Harry shifted his weight onto the uphill leg and tried to flex his toes. He looked down as he did so, seeing the small movements of his boots and feeling the creak of the frigid plastic. The snow flew just above the surface, dust-like, as sand across a desert. It formed small dunes, constantly moving across the piste, always changing. The amateurs had left now that the clag had rushed in and the lifts that were visible rocked and tossed like bottles in the ocean. He looked up and saw the group leader trying to speak, his words whipped from his mouth by the storm, his buff frozen off of his face like the aventail of a knights helmet. He finished, and realising the message had not been passed on, began to slowly ski away into the wind across the hill, its camber no longer visible. They were in purgatory, a white nothing. The ground and the sky one until you didn’t know if you were going uphill or down. The last to move lifted their skis from the rapidly growing powder before setting off. They used the same motions as ice skaters, forcing their way home, driving their poles into the ground, the ice forming horizontal in the wind into a thousand blades on the metal shafts.
His toes still numb, his heels burning with every movement that brought some small amount of blood back into them, Harry worked to keep up with the figures around him. They dipped in and out of sight, bent over, their faces covered by buffs, their eyes guarded by goggles so that they seemed almost to be aliens. This was not their world and they could not survive here without their protective suits. They pulled over to allow those at the rear to catch up and Harry noticed that Young James had a gap where his buff had slipped down from his reflective goggles that even without the ice on the outside of the lens obscured much of his sight. The skin was waxy with a layer of icy snow beginning to form on it. To fix it he would need to remove a glove and rub it back to life. Harry could not do that for him, and knew it was unwise to tell James in case he tried to do this himself. He said nothing, better to lose a cheek than fingertips. Was it?
It did not matter. They were moving again and a fast descent would be the best cure.
At twenty yards distant they could see the metal supports of a T-Bar lift, remnants of a lost world jutting up from a jungle floor. The booth was empty and the entire thing seemed to rock with the snow-wrapped wind. It could not last long. How could anything man-made not soon be consumed by the weather?
The stragglers caught up and they moved off again immediately. Harry’s hands were completely numb but he dared not try and force the life back into them lest the same pain in his feet hit them. He groaned under his breath to relieve the pain and knew he could do so safely with no chance of being overheard. The wind was all and any other noise was overruled. It became the silence between his groans until he barely noticed it. The buff was completely frozen, the moisture in his breath fusing it to his face until the hairs of his new beard began to be tugged out with every push of his poles. Slowly they were able to begin to turn downhill towards the lower slopes. The lonely group pressed on, silent wraiths gliding through this silent land.
The pain increased as did the effort required to keep moving and to survive. The weakness, ever present in man, began to come to the fore. Much like aggression being forced out of a mild mannered man who, until pushed to his limit, has lived a comfortable life without ever knowing he possessed it, Harry was little by little giving up. His pace slowed and he moaned, his eyes screwing up in place of tears. The pain was everything. It was in his legs and his arms, his face and his ears. The side of his head cracked and stung from the wind finding the small gaps in his helmet. Fatigue like he had never felt dragged him down. He bent double, leaning on his poles. To rest for a minute would fix all and then he could be on his way. Suddenly within him something flashed. A distant ancestor lashing out at a snarling beast that seemed certain to end his life, a hopeless final gesture of unwillingness to accept the obvious fate that must be his. Harry stamped his poles and feet and snarled at himself. In the distance he thought he could see the rear of his party still trudging out, unable to ski with speed due to the wind. He set off with renewed energy, the blind fear of isolation and death pumping adrenaline into his warming blood. He would not die on this mountain and he would not be left to the humiliation of not being able to keep up. He made some progress towards the shadows of his friends before realising that the dark objects in the blizzard fog were conifers in a plantation. Beside him now was a piste pole, alone and useless, it served only to mock his position. To be found in a few days, dead, and only a meter or so from what was probably a red slope. Maybe even now he was on it and needed only to turn down hill.
He did so. No decision was made but his body turned without being asked and the wind now whipping diagonally across his back he began to pick up some speed. Speed brought hope and that hope pushed him on with a manic energy.
“I drop down mine eyes from the mountain, from whence I will draw my strength.”
Harry chuckled at his own joke and was just imagining the hot whisky Mac that would be waiting for him at the bottom when he felt rock underneath his skis as the poles, with nothing to stop them on their downward trend, pulled him forward over the edge of the cliff.
The waterfall, to be precise, was not spectacularly high. This was of little consolation to Harry, who fell two and a half storeys onto a floor of ice, shattering his left leg and arm, dislocating his back and fracturing his jaw. A ski pole also inconveniently became trapped underneath his right thigh and buried itself near a major artery. After the initial shock of landing Harry tried to pull himself a few meters with his one good arm. It was not long before he rolled himself onto his back, his face now open to the elements, helmet and goggles both having dislodged on impact. A roof of grey wretched with the falling white of snowflakes, now much larger than up on the glacier and less tossed by the wind in that sheltered pool, showered him. With great effort he pulled his phone from his pocket and found it dead. Soon the snow would bury his body, and a great calm came over him. There was nothing to be done. Blood instantly began to freeze as it left his body and the soothing numbness of great cold crept its way from the tips of his limbs towards his trunk. Home would be his last thoughts. The scene was an armchair, long used and shaped to his own body, beside an ancient hearth burning with yuletide logs. To complete this, a dram in one hand and the other patting the much loved hound, faithful to the end. Harry’s eyes closed and he was so far from this world and so close to the next that he did not hear the barking, and it was only when the warm wet of a dog’s nose took a long sniff of his ear and pronounced him to be still alive, just, that he looked out again. A lolling tongue breathing warm mist like fire, the russet red fur framed by the white and black standing out against the sky as if a new dawn was breaking, and not far behind it, and large man of Alpine lineage, born of and to the mountain so that he moved with ease in the storm. His skis were upon his back, and one had slipped so that only one was vertical and it seemed to Harry that this bearded saviour upon the cross who loomed over him, so close to the end, could only be one.“Christ” He managed through his ragged jaw, broken teeth holding back his tongue.
“Non, anglais. C’est juste Nicolas.” Only the dog laughed, and the Frenchman removed the small container from its neck, pouring some whisky into Harry’s open mouth. He swallowed eagerly and knew he was to be saved as the giant activated the until now forgotten beacon on Harry’s chest, the dog lying over his chest to keep him warm.
The hospital did their work. They set limbs and cleaned up cuts. They removed poles and administered what pain relief they could. It was the cold that saved him, they said. Otherwise he would have bled to death. He will never walk properly again and as with many of these prognoses this was to be proven false in less than a year. The hypothermia was managed back to a normal state, although Harry never would be able to feel his fingers and toes in the same way again. He was unconscious for two days, and it was a week before he felt well enough to sit himself up and make conversation.
“I should like to write a thank you letter to the man who saved me, perhaps you might have his address.” He spoke in English, having given up on his limited French within the first hour of being compos mentis.
“Of course, many people do. I will give you the address for the SAF.”
“Yes and I will write to them as well, but I mean the man who found me, who turned on my beacon. He had a dog with him.”
“I did not think they found anyone with you, you set off your beacon and that was it.” The nurse left with a bemused look on her face, leaving Harry alone in his bed, brow furrowed.
The nurse repeated the story to the attending doctor who laughed. “These English boys, they cannot handle their drink.”
“He was drunk when he crashed?”
“No! Barely enough for a large whisky.”
By: William Prior