samedi 3 mars 2012

Disasters, averted and natural

le Mont-Blanc, from our room this morning

Sam turned and looked out from under his covers and saw this. Right on schedule, the clouds had made their appearance again in the valley of Chamonix Mont-Blanc. He turned back on his other side and fell back into a lightly sonorous sleep.

It was our last day. I'd walked the dogs and made my coffee, and we had a choice to make: head up and ski what was left of the day at 10:30 am, head up and ski four hours, or not ski. That, we said, during a moment when Sam was awake and eating the pain au raisin I'd brought back from the boulangerie, with the baguette "origine" he voted Argentières best this year for his sandwiches, would depend on whether the clouds continued to gather or not.

We'd had eight days of sublime weather and skiing, and to be very honest, we were both incredibly spoiled and pretty much satisfied; if it were going to be a very low visibility day, we'd as soon skip it. Finally, we'd go up for the last four hours of the day, and by the time we headed out of the hotel at noon, the sun was bright again in the sky, with a decent visibility up on the slopes of Les Grands Montets.

"See, Mom? We made the right choice."

I nodded and we headed down the road that threads the valley, from Les Houches at one end to le Tour at the other, dominated entirely by the monumental panorama of the Mont-Blanc heading down toward the parking lot at Les Grands Montets. That is another slight pomme de discorde between Sam and I: he insists on driving over, when we could walk it with our skis in 10 minutes, maximum. I know. I did it the first day, when we arrived, and I realized that I had forgotten my gloves.

Our first clue that our plan for the day was about to change significantly was the first sight of the enlarged parking area; every space, right down to the newest ones the length of the village from the chairlift and gondola up, was taken. The license plates told of day skiers from Lyon, Geneva and Switzerland. Tour buses were arriving one after another and disgorging groups of skiers, who trooped up the parking lot in Indian file, battling with the line of cars whose drivers were trying, mostly in vain, to find a place liberated by people heading down after a morning of skiing. The parking lot attendant who greeted us confirmed our impression of the situation -- hopeless -- and we joined the snaking line of cars, moving along only to turn around and leave.

In fourteen years coming here, we had never seen this.

There were vans of Gendarmes and police cars, and we sat in the car, the windows down, while the line of skiers filed past us on the right.

"Serrez à droit et laisser passer les voitures," called out their group leader.

"C'est boucan," said one of the gendarmes, shaking his head.

Boucan comes from the old verb "boucaner", meaning "to imitate the cry of a goat". Boucan being a dialectical equivalent to the French word for goat, "bouc", it, too, is associated with debauchery, from which derives the meaning "big noise", since bordellos were often noisy places. It further widens in scope to include a "tumult".

"What do we do?" I asked Sam. "Head on and see if the line for lift tickets is a nightmare, and if it is, abandon or leave you with the skis to get them, while I return to the hotel lot and walk back down?"

He shrugged. When we got past the boucan, we could see that the line was civilized and short in comparison to the state of affairs in the parking lot, but Sam shook his head.

"I don't know. We've had a really good week already, and if there are this many cars, it's going to be really crowded up there. Maybe we just let it drop. That's a lot of money to struggle in crowded pistes and lift lines."

He was somewhat pessimistic. We mostly ski off-trail when the conditions allow, which they should have done, and the lines move fast. It was mostly that we had not anticipated the mess, and our four hour passes were going to get us three hours of skiing at most. Sam has a sense of the value of things, even if he thinks in terms of Porsche 911 Turbos and Maybachs, and imagines his photography, line of clothing and concept store will fulfill his every "need".

"Are you sure? You won't regret it if we drive back and head to walk around Chamonix, or something?"

"Nah, let's go. We've had a good eight days. We can let it go."

Maybe we're just a little tired, too. The skiing is demanding, if you wish it to be and ski it that way, and the last run of the afternoon yesterday, I found myself on my stomach, clinging to the vertical face of a mogul field at about on 80° pitch, nothing but several meters of straight slide below me, followed by moguls the size of Smart cars.

This was far, far worse than my predicament of several days earlier. Or, so it seemed to me, anyway. The other experience was entirely mental; this time, I was absolutely physically stuck. Move anything, and I was going down half the bowl on my stomach, skis and poles God only knew where, and Sam was below me, looking blankly at me, doing my best imitation of a leach on a bare thigh.

We had done the descent twice already, and many times over the years, but each time it changes, accounting for snowfall, temperatures, and winds. This particular bowl is protected from the sun by a large ridge of stone wall to the east and by its own edge on the west. You drop down into it, and ski a well-worn track across the tops of several moguls before beginning your way down, turning back left. It is an impressive sight from the edge. Sometimes, you hear someone say "Oh, wow" in whatever language they speak, when they come upon it for the first time.

I'd had no problem before and followed Sam down in, only this time, I didn't have enough speed and stopped just before the top of a mogul along the track, my down hill ski came to a stop perfectly perpendicular to the slope, but my uphill ski had other ideas and I saw it there, the tip pointing up the slope and the back treacherously downhill. I was bent forward at the waist, my head somewhere between my two boots. Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

"Sam, I am stuck."

