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Vienna | 1.1.2009 | 09:16 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

The Joy of Clouds
  "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, the surprise best-seller of the year 2006.)

How does it work in Austria? If we're all per du above 2,000 metres, then when we are above the clouds we must surely be Geschwister...
  ...and when those cauliflower-tufts below are tinged pink by the sun, what is the bond between those left still above them? Is that the real meaning of being a Lebensmensch?
  photo: Christian Cummins
A Stratocumulus, I believe.
  Being above the clouds at sunset is one of the finest places to be. If I was an airline pilot, perhaps I could spend every evening up there, wearing my starched uniform and feeling like a king.

But that would mean, of course, claustrophobic cabins, lukewarm coffee, plastic cutlery and all those confusing buttons and dials. In the long run, it would certainly give me the goose.

No, to enjoy the clouds properly you have to put on your thermal underwear and get yourself outside.
  Maybe we love clouds because we spent so much time as children staring up at them from our prams? That's probably why children love drawing them. And having studied them from one side for all those still hours in our infancy, it's only natural that we have the urge to see them from the other side as soon as we can strap planks to our feet and get moving.

But be warned: My friend Ben was turned to the bad by the top of a cloud at sunset. It's a quite tragic case but the signs were there early enough.

We grew up together. When we were just ten years old, and with no mountain within a few hundred miles, we'd watch Glen Plake videos in his Cambridgeshire living room with our ski-boots clamped on - looking at the pictures of extreme skiers dropping off rocks in Squaw Valley, California.

A decade later, Ben headed from Middle England to San Francisco in a brand new suit and tie, clean shaven and eager as a squirrel to make it 'big' in business.

But he lost his ambition in his first year during a day of early season boarding in Squaw. It was 4 o'clock and a wide pink ocean of cloud was tufting invitingly over Lake Tahoe and he was rushing towards it like a ski-diver.

It was at that moment, he told me, that he realised that the concept of a man built out of muscle and sinew should live out his days working behind a screen under the fluorescent strip-lights of a down-town office was almost criminally insane.

He now has a beard to rival that of Roy Keane and serves beer to ungrateful tourists in one of the less glitzy French ski centres. The world of commerce has probably shed many a tear over the squandering of Ben's money-making talents. So, apparently, has his mum.
  photo: K.Spiegl
Maybe just a Stratus, actually.
  Watching the sun-set over a sea of clouds while sipping from a hip-flask of sweet and herby strega is, of course, for softy ski-bums like me. I'm one of those self-satisfied souls whose idea of an early morning is getting to the first gondola-cabin in time to meet the rest of my shabby sub-species, half of them ill-shaven and all of them puffy-eyed and clad in rucksacks and helmets, many of them hugging those specialist powder skis that seem to get wider each year until eventually, I suppose, they'll be indistinguishable from water skis.

The real men, and the real women, will set off in the dark, like the hikers attacking the summit of Kilimanjaro. They're already on their way up at that time when the dry cold still bites deep inside your chest and the snow squeaks under your boots like a field full of mice. They'll patiently climb the mountain themselves on touring skis, or in snow-shoes with their boards strapped to their backs, crossing the powdery hare-tracks in the snow; and, at the summit, watching the sun come up over the cloud, before riding the wild snow with no sounds on the mountain but their own until they are swallowed into the welcoming pink blanket.

Those are the guys who are in the know.

This year!

You always have to have a worthy resolution or two on this day, don't you?
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