20 December 2018
Back for Christmas
Going down ‘That Way’.
By Lynda Goetz
Caroline and Jamie both loved skiing. In fact it was probably the only thing they had in common, apart from their small daughter, Caitlin. Caitlin was three and neither Caroline nor Jamie had really intended to start a family when she was born. What they had planned to do together was more skiing.
Jamie’s ‘proper’ job was as an engineer, but since he had graduated he had managed to spend more time skiing than doing engineering. Caroline also had a degree – in Business Studies – but, apart from some temporary jobs in London, she had spent much of her time since graduating working for an upmarket ski company as a general factotum. The company had welcomed to its luxury chalets in the French Alps a number of celebrities – although a non-disclosure agreement forbad her from discussing them, even with Jamie; actually not difficult as Jamie was supremely uninterested in celebrities of any kind.
When the opportunity arose for them both to go to Canada and do some heli-skiing it was too good a chance to miss.
“But you can’t leave Caitlin at Christmas,” remonstrated Caroline’s mother, Heather.
“We won’t be,” retorted her daughter sharply. “We will be back on Christmas Eve.”
“I find your attitude incomprehensible,” muttered Heather. “You have a small daughter who is totally dependent on you and yet you are prepared to go off, both of you at the same time, and indulge in an extremely dangerous sport. It’s not even like skiing in a resort. You could both be killed in an avalanche, for God’s sake!”
At this point Caroline merely shook her head and carried on packing Caitlin’s clothes and toys so that Heather could take them with her when she picked Caitlin up from nursery and drove home with her. She and David would be looking after Caitlin for the next ten days, something Caitlin was not unused to.
After a nine-and-a-half hour flight to Vancouver followed by a long drive to the lodge, not to mention the jet-lag, neither of them felt much like eating or socialising. They greeted fellow skiers with whom they would be sharing the experience of the next seven days, listened to the briefing and then excused themselves until the morning.
The following day, duly limbered up in the exercise class run by the proprietor’s slender and attractive wife, they ate breakfast then donned ski boots and rucksacks (containing extra layers, probes, shovels, transceivers, a packed lunch, water and chocolate) and made their way out to the snow-covered lawn for the obligatory transceiver practice. Jamie was completely familiar with this, but Caroline’s experience of off-piste skiing was a little less and she wasn’t as practical or as good with technology; she paid full attention. She couldn’t help thinking of her mother’s words as the guide impressed upon them all the importance of speed and efficiency if they ever needed to recover someone from an avalanche. She knew more than enough to know how devastating an avalanche could be. She had heard that awful thunder as the snow cascaded down a mountainside. She knew that even if an avalanche were only 20 or 30 feet wide one could quickly be buried under feet of smothering snow. She personally knew of one guide who had died and had third-hand or hearsay experience of plenty more. You didn’t have to be inexperienced to die.
The first day’s skiing was amazing. It turned out that Caroline was far better than she had given herself credit for and that the two Italian couples, who had all looked so dauntingly professional (one of them even had a badge sewn onto his jacket which read ‘Maestro di Sci’) and dressed for the part, were not that brilliant at all. The sun had shone from a blue sky scattered with wisps of cloud. The frozen crystals in the expanses of fresh untouched snow below them glistened and glittered and then there was nothing to focus on but the exhilaration of bouncing and floating as the skis seemed to work on their own, springing them down the mountain. Ahead of Caroline and to the left was Jamie. To her right and keeping rhythm with her was the American girl, Lauren, who had come with her father. They reached the bottom together, laughing with sheer pleasure and looked up the hill at their tracks; neat linked swooping S’s. “ Woohooh!” whooped Lauren.
The second and third days were similar and the number of vertical feet achieved per day increased with their confidence. There were some tree runs too and although on a couple of occasions someone found a tree hole (that pit around a tree trunk best avoided) and needed help to struggle out, generally the level of competence increased by the hour. They were all now adept at making that crouched run to and from the waiting helicopter and the take-off and landing no longer held the terror for Caroline that it had initially. The stunning views, however, did not cease to hold their attraction. Unlike the usual off-piste slog and lengthy trek to find that virgin slope, here they were presented with an endless wilderness and ever-changing perspectives of the mountain range surrounding them; apart from their group, no-one around for miles. Caroline fell in love with skiing all over again.
Jamie on the other hand seemed to be falling for the slender, attractive gym instructor. He certainly seemed unable to stop himself from flirting with her at every opportunity, even in front of her husband, the German-born lodge proprietor. Caroline was irritated. She had imagined that time away from Caitlin and domestic worries would reboot her relationship with Jamie, which she felt had been suffering from the restraints of family life. Now here they were, enjoying the most amazing skiing in incredibly beautiful surroundings and yet Jamie’s attention seemed focused elsewhere. That evening at dinner she looked around the group. The two Italian wives had largely given up any pretence of enjoying the skiing and had spent much of the second day huddled in the helicopter and on the third had retreated to the lodge spa. The two good-looking Austrians kept themselves pretty much to themselves, although they had taken to flirting with both Lauren and the proprietor’s wife – much to Jamie’s annoyance. The American couple in their thirties were pretty much only into each other and the older French Canadian pair teamed up quite naturally with Lauren’s father, who was a hot-shot lawyer of some sort, and the guide, Johnny, a grizzled Canadian in his late forties.
