The 1st January 2015 never really happened. The morning blended into the previous night before gradually, a Leffe, red wine and Chartreuse induced fug debilitated the energy systems and stopped play altogether. Enforced rest day or whatever, I definitely needed one…
January 2nd was beautiful. We skinned up from Col du Lautaret towards the Col du Galibier and onto to the summit of Pic Blanc du Galibier. This is a really good day out and a pretty mellow ski tour with around 900m vertical ascent required from the car to the summit. We were treated to amazing views across the Alps even as far as Mont Blanc, which looked to be just developing it’s ‘shat’ hat! From the summit a number of options were available to descend and we chose to have a look off the back, rather than ski the cruddy front face. The first part was steep and icy but after a bit we were treated to a super descent in some nice powder, happy that we had made a good choice.
Some might say that the shit always hits the fan when you least expect it but really there’s never a good time to get injured. Sat, on Saturday 3rd January at about 4pm, on a trolley in Briancon hospital, the realisation suddenly hit that actually I may not be taking part in the British Mountain Guide ski induction test. A test I had been more than mildly anxious about but equally keen to take and pass.
Rewind back to that morning. Lover boy Sharpe was off to the airport and me and Parky had arranged to meet Dave Rudkin and John Orr for a few laps off the top bin in La Grave. I’d had a faff on with my bindings, taking them into possibly the only unfriendly man in La Grave, who pretended not to understand, mocked me then finally got his finger out and sorted them. Adjusting my DIN settings I was wary, was this man actually competent? He sure wasn’t very friendly. Closely scrutinising his work, the numbers added up and I paid and left. Better late than never.
First run off the top and the legs and body felt a little out of tune. Not coordinated. Not warmed up. We all critiqued our own performances but it had only been a warm up. The second and third runs were better. We were skiing from the top station down the Vallons De La Meije to P2 at 2400m. The snow below was too thin unless you liked skiing rocks and logs. Even parts of this run were showing sneaky stones and patches of ice, keen to catch out those who let their guard down. About 1pm we headed for lunch, the light was deteriorating, the cloud building and the wind blowing. It was a longish lunch and I sensed the team was tired. Parky said this would be his last run. I said I’d do a couple more with the boys, see how it went.
We took a line of nice bowls, enjoying some wind blown snow which had improved conditions a little. The skiing felt good, almost slick. We weaved our way down before we hit the traverse line back to P2. Rudkin skied first, then Orr, then me with Parky at the rear. One by one we dropped in to the half-pipeesque narrow gully, an obstacle we’d crossed three times already that day. The light had flattened and it looked as though we’d seen the last of the sunshine.
I dropped in, turned right, then left, then popped over the lip at the far side into the next gully feature that exited onto the traverse proper. Rather than being on the softer snow my skis caught something scoured, a long patch of ice I hadn’t notice. Something caught me under the surface, a rock perhaps and I was knocked off balance. Attempting to turn right to hit the softer stuff but unable to correct, I twisted awkwardly, my right ski released but my left stayed firmly attached, awkwardly twisting my left knee. I stopped a metre lower. Sat down on the snow with my left ski attached I knew I’d felt a weird clunking sensation in my knee. Not pain, just not quite right. Parky stopped just behind and passed me my other ski. He asked if I was OK. I said I thought so. I tried to stand up…
Instantly my left leg buckled at the knee. The top half went right and the bottom half went left almost as if there were no muscles or ligaments or tendons any more, just bones in a loose skin sack. I was on my arse. Pain came raging through and then instantly left. I sat silently before announcing that I wasn’t really sure what to do. Although, as I couldn’t stand let alone ski, it was pretty obvious really.
Dave and John had skied off over the next rise expecting us to follow as we had before. We were out of sight. A figure appeared behind, it was Jerome the guy who works for the lift company, a guide and ski patroller. He asked how I was. I gave an optimistic reply along the lines of being OK but maybe needing assistance to get back to the station. He asked about a helicopter. I said no, it seemed like a lot of fuss for something so small. Jerome offered me his arm as a crutch but even before I weighted my leg I knew I was fucked. He made the call.
Nick Wallis skied past and carried on to notify Dave and John. They skinned back up and assisted. Parky warned skiers up the hill. It was slick. Blankets arrived. Green tea with ginger was offered and gladly guzzled. I felt OK, not really in pain, actually in good spirits. I wanted to stand up and ski off. Jerome said I had a good face, something the boys would never have said (the bastards!), his way of trying to assure me I possibly wasn’t too broken. We iced my knee. Twenty minutes. In the distance I could hear the jud jud jud of the rotors, then it came into view, dipping down to the ridge in the distance, a pair of uniformed figures dropped onto the snow and off it went again. Over they came, a splint and a harness were attached to me and then it broke through the wind again, jud jud jud. A maelstrom of white shot into the air, stinging my cheeks and coating my goggles. “Get to the chopper!” And then I was off, swinging high above the valley floor. The next seconds were a blur but soon I was sat in the helicopter and we were moving out.
I wasn’t particularly in pain. Why didn’t my leg work? Confusion was creeping in. The questions. Why? What for? How? What now? The panic. Shut the fuck up. Make decisions based on what you know not wild speculation. It really wasn’t the end of the world, these things happen. I looked out the window, trying to get my bearings. The pilot and co-pilot chatted nonchalantly whilst I sat and quietly shat myself as the wind threw the chopper around in the air. Surely this wasn’t good. They flew lower. We moved around less. I relaxed a little. One of the rescue team had one of his front teeth almost completely missing, just a sheared stump left. He looked like a truly gnarly bastard. What horrors had these guys seen? I felt like a fraud. I wrote my details down for them. The flight was free they said but just for their records…
Five minutes after we took off we landed on the roof of Briancon hospital. I thanked the rescue team and was whisked through the hospital to be seen. I’m not slagging off the UK here or the NHS, but Euro hospitals are slick. Nurse comes. Doctor comes. Xray happens. Doctor explains what is wrong and what will happen next. Prescription is handed out and I’m allowed to leave. One hour at the most. As I sit and wait for the boys to collect me my mind starts to race. What exactly is the outcome? What will this mean? I stop, absorb things and tell myself what I know now. I can act on this, not wild speculation. Looking around me I know there is no room for self pity. These things happen, things aren’t that bad. A minor setback is all it is.
The other part of the rescue duo comes into the waiting room to see a relative of another rescue victim. Sounds like they’ve been busy. He smiles calmly, instantly putting them at ease. He turns to me, asking how I am and what have I done. I reply that I’m not fully sure but probably ligament damage of unknown severity. He reads me my French medical report and confirms this. Rest up he says. I thank him once more and he replies modestly. “No problem, it’s my job, it’s fun.”
The boys arrive and we head off back to La Grave via the pharmacy….
I write this a week after the event. Since then a lot has happened. I’ve gone home, accepted the setback, I won’t be skiing on the BMG training courses or the induction test. It’s a fact but not the end of the world. People have been truly amazing and it’s times like this that you realise how fortunate you are. My mates, family, the rescue team, the doctors, insurance company, physio. Kind words, physical and moral support, all the help I’ve had that I couldn’t be more grateful for. Thank you all!
I know that in the grand scheme of things this is a tiny knock, not really a big deal (and by writing about it I’m not wishing to make it sound more than it is, it’s a record of my journey through the BMG training scheme that is all). My knee feels quite a bit better today, swelling has gone down, I’m able to walk on it and the prognosis from the professionals is more optimistic too. I have an MRI scan on Monday to confirm what’s definitely wrong or not wrong. It will be what it will be but as big Tim Neil said, I hope it’s bomber!