An Irishman’s Diary on a peak experience

An instinct for survival in the Alps

“Euros would be useless as a currency, and I had forgotten to furnish myself with a supply of coloured beads.” Photograph: Switzerland Tourism/swiss-image.ch

“Euros would be useless as a currency, and I had forgotten to furnish myself with a supply of coloured beads.” Photograph: Switzerland Tourism/swiss-image.ch

 

I thought John Cleese summed up mountaineering rather well in a Monty Python sketch. “Kilimanjaro can be a pretty tricky climb, you know,” he said. “It goes up very, very steeply until you get to the very top. Then it tends to slope away rather sharply.” But I was up for it. Not Kilimanjaro, but the Centovalli peak. Because I was determined to make contact with a settlement of native people on the other side of the massif and, well, Because It’s There.

To add to the challenge, there was a national frontier at a high elevation between two countries that would have to be negotiated; one of the countries being a member state of an international treaty, the other not. Diplomatic finesse would be required, possibly even a bribe to a border guard. Euros would be useless as a currency, and I had forgotten to furnish myself with a supply of coloured beads.

At first base camp, known as Domodossola, I strapped on my climbing gear of white linen suit, silk foulard and corespondent shoes . . . and took my seat on the Centovalli train. A rickety contraption, it was filled with locals – I supposed they were hoping for some kind of sherpa work – all chattering away in their native lingo, which I believe they call, in their quaint way, Italiano.

I don’t speak it, but I thought I heard a recurring ominous word (it may have been il landslido, though I can’t now recall). Anyway, by dint of sign language, I learned that the track was blocked farther up the mountain by a rock-fall and the train would not make it all the way over the top to Locarno in Switzerland (a country which is, disturbingly, outside the European Union).

What to do? My alpiniste’s instinct for survival snapped into action.

I got off the train. And I found myself in a village which, although I later learned it was called Santa Maria Maggiore, I prefer to think of now as second base camp.

It seemed to be empty of human life, as many such remote settlements can be in the heat of the day.

But, as I wandered around, killing time until the train, returning from the landslide, would carry me back to the relative civilisation of Domodossola, I couldn’t help but sense curious, possibly hostile, eyes studying me from the shadows. I’m assured by an anthropologist friend that cannibalism is no longer practised in these parts, but all the same . . .

After about an hour the little rail-car, wheezing and gasping, made a reappearance from up the mountainside, and I stepped aboard, not without relief. I did get to the lakeside resort of Locarno, but only after a four-hour rail detour via Brig, Interlaken and Lucerne. I was as exhausted as if I’d scaled that mountain peak, landslide included, on foot.

On my arrival in Locarno I was greeted by the natives like a conquering hero. Or by one of them, anyway. In an apparently age-old traditional rite she served me with a dish of the local spaghetti milanese. I have to say that my pleasure in this tribute was somewhat vitiated by the discovery that, before leaving, I was expected to pay for it, the ceremony concluding with the formal presentation of the bill.

I was further discomfited to find that my achievement was only part of a far more arduous challenge, in which many adventurers and explorers before me had triumphed. A kind of round-trip triathlon, it’s called the Lake Maggiore Express, and I learned about it in, of all places, the tourist office. First, travelling in the opposite direction from my own marathon, you catch the little Centovalli train from Locarno through a landscape where “meadows alternate with daring bridges, streams of the purest water, vineyards, chestnut forests and villages clinging to the mountain slopes.” I never got to see any of that.

At Domodossola you take another train to Stresa (but be prepared for a test of endurance – there is no first-class carriage). Stresa lies at the southern end of the large drowned valley that the locals have amusingly dubbed Lago Maggiore, and the only way to traverse this hazardous watery expanse is on a curious double-decked native craft called, in the patois of the region, a “lake steamer”.

I’m told that a well-placed sum of money will get you aboard, and the tub is fitted with the basic necessities for survival in that inhospitable environment, such as a bar, a lunch service and a couple of fetching (in both senses) waitresses. And so back to Locarno, and a triumphant and restorative meal of Toblerone.

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