On the fourth day they awoke to grey skies. The weather had changed. It was windy, too. Snow looked imminent. Johnny announced that skiing that day could be limited. However, they would go out to see what could be achieved. Once on board and after a quick consultation with the pilot, he announced that they would be starting with two runs, known to be sheltered in such conditions, ‘This Way’ and ‘That Way’. This Way turned out to be a shortish tree run, which they all dealt with quite rapidly. The trees at this lower level were quite close, which presented a challenge if you moved off the cut run (where there wasn’t room for all of them); that combined with the flat light required a higher level of concentration, but by now they were all attuned to the deep snow skiing so different from anything on the piste and all reached the bottom of the shallow slope fairly quickly. They made the crouching run back to the helicopter, dropped their skis into the carrier and jumped inside one by one. The dark-haired Austrian, Max, sitting on the outside, slid the door across. Caroline was in the middle facing backward. The pilot lifted the helicopter off the snow with the usual flurry of flakes swirling up around them. Next run, That Way.
What happened next they all discussed many, many times over in the following lodge-bound days. How long were they in the air? How far did they go? How high did they get? According to the pilot they were hit by a ‘downdraft’ which made it impossible for him to get the helicopter properly airborne. He needed to take it over the edge of the mountain and away from the trees in order to turn it around and fly away. He was unable to do so. He tried simply going up the gulley, but the run was narrow with trees either side. After half a minute, a minute, five minutes (?) the tail rotor hit a tree. The tail rotor, as anyone who knows about helicopters can tell you, is what controls torque. Without a tail rotor the helicopter goes into a spin and stops flying. Caroline and Jamie’s helicopter stopped flying. As it spun around and dropped onto the snow-filled gully, the blades stopped. One of them crashed through the roof, knocking the control panel down onto Johnny’s head and spilling transmission fluid into the cabin. No one knowing whether the machine was likely to burst into flames, there was a scramble for the door. With one part of her brain, Caroline noted that Jamie got himself out without a backward glance in her direction; with the other she thought of Caitlin.
Max and Lukas dragged an unconscious Johnny out of the front seat and laid him on the snow at a safe distance from the vehicle; for a moment or two no-one spoke.
“I’ve set off the EPIRB,” the pilot announced as if this meant anything at all to most of them. “That means they’ll find us,” he added. “It’ll just be a question of how long it takes.”
At this point Lukas took charge.
“Well, if we don’t know, we should be prepared to stay for a while. We should dig a snow hole and build a platform for a fire.”
It turned out that he and Max had acquired these skills whilst doing their compulsory six months military service. Jamie threw himself into the task of helping dig a snow hole. Lauren used her nursing skills to tend to Johnny who had recovered consciousness but was not really aware of what was going on. Caroline went to help Max find green fir branches to form a platform for a fire on the snow and the French Canadians put themselves in charge of food rations – determining that lunchtime provisions should not all be eaten immediately, in case rescue was longer in arriving than the pilot hoped.
In the event rescue came after only four hours. The mini adventure was over. New skills and knowledge had been acquired, but they had not been forced to endure for too long and a warm bath and hot meal at the lodge awaited. Getting into the helicopter was hard. Nervous comments were made about ‘getting back onto the horse that had thrown you’ and ‘facing demons’ and as they lifted off everyone joined hands in a spontaneous show of unity, solidarity and fear.
The rest of the week was strange. The new guests at the lodge were the accident investigators and the salvage team who sat together at a separate table. The heli-skiing group sat around and chatted. They were de-briefed one by one and each had slightly different memories of those fateful minutes. They were worried for the pilot and his career. Had he been at fault or was it simply a situation over which he had had no control, as he claimed? They all felt strangely close, having survived the crash together, although it hadn’t really been much of a crash in some ways. The snow-filled gully had cushioned their landing and they had only fallen what, twenty, thirty, forty feet? At least the stuff which had poured all over them had only been transmission fluid, nothing more dangerous. Had anyone suffered any injuries? It looked as if the Americans were gearing up to make a claim of some sort, although it wasn’t quite clear for what.
On one day the proprietor’s wife took them ski-touring – something of a contrast from their activity earlier in the week. Shuffling along the valley floor (perhaps looking out for animal and bird tracks) was so different from swooping down a hillside casting clouds of powder in your wake; no adrenalin rush in this surprisingly energetic sport. Jamie and Caroline by mutual consent did not inform either Heather and David or Jamie’s parents of what had happened. They could have done, of course; so easy via the WhatsApp family chat group. Instead they posted some photos they had taken earlier in the week. They agreed that whilst they would tell friends, it might just be something that their parents were better off not knowing.
“I have to confess I was worried about avalanche danger,” admitted Caroline on the evening before they returned home. “Stupidly it had never occurred to me that the helicopter might be part of the danger too.”
“Oh, I had considered it, of course,” said Jamie, “but felt that the likelihood of anything happening was so remote as to be an infinitesimal risk.”
“I feel really bad about leaving Caitlin now,” added Caroline as she finished cleaning her teeth and moved into the bedroom where Jamie lay on the bed with his hands behind his head.
“I don’t see why,” retorted Jamie. “Your Mum would have looked after her if we’d been killed.”
Caroline said nothing. She just wanted to get home and hold Caitlin in her arms – and watch her open her stocking on Christmas morning.