Above the Clouds

Simple pleasures are sometimes found in the strangest places

On The Town | Christian Cummins | March 2009

A skier embelishes in the rare view from the wintery Austrian Alps (Photos: Christian Cummins)

"I’ve always enjoyed looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty."  

– Gavin Pretor-Pinney, 

The Cloudspotter’s Guide, 2006


Everyone has their addictions, and mine is one of the most costly – being above the clouds at sunset. Were I a fan of starched uniforms, multiple dials, and plastic cutlery, then perhaps I could have become an airline pilot and be paid for my pleasure. As it is, I have to don the thermal underwear, buy extortionate lift passes, and pray for perfect conditions.

As the sun begins to sink, you sit at the top of the mountain, sipping small but robust coffees, warming your back against the smooth tiles of the porcelain stove, quietly playing cards. Because, from all your French literature lessons with the moustachioed Monsieur Raymond, the only detail you can actually remember was that Jean-Paul Sartre must have had skiers in mind (both helmeted and non-helmeted), when he concluded that hell is, in fact, "other people." Blessed are those who wait, you decide…

When they’ve all gone, as have the last dregs of your caffeine fix, the hill belongs to you and your friends alone. So, you venture out, the snow squeaking like a field of mice beneath you, you bash your boots hard with your poles to loosen off the snow, and you step into your bindings with a solid, satisfactory clunk. The wind blows little eddies of snow around your boots as you fasten them up tightly, then take a deep, lungful gulp of the frosty air. You straighten to look down towards the valley where the pink-tinged cauliflower tufts of the cumulus clouds lie like a sea from which the icy mountain peaks rise like a rugged archipelago.

The top layer of powdery snow that had softened under the glare of the midday sun has now frozen again in the rapidly dropping temperature and so, when you launch yourself off the edge of the mountain into your first turn, the skis make a loud scratching noise instead of the smooth hiss of an hour ago, and it all seems frighteningly loud in the silence of the mountain. But the edges grip in easily and smoothly, swinging you around like a train on rails, and then there is a swoop and sudden rush as the run suddenly dips down steeper and your knees are bent like a grasshopper with your stomach left briefly behind.

But you are in a rhythm now and the clouds are rushing nearer as if you were a skydiver, and soon you’ll be in them and the light will have gone. But for now you are in heaven, and nothing negative exists: No financial crisis, no over-draughts, and no concerned bank managers, neither terror nor anti-terror, and no global warming. That’s all back down in the darkened valley many turns away.

All that can wait. For now, there is just the gentle scratch of your skis as you float along, nestled in the hand of God.

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