Andy Martin: Man About World

Skiing in Shangri-La, we all melted away

"Why don't you ski down Mount Everest with me?" It was a siren-call with a French accent. The ultimate high: after that (or quite possibly during) I could die happy. My friend Pierre, one of those muscular mountain men from around

"Why don't you ski down Mount Everest with me?" It was a siren-call with a French accent. The ultimate high: after that (or quite possibly during) I could die happy. My friend Pierre, one of those muscular mountain men from around

Chamonix, had it all mapped out. We were going straight from the top all the way to the bottom. What could be simpler than that? All we had to do was get up there to start with. To tell the truth, I was a little bit worried about that part of the plan: the getting up there part. But, that detail aside, it was a good plan and it might even have worked. Except first I got injured then he got injured. Maybe we should have put skis on our crutches and kept on going.

But, Everest or not, the business of getting up there is always going to be a factor. The earnest pioneers of downhill skiing in the 20th century swore by being decent mountaineers and slogging their way up the mountain in order to justify the pleasure of coming down again. Personally, I'll take all the help I can get. It's sometimes hard enough working out how to get down without the hassle of getting up as well. On the other hand, every skier feels the urge to check out the wilderness, to discover the virgin slope, and trek around in far-flung places miles from the madding ski-lift crowds. Which is where a helicopter comes in very handy.

I'm not often tempted to use the phrase "Shangri-La of skiing", but that day on a pristine face somewhere beyond Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand was definitely one of those times. No ski lodges, no bars, no tracks. Even the helicopter discreetly took itself off somewhere. Remote, off the map, lost in space and time, a tabula rasa of unpolluted white stuff, floating somewhere in the brilliant blue sky.

The terrain was a whipped-up mass of pure powder: cold, dry, and glittering. Useless for making snowballs of course, but otherwise perfect. Rob, the leader, dug a hunk out of the side of the mountain to see how deep it went. He gave up after about six feet. There were four of us: the other two were a beautiful woman in black and a guy with a snowboard. We had the mountain - in fact, several mountains - entirely to ourselves for a whole day. It was like letting a bunch of kleptomaniacs loose in Harrods.

There is one small drawback to so much powder. When you fall over it doesn't hurt for a change, but getting up again is no laughing matter. It's like trying to stand up on air. And I once had that unsettling experience of seeing the snow vanish beneath my ski (fortunately just the one), as if slipping through an egg-timer, to reveal the gaping abyss beneath. But for me one of the greatest things on a day of great things was watching the snowboarder in action.

I had to adjust to having so much space and freedom. I know I had to keep telling myself not to take such tight turns. But he just naturally carved out great arcing parabolas through the snow. It was majestic: like watching an eagle soaring, effortlessly riding the currents, nothing quirky, nothing tricky, just unhurried motion with style.

Until that day I think I hadn't taken the snowboard seriously enough. I had to go all the way to New Zealand to realise that it is the ultimate powder vehicle. You only ever have one edge to worry about. Whereas I was fighting to keep my dual personality skis from going their separate ways in the powder, he always seemed serene, harmonious, uncomplicated, zennishly devoid even of ego. One man, one board, one edge: sheer oneness. He didn't even flirt with the beautiful woman in black.

On that day in Shangri-La, I was reminded of why it is we go skiing, according to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It has little or nothing to do with mere technical prowess or notching up another black run. The simple goal of all skiing is to attain divinity: to achieve that god-like state in which all the differences between self and snow, the skier and the skied, melt and fade away in the sun to leave nothing but a sense of pure being.

As Sartre also pointed out: this is a dangerous illusion which never lasts too long. What goes up must come down. The reality principle is bound to kick in. And so it was that not long after Queenstown I found myself in Aspen, laid low with the killer flu of all time, while lumbering dorm mates went about strapping on their boots and yelling, "Get your butt out of bed, man: there's fifty inches of powder out there and only five guys on the slopes." I finally got out of bed just in time to catch the flight home. I paid my dues on that trip.

But the heli-skiing experience left me with another kind of headache: when/if Pierre and I finally get our act together and take off for Everest, am I going to stick skis or board in the backpack? Ever since that day in the back of beyond I've been experimenting with the single edge and trying (and largely failing) to achieve that transcendent sense of grace I glimpsed on that nameless mountain. If I remember the end of Lost Horizon correctly, it has the hero, having escaped from Shangri-La to return to civilisation, marching off into a Himalayan blizzard to try to find his way back there. I know just how he feels.

* * *

Simone de Beauvoir took the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre skiing in the Chamonix valley in the winter of 1934-5. The following is an edited extract from what Sartre wrote about the experience in Being and Nothingness.

"Sport relieves the real of its sense of reality. The sporting act is the free transformation of an environment into a platform for action. Like art, it is an act of creation. Take an Alpine snowfield. The monotonous whiteness manifests its pure being and exteriority. This pure in-itself, comparable to the absolute plenitude of Cartesian space, fascinates me as the apparition of the naked non-self. The meaning of skiing lies in my ability to possess this snowfield. In my descent, the piste is no longer an infinity of individual details but acquires a continuity and unity that it had lost. Just as, according to Kant, the geometer can only apprehend a straight line by drawing it, so too the skier maps out the piste by virtue of skiing it ... Sliding over snow symbolizes the activity of consciousness. I touch the snow like the naked body of a woman that my caress leaves intact and yet aroused. I have the sense that this is my snowfield. What I want to appropriate is the absolute being of the in-itself and thus become the real. But possession is an undertaking that death renders for ever unattainable. Thus I am haunted by my lack of being, my own nothingness."

It was a massive queue for the cable car on the way down that may have inspired one of Sartre's most famous lines: "Hell is other people."

Andy Martin's books include 'Coming Down the Mountain', an account of a season on the World Cup ski circuit

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