Ariane Giobellina tells me all the things she cannot do any more. She cannot easily go to Dougal Haston's grave; she cannot talk about him without feeling an immense sense of loss; nor can she articulate exactly what she felt for him without sounding excessively insincere. She can't read his diaries and letters which she keeps in a file in her office and she can't stop thinking of how her life could have turned out so differently. Her memories are like exit wounds; lacerating, painful and, ultimately, consuming.

When I arrive in Leysin, Switzerland, a village with a charm and glory from the past that belies its present-day international and cosmopolitan reputation, there are faint traces of thawing, translucent snow, a reminder to the locals to prepare for the onset of winter. Ariane, a sprightly and athletic 51-year-old, is busying herself with plans for the coming season. She has almost finished designing and building a new chalet, which will sit alongside Chalet Ermina, the bed-and-breakfast business she runs for tourists.

Leysin is smaller than other well-known ski resorts in the area, but offers enough for anyone seeking mild adventure and excitement. Although there is only a top skiable elevation of 7,200 feet on Chaux de Mont, there is a long run of three miles and an impressive vertical of nearly 3,000 feet. It is a delight to ski.

Yet Ariane, despite living in the shadow of the mountains, 25 years after the death of Haston, who has now become a cult figure in climbing, is still searching for serenity. Standing at the door of Chalet Ermina, in a woollen jumper and tight winter trousers, Ariane cuts a petite figure; gentle, scrubbed and confident. She walks briskly, her body attuned to the demands of the surrounding peaks, with the gait of a mountain goat. Her house, with its cleanliness and alpine formation, makes life in Leysin seem almost perfect. Yet, as halcyon summers give way to breathtaking winters, events since January 1977 have proved remarkably difficult for Ariane to deal with. After Haston's death she felt she could no longer live there and embarked on an odyssey which would take her to Scotland, then around the world, even going some way on one of Haston's former expeditions. ''I took seven years out of

my life,'' she says, her voice faltering, ''I loved Dougal so much.''

There were many ups and downs throughout her years of travelling - sleeping rough, memory loss, which often included simply forgetting to eat. Around 1984, her mental health had deteriorated so drastically that she had a breakdown, and found herself in a psychiatric hospital. Over the years she harboured notions of killing herself and her depressions have taken more than a decade to get over. In 1986, in an attempt to exorcise Haston from her past, she married ''a nice Swiss man'' and had a son, Jerome, who is 16. By the time she had discovered she was pregnant she was already planning her divorce.

''After Dougal's death my body just shut down,'' she says. ''I was numb. I couldn't think or do anything for myself. It took a long time to adjust and I didn't know whether to hang myself or go on. I was 26 and depressed. I didn't plan to go away for seven years, but I just couldn't go back.''

Haston, the subject of a new book, Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, was one of the world's outstanding mountaineers and seemed to be almost indestructible. Born in Currie in Midlothian, he learned the basics of rock-climbing on a railway bridge there, using six-inch nails instead of pitons, and a clothes line as a rope. He quickly graduated to tougher rock and snow ascents in Scotland before paying annual visits to the Alps and repeating many of the

classic climbs, such as the north face of the Matterhorn and the north face of the Eiger.

Haston settled in Leysin permanently in 1966 and grew to love the Alps, becoming a popular figure in the village. He decided to run a mountaineering school after its former head, American John Harlin, was killed while he attempted with Haston the north face of the Eiger.

Haston had grown up an awkward and shy individual but soon developed into a restless, difficult and often tortured soul given over to deep mood swings and an insatiable appetite for drink. He was also a prolific womanizer dubbed ''the Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison of the climbing world''. In Leysin he gravitated to the Vagabond club, where climbers and travellers drank the night away and where Haston was known as the Vagabond King.

To this day, no-one is quite sure why Haston, who knew the runs so well, apparently defied a local avalanche warning to ski off-piste down a steep slope on the Riondaz mountain. On Monday, January 18, 1977, he was spotted desperately trying to get clear of an avalanche which had started about 15 yards above him. He was swept to his death, descending the Luissets pass on a trail reserved for excellent skiers, a few miles from his front door in Leysin. The young Scot had just completed his first novel and had written in his journal: ''Seems as if it could be quite a year, if all works well. Is there any reason why not?''

Hundreds of years ago farmers in the Lake of Geneva region took to the

terrain of sunlit hills around Leysin, 4,000 feet above the Rhone Valley, to hide from bandits. At the turn of the century, Leysin became a sanctuary of a different kind, for patients with respiratory diseases, and the remnants from this sanatorium town - the old TB clinics with their wide doors to accommodate wheelchairs - are still visible, although much of the village has been transformed yet again, developing into a winter resort attracting skiers and climbers.

The village lies directly under a mountain called Berneuse. In the winter, most of the best ski-ing slopes are open to avalanche risks, and on the Rhone side of the village, where the slopes are steeper, they catch a great deal of snow. In order to protect the village, hundreds of aluminium, five-foot barriers have been built around the slopes. While the warnings are clear, the most vulnerable slopes are usually the most exciting. In 1977, for Haston, they proved irresistible.

