How I reached a higher plane of being

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The Independent Culture
THE QC was pilot. Fair enough; it was his aeroplane. Like most pilots, I normally hate it when someone else is in charge, but the QC inspires confidence: grizzled beard, Greek fisherman's hat, control column gripped in his knotty fist. You feel that if something goes wrong he will simply argue the damned thing into the air.

So I just sat there quietly, metabolising, a giant grumpy liver in a grey skin sack. It's the altitude. The altitude's a bugger. You wake up fighting for breath, and your cold sore comes back. They say it's the ultra-violet light in the mountains, but that's old hat now since they discovered Zovirax, the nip-in-the-bud miracle cure. Nowadays your cold sore comes back because it knows you left your little tube of Zovirax back at home, in England, under a 300ft cloudbase in the rain.

The QC said: "Ready for departure," and the young woman in the control tower murmured acquiescently into our headsets. The subtext seemed to be: "Go if you must, but hurry back; I am waiting for you, alone, here in my tower." My instinct was to abandon the flight, taxi back to the ramp, shut down the engines and scamper up the control tower steps, three at a time, to begin kissing the inside of her wrists. You work your way up, you see, marking the place with a Biro when it's time to pause for lunch.

But it wasn't up to me. My role was to keep my mouth shut and metabolise. The QC was flying. A cartoon grin appeared between the hat and the beard. "Five-one Hotel rolling," he said, but it sounded like "Avast ye!" Three hundred horsepower grumbled angrily under the cowling, and we trundled slowly over the precipice to our certain deaths.

L'Altiport de Courchevel is a mountain airfield. There's a flat area at the top where you park, and worry, and yearn for the controller's delicate wrists; and then it all falls away suddenly: an absurd downslope followed by a sheer drop. Frightening? No. Actually, yes. You think: "The runway's vanished! We're going to die!" and then you rumble over the lip, gathering speed, and the runway's still there, and you think: "The precipice at the end! We're still going to die!"

But you don't. Long before the precipice, urged on by the slope, you sail into the air. A gentle bump as you hit the wind blowing along the valley below, then up you go, leaving the package-tour skiers to turn into maladroit dots, stumbling around down there on the slopes while you climb into a pure blue sky.

And you look out at the Alps and you think: "Alps! Jesus Christ, Alps, all around us! And the QC hasn't noticed them, and we're going to die," and you want to hit him sharply on the top of his Greek fisherman's hat and shout "Alps! Sodding Alps! Alps ahoy!" but you don't because everyone knows it's better to die than seem a sissy.

That is how things go, in the Alps. So I sat there quietly, reflecting how much I had been enjoying metabolising, now that an Alp was about to stop me doing it, until at the last moment the QC banked steeply, swung confidently around the Alp, over a ridge and out into a tremendous vista of bigger Alps, with even bigger ones beyond them, and, in the distance, Mont Blanc towering over the lot.

We flew over peaks and saddles and valleys, climbing to 12,500ft, turned north-east over a dam at the end of a frozen lake, and there was Mont Blanc, more than 3,000ft above us and just yards off the wing-tip.

I had seen it years ago, when I was nine. We had driven down the valley to Chamonix, my sister and I dozing in the back. I had no concept of mountains at all, but towards dusk my parents stopped the car, woke me and said: "Look." There it was: the White Mountain, almost 16,000ft high, glowing an incandescent flamingo rose in the setting sun; and I remember thinking: I can't describe this. I can't put words together to tell myself what it is like.

That came as a shock. Even as a small child, I was a tireless self-commentator, conducting an endless, drivelling interior monologue about everything that crossed my path. Neurophysiologists tell us that we live life at a quarter-second's remove - the time it takes our nervous system to respond to the outside world - but I was always at least five seconds behind reality by the time I had described it, and so made it real.

But Mont Blanc was different. In an instant I saw that it couldn't be described, so I didn't bother trying. It was simply and unassailably itself; more completely itself than anything I had encountered, and in that moment reality regained the five seconds I had been stealing from it since I first became conscious.

I went back to my old ways, a recidivist, immediately afterwards. There were occasional lapses, but they were instantly pounced upon: "Good grief, here I am, experiencing the actual moment without commentating about it," I would cheerfully commentate to myself; "Hang on, no I'm not, bugger me."

And now, decades later, it had happened again. There was Mont Blanc. I could say that I had expected it to be smaller close to, like a film star, but it wasn't; it was bigger. I could say that, as we flew over the Valle Blanche and past the Aiguille du Midi, I looked down into Chamonix (where I had stood, aged nine, on a bridge over a frantic Alpine river, with my mother, neither of us knowing what was in store), I found a tear in my eye for the child I once was and what I might have become. I could say that we saw two mountaineers on the summit, and we waggled our wings to them and they waved back. But that would all be hindsight. At the time, there was nothing but perception: cognition held in abeyance, the condition of primal bliss.

How strange that I should need a journey, an aeroplane, and an entire QC, to experience that reality again. And how odd that I should need to write about it. !

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