He can’t see Mont Blanc for cloud. But Itchy can picture its smooth saddle. He knows it’s there and that’s enough. When you can see it, the mountain doesn’t look so big from Chamonix, though the distance is further than from Everest base camp to summit. It’s from everywhere else that Mont Blanc looks big. From the Three Valleys, or the Southern Alps or Val d’Isere, hanging in the background, like Mount Fuji in a Samurai painting. You can love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it; it’s there staring you in the face like an angry drunk. Come and have a go if you think you’re tough enough. So you do.
If you’re in advertising, sooner or later you will move to New York, to be the best you have to. Finance London. Fashion Paris. If you’re an actor you go to LA. Where at least, when you fail and flounder, you will have the sympathy of a city that knows how tough a business it is. You can swallow your pride and leave, or stay and throw your genes into the pool; add to an even more beautiful next-generation, just as doomed to prescription drugs and disappointment. If you like Winter—if you like Winter so much that you like even the word “Winter”—if you long for snow and are willing to work at whatever keeps you in it, then sooner or later you come to Cham. That’s just how it is.
The first time Itchy came here even the road up was like a call to arms. It’s raised on great soaring stone pillars, which look like they were looted from the temples of the Titans, but it feels as if it was made before even those pre-gods. As if it surged from the centre of the Earth with the same unfathomable energy that forced up the crag-ragged ridges on either side. It’s like a magic road, a way that leads you to Narnia or the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth: suspended halfway up a valley; immersed in cloud and expectation; leading learned and unwary alike to pray at pitiless Mont Blanc. Chamonix is indeed a mythical place, a mystical place: where civilisation confronted the wilderness and for once they agreed to differ; undefeated; the undisputed free-ride capital; the death-sport centre of the world. All of the first mountains ever assailed were climbed from here. The history of Alpinism itself is a history of Cham. Chamonix is where it all began.
The snow is fresh, which lures you away from the pistes. Away from the snowblades and the queues. Out in the back-country where it’s so beautiful that it hurts your eyes and heals your hangover. Even in the midst of wilderness, alcohol beckons to Itchy. Like the sea from a beach. Like the sea from a thirsty life-raft.
He doesn’t even shout for Sean to stop, up ahead. Leaves him boot-packing his way up along the ridge, skis over his shoulder like Napoleonic musket, footsteps making Itchy’s own progress easier. Itchy takes out his hipflask and pauses while he has a swig, embarrassed in case Sean sees him drinking this early in the morning, weirdly, because he knows it’s hardly something Sean would care about.
The air glistens with snowflakes so tiny that you can only see them at all when the light catches. It is either the barest hint of moisture, in skies too cold to hold any, or fairy dust. The air is so bitter that the wet of Itchy’s lips start to stick to the rim of his hipflask as he swigs, even though it’s been inside his pocket. A strand of his lip-skin stays on the steel while he fumbles to do the lid up with fingers already numbing out of their mittens.
At the top of the Arolette couloir they both stop and respect the view before they start down, not ruining the moment with much conversation, getting their breath back, sharing.
They may be in Switzerland, Itchy is never entirely sure where the boundary line lies up here. The Emmosson Dam, definitely in Switzerland, is distantly before them, an impressive man-made monster, surrounded by natural ones that dwarf it. Dinosaur footprints were found when it was built.
People like Chamonix the same way they like dinosaurs, it’s all about superlatives: the longest; the highest; the biggest; the most dangerous. The slopes they are about to ski are reckoned to be the most avalanche prone in the valley, but Itchy is pretty confident about the risk, the snow pack seems very stable, even if the official scale is still on three out of five. The wind has carved the pitches and gullies below them into dunes, like a caster-sugar desert, but they don’t seem overly loaded. Though Itchy is no real expert, and those who are—the high mountain guides—are statistically far more likely to die in an avalanche than anyone else.
As he is about to set off, Itchy notices the snowflake trapped on the black of his sleeve. And it is as perfect as the cliché. And unique—just like everything else.
The couloir snow holds. It’s dense where the wind has packed it at the top, grinding the flakes together to become like river-silt. Itchy grunts as he fights his way through it. Forcing jump turns that become more fluent as the snow softens, but it’s still maybe forty-five degrees.
He sees Sean, ahead of him, let fly as the slope shallows and widens beyond the couloir. Releasing his battle cry and leaning to drag a hand through the snow as his skis open up. Bouncing over wind-blown waves. Arms and poles like high-wire balance tools, but flinging about at epileptic pace. Sean skis like a cowboy rides: untaught; uncaring; unafraid. But he is still elegance itself.
Grace comes through speed. Especially off-piste. If you are going fast and your body is in the wrong position you will fall. So constantly you compensate, dancing somewhere between boxer and ballerina. And this thrill of nearly falling is where the pleasure comes from, when the adrenaline pumps. And the better you get, the harder you have to push—faster, steeper, narrower, deeper—to be at that point of nearly not making it. To feel the rush. The jazz. So the more devastating will be the consequences if you don’t make it. But knowing this makes the adrenaline come fiercer. Furthers you, brings skills you didn’t know you had. Animal instincts. And also ups the dosage. Heightens the addiction. Leaves you exhausted and craving more. And knowing that to feel this same level of exhilaration again you will need to be going a little faster still. A little closer to that edge you cannot infinitely stay the right side off. Terminal velocity.
Itchy suspects there is even a formula. That a mathematician of adrenaline studies might prove it is impossible for you not to fail catastrophically if you continue. You have to pull off the road, or carry on to the end. Only it’s not really a road, it is a spiral drive-way, like in a multi-story car park: but one that can only end in one place. Like a corkscrew. Like a life.
Excerpt courtesy of Serpent’s Tail from “Cham,” by Jonathan Trigell.