated a crevasse, and as I tottered to my feet I asked Stephano if we could declare victory. “Isn’t this pretty much the summit?” I asked. It wasn’t, said our guide. For two more hours we toiled up a snow ridge so terrifying that we were commanded not to look on either side – an instruction I disobeyed. I instantly felt queasy. We were walking up a knife edge, with certain death on either side. Finally we were on the top, just as the sun came up, and I wish I could record that I felt full of some spiritual insight or peace. As we tried to keep our balance on that small patch of stamped-down snow, I thought how lucky it was that Marina was so good at climbing, and I wondered how on earth we were going to get down from this 4226 metre spot and catch our plane from Turin; and as I looked at Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn
, gleaming in the dawn, I am afraid I yearned to climb them, too.”