"Can you turn the tip?"

"I don't think so. It's too far away, and all my weight is forward."

"Can you slide back?"

"I don't think so. I don't know if I will be able to stop."

I might have been able to. I tried, a little. I pushed with my poles, trying not to lose the purchase of my left ski while I searched for the right place to stick my poles, but with the chest about 20 cm from the snow and your legs practically spread-eagled, that was no small feat. I slid back a couple of centimeters and called it quits. My downhill ski was beginning to slip. It went, and nothing whatsoever would be holding me in place. I could see exactly what I would speed down on my stomach, backwards, sideways, every which way, gathering speed until nature or a miracle stopped me.

"The only way out of this is if someone arrives to ski down," I said, trying to look back up to the lip from under my right arm. I could just see a little sky past the bumps above me, and my stupid ski tip right there. I was furious with myself, and rather scared, and then I saw movement. There was someone just dropping in. A man, he spoke in French. He slid to a position just behind and worked to get himself below me.

"Don't move," he said. "Can you hold on a little longer?"

"Yes. A little longer. Thank you," I replied, concentrating on not moving a muscle. Not one.

I breathed rapidly, and tightened my abdominal muscles; my gloved hands in the straps of my poles were useless. Everything depended on my legs, my skis and my abs, and now my savior. He was working at sticking his poles into the hard-packed snow below my downhill ski. I understood that he was hoping that they would help hold that ski, but if I began to slid, they'd only buckle under my 60 kg.

"They will only bend if I go," I said.

"Don't move. Don't move a muscle," he said again. "Should I remove your ski?" I thought a second.

"I don't know. It might not be the best thing. What do you think?"

"It might not."

Skiers know that you are safest with two skis. With only one, you will slide and then be able to do nothing, at least in similar circumstances, with your booted foot. Then, there would be the problem of getting it back on there.

"Don't move a muscle," he said again.

I felt him take my right foot and ski and begin to lift them. I was going to trust him. I had no choice. I was not going to move anything that he wasn't moving intentionally.

"What do you want me to do? Is there something you want me to do?"

"Don't move." I continued to breath rapidly and rhythmically, willing myself into the mountain.

Who says Lamaze is useless? Try an epidural in this situation and see what that does for you.

My foot and ski turned in the air and I understood that they were below what had been my downhill ski, and I could just see his tip between them.

"Can you lift your ski?" I understood that, too. He needed me to liberate him.

"Yes, but please, don't let yourself be hurt."

"It's okay," he said. I felt as though that leg no longer even belonged to me. I could see it, but I could hardly believe where it was. The feeling of it being at that angle on the vertical slope was all I could remember. I looked at how it was positioned, and I told myself what I had to do to move it. His ski slid back and was free.

"Don't move," he said again, "It's okay." He was positioning himself below me to brace me and working his poles out from below the ski he had tried to block.

"Okay. Can you get up now?"

"Yes," I nodded, "I can."

"Okay." He slid forward to make room for me. I took a breath, stuck my poles in, thinking how glad I was to have them, and stood.

"Can you get down now?" he asked. I understood that, too. He knew I was tired from that.

"Yes, I can. Thank you so much. You are a genius."

"I don't know about that," he said, "I just did what came to mind."

"Well, they were exactly the right things to do, and you really helped me. Thank you so much," I said, letting myself slide down next to where he had come to a stop by Sam, who had gone mute. It occurred to me that the poor guy thought I might run into him and send him down the mountain in turn as he skied away from me the instant I arrived just next to him.

I was just relieved. I was a little shaken, and once again I realized how important the mind is. You can use it to save yourself. I watched him ski down, admiring his turns, and I saw him stop from time to time and turn to look back at me, understanding that he was looking out for me. I felt grateful.

When we got to the bottom of the bowls and prepared to ski over to Pointe de Vue, just above the Argentière glacier, I heard a deep rumbling.

"Sam? Is there an avalanche?" I asked, turning to look at him. He looked back at me, and we both turned out heads to the rock wall below les Becs Rouges and Chardonnet past the glacier, where a torrent of snow and rock was cascading down the face of the mountain.

It was stunning. I had never seen the face of the mountain let go and slide down into the glacier; it was like a far more dramatic enactment of what could have been my fate, had that very calm and capable man not appeared. Luckily, in such places at that, these are the only people into whom you run.

The few of us who dotted the slope were all turned to face this feat of nature, our cell phones and pocket cameras trained on the cascading mountain surface. It slowed and gathered force once, twice, and then it gradually faded, the snow had turned to racing water from the heat of the movement.

We skied down to Pointe de Vue and stopped to look at what the avalanche had left behind. There, I saw my savior skiing toward the Refuge de Lognan and thanked him silently before we skied on down and back to the valley floor. Our skiing done, although we didn't realize it, for this year.

Sam, against the snow and sky

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