Everyone in Leysin had been warned of the dangers of ski-ing off the recognised runs in avalanche weather. A number of artificial avalanches had been provoked to try to diminish the danger. Haston, who was 36, had set out on a ski-ing tour on the Sunday before his death, and on Monday, told friends he was going on a difficult ski tour off the beaten track. The weather was superb and his friends regarded the trip as daring, but not foolish, for someone of his ability. When he had failed to return as darkness was setting in, police and mountain guides were alerted.

Haston's traces stopped near the rupture point caused by the avalanche and the rescuers, by that time, knew he must be buried underneath it. After dawn, the team was joined by 25 policemen and the rest of the avalanche was explored. Haston's body was found a short time later. His wife, Anne Ferris, who was not a climber, but a keen walker, was comforted by friends in the village as rescuers brought his body down the mountain. It was a difficult time for her and was compounded by the fact that, following his previous Everest success, he and Anne had separated. Latterly, Haston had fallen in love with Ariane, 11 years his junior, who lived in Leysin.

''He was charismatic, flamboyant and a risk-taker,'' recalls Ariane, ''but more than that there was something impossible to describe with words. He was a very warm person but many people didn't get to know that side of him. He couldn't always be open because it was his protection, he was always exposed so physically on the mountains. In the beginning, when we were together, he tried to get back with his wife, trying to make the relationship work again. He went on with his life and I went on with mine.''

Around 1975, Ariane and Haston got together again and made more plans to settle down. While Ariane moved in with him in the village, Anne got a job elsewhere and moved from Leysin, although she and Haston remained friends. ''There was no bad feeling there,'' says Ariane. ''His friendship with Annie was not a problem for me, because the pain of his death was much deeper than jealousy. I know Annie still, and there is no problem. She used to come to my house sometimes when she was in Leysin, although she's not been here for about four years.''

Three weeks before he died, Ariane began to feel uneasy about something, although she was unable to figure out what. Hindsight, of course, is an exact science but she is convinced she knew something terrible was about to take place. ''In mountaineering circles there are a lot of deaths but I could absolutely feel this,'' she recalls. ''The realisation was like something in my stomach that was never quite right, an unnecessary worry. My life was so wonderful at the time but this feeling was something very subtle. One night he didn't come home after too many drinks with his friends and, normally, this would never worry me because it happened a lot, but I couldn't sleep that night. When he returned he was covered in blood, after falling, and his head had split open. I felt extreme relief. It was overwhelming but the situation didn't merit how I felt. But that was the beginning of my apprehension.''

The day before he died was beautiful, with two feet of fresh snow. Ariane, as usual, went to work and Haston was going ski-ing. He called her later asking if she wanted to go with him, which she did, but she had too much work on.

''When I went home for lunch I felt a terrible sadness, like a huge cloud descending over me. Again, I couldn't explain it and it was so out of proportion. He came round and asked what was wrong but I had no answer. I walked with him and we said goodbye. For an odd reason, I raced up the four floors of the apartment to try to see him and say goodbye again, but he was gone. I closed the door and felt horrendous. We were supposed to be going to my grandmother's that night. But I never saw him again.''

When she talks of Haston you can almost hear the turn of a door handle in the house they shared, such is the clarity and intimacy of her recollections. It's a kind of entry into a world of different moods and smells that only the deepest love can recall. Her recollections would almost be cloyingly sentimental and romantic if not for the context.

Her next seven years disappeared, simply because she couldn't stand being around Leysin, with all its memories of Haston.

She quit her job and left, meeting with

Haston's friends in Scotland, desperate to find out more about his life.

Later, in 1980, her quest took her to Makalu and, in 1984, on to Alaska, where she suffered a breakdown during an ascent of Mount McKinley. Haston had climbed there eight years earlier.

''I was sick for a long time and then I got out of hospital. Sometimes we have moments of clarity that we can see all the way through and it happened to me. I saw the way things were going for me and realised I needed some normality in my life. I realised I wanted a little bit of peace. I arrived back in Leysin and I went back to the mountain where Dougal died to be clear with myself about my life. I decided to live and to get better,'' she explains.

She found a job in a library and, although it proved difficult adjusting to a normal life, gradually started having fun again. She travelled a little more, before meeting Daniel, whom she later married. But she never told her husband about her life with Haston and how she really felt about him.

''The marriage lasted a year. Daniel was completely normal and very nice, but my heart wasn't in it. I knew it wouldn't work.'' She was 35 years old.

Today, Ariane lives with her son, running her bed-and-breakfast business from her wooden chalet, on land left to her by her grandfather. ''A lot has happened in 25 years and I still miss Dougal. There are still pictures of him on my wall, and his energy is still around. I still talk with him. I believe that everyone has guides, and he is one of my guides.''

A lone memorial stone in Currie commemorates the achievements of Haston, but his body was never returned to Scotland for burial, remaining instead in the land where he made his home. There is a cemetery below Leysin, with a view across the Rhone Valley, where he is buried.

For Ariane his death almost seems like

yesterday. Haston, perhaps the greatest climber ever to have come out of Scotland, has never been remembered by a headstone - in its place is a simple wooden cross lying on the ground, numbered 2242. It's impossible to find the Vagabond King without a guide. But Ariane knows the way by heart. n

Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, by Jeff Connor, is published by Canongate at (pounds) 16.99 on January 22.