I have been obsessed with mountains for as long as I can remember, which is odd given that I never saw one until I was 20. I even have a favourite – it’s Mount Aspiring in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
I’m talking about proper mountains – soaring snow-capped alpine peaks not the dull green lumps which pass for mountains in the British Isles; the type of mountains that take away the breath of casual observers and the lives of under-prepared climbers.
As a child I would spend hours absorbed in accounts of the conquering of the Eiger, Everest and K2, tales of Mallory, Hillary, Sherpa Tenzing and Bonnington, with my grandfather’s maps of Europe and Asia spread out all over the carpet.
What was the source of this obsession? A mountaineering parent who scaled the rockfaces of continental Europe ? Some distant relative who spent the 60s blissed out in a haze of marijuana in a commune in the foothills of the Himalaya?
It was Ski Sunday.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Sunday afternoon tea was still A Big Thing. Every Sunday evening at around 5 o’clock, we’d sit gathered around the television for that week’s instalment of Ski Sunday, munching on sticky slices of Jamaican Ginger Cake, all bobbing up and down and humming along to the famous theme tune. ( Admit it, you’re singing it now aren’t you?)
My parents had never skied in their lives. The closest we ever got to an Alp was the occasional bar of Toblerone. Despite being geographically challenged, every Sunday throughout the winter we would be glued to the screen and the exploits of Franz Klammer, Arty Weirather and plucky British skier Conrad Bartelski. We were all experts on the downhill, the slalom, the super-G and the ski jumping. (“90 metres? I could do better than that in my slippers.”) What we didn’t know about Val Gardena, Kitzbuhel and Garmisch Partenkirken was nobody’s business. For a family that rarely ventured beyond Stratford on Avon or the Cotswolds, this was some achievement.
At the bottom of the colliery terrace where we lived was Brown’s fish and chip shop. On the wall , just above a shelf of condiments and bottles of panda pop, was a grease-spotted poster of Lake Louise in Canada. Every Friday afternoon I’d be sent to buy two fish lots and a couple of battered sausages; whilst standing in the queue I’d marvel at this miraculous vista of snow-covered mountains reflected in the turquoise lake at their feet, and I’d try to distinguish between leaves and splashes of chip fat. Invariably I’d look it up in my “Times Atlas of the World” after supper and ponder upon the likelihood of ever seeing such places for myself.
One year our next door neighbours went on holiday to Connecticut (unheard of in those days) and brought me back a Barbie doll, the first I’d ever seen. Barbies hadn’t then reached British shores. This wasn’t just any Barbie. This was a “Gold Medal Ski Barbie” complete with slinky red velour ski suit, yellow plastic skis and poles, and a tiny Pom Pom hat perched jauntily on her silky blonde nylon locks.
I was 5 years old and Ski Barbie was my role model.
My mountain addiction continued into adulthood. I have hiked up Austrian Alps and skied down French ones; I have followed the snaking paths of glaciers at opposite ends of the earth, in New Zealand and in Norway. I have explored White Mountains in New Hampshire and Green Mountains in Vermont.
I have flown over Mount Aspiring to Milford Sound in mid winter in a tiny 4 seater aircraft; I have leapt off Treble Cone from 3300 feet up into the clouds below, attached to nothing more than some string, a bit of silk and a chap named Richard.
I have stood at the bottom of the ski jump in Innsbruck, amidst hoards of fur-clad drunken Austrians, Norwegians, Italians, Germans and Russians. I have been deafened by the din of cowbells, air horns and laughter, blinking away snowflakes, warming my hands on a cup of steaming hot gluhwein.
Every year my son asks if we can go Spain for a fortnight “like normal people”. Every year I tell him we’re not “normal people”.
My love for mountains has never diminished. I still fantasise about trekking to Everest Base Camp, through hidden gorges in Bhutan, and across the Andes on the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. I yearn to visit the wilderness of Patagonia and to follow the gold rush trail through the Yukon in northern Canada. I still harbour hopes of seeing Lake Louise without the veneer of chip fat.
I finally learned to ski when I was 37. Despite all those hours spent watching the world’s finest downhillers, I’m incredibly bad at it. Stiff-limbed and with an inability to turn right, it’s fair to say my technique owes more to Ski Barbie than Franz Klammer. I remain bitterly disappointed at my failure to live up to my childhood expectations. Ski Sunday ruined my life.
You can watch the Kaiser himself, Franz Klammer, here https://youtu.be/iBwjysMJBFg
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command -The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020)