I don't mind being an old, middling skier, but I hate being a cold one. Keeping dry and warm - this, for me, is a basic necessity, so I have always had good gloves, jacket and pants. The rest of my gear, until recently, was just your ordinary economy stuff, bought off the shelf or at the sales. The 'very best' skis, ski boots, racing goggles, and so on, would have been a complete waste of money; skiing the way I did, it made no sense to pay hundreds of dollars more in the hope of cutting a few hundredths of a second off my downhill times.
That all began to change, the day I met Jorge. When I enrolled for a ski lesson at New Zealand's Mount Hutt, on the first day that the field was open for the season, I was allocated to him, that tall blond who would be my instructor for the next hour. From his name and looks I was sure that he must be Nordic, but I was proved wrong when he spoke. In fact, he sounded like a local, and when he told me his surname was Gustafen I knew just how local he was. This could only have been a grandson of the Gerard Gustafen from whose little alpine store, only two valleys to the north, I had bought my first skiing mittens, fifty years earlier. The old man had been a famous skier in his time, but when I first met him he had long settled down to run a ski shop and raise a family. I went to the same school as his sons, both of them world class skiers, surely the father and uncle of this young man.
This morning was the shortest day of the year, at least a month later than the usual start of season and the reason for the postponement was obvious. We stood together in the early shadow of the barren rock of the ridges, which would usually have been metres deep in snow, but this year had a dry autumn and mild winter. No greenery here, either, unlike the Australian ski fields where you seem to be dodging between masses of trees at every turn. Just warm, bare rock, everywhere, except for the odd patch of white behind the larger mounds where even the midday sun could not reach, and a small area of artificial snow where a few frosty nights had finally allowed the pumps to make almost enough depth for a learner slope and one intermediate run near the bottom of the basin. Even this artificial snow was so shallow that there was a scattering of small stones showing through here and there; only a few, but enough to make even this limited area quite unusable. As we watched, teams of resort staff, without their usual lifts to operate, trails to patrol or crowds to marshal, were walking abreast across the snow, picking those stones into the buckets they carried, as peasant farmers once might have hand-weeded their fields.
It was at that moment a sad excuse for a ski field, but despite that, it was officially open. Normally I would not even consider buying a lift pass in such conditions, but I had pre-booked my air ticket from Sydney to bring me here when the snow should have been at its best, and if I did not use what opportunities did arise, it would all have been a complete waste. Certainly there were no crowds or queues. The car park was almost deserted, and the few who were on the limited slopes were mainly company staff or ski instructors. I had unprecedented sole access to a top instructor, and he said that I would get value from my lesson, despite the conditions, so that was enough for me.
Knowing who Jorge was, I had from the start great confidence in his ability, but to him I must have been an unknown quantity and he asked me what I wanted from my lesson. I told him I wanted to cope better with poor snow conditions, ice, slush, powder or moguls, so that I could go anywhere there was cover, regardless of its quality, and no longer be restricted to the groomed pathways. He got me to do a couple of turns and said he thought I might be a grade five skier and perhaps he could set me on the path to grade six. That was encouraging, and I expected that we would head up the lift to the one available intermediate slope, but he led me out onto the baby slopes, saying that he wanted to go back to basics, and work forward from there. Then for the whole hour of the lesson he had me on almost level snow, just doing slow, gentle turns. At the end of the lesson he gave me two pieces of advice. Firstly, as I have to wear glasses, I should buy some decent goggles that would stop them fogging up, and protect them if I fell. Secondly, he admonished me that I was to do little else but to practice what he had shown me for the next day or two, and then I might be ready for something a little more advanced.
The young woman in the snow shop explained that there were goggles with frames specially designed to fit over prescription spectacles, and with multi-purpose lenses to cover all eventualities; double-glazed to prevent condensation, tinted to improve snow contrast in the overcast; and ultra-violet filtering to prevent eye damage when there was an ozone layer hole overhead. I decided to go for all the options, and paid almost as much for those goggles as I had for my first pair of skis. However, once I had them on over my glasses I had no more trouble with condensation or glare and I finally realised how I had been handicapping myself up till then.
For the next two days, with vastly improved vision I was able to concentrate on Jorge's slow turns in the beginners' area, weaving languidly among the few first timers being shown how to stay upright, and past the bucket-laden staff, still gleaning for stones as the sun continued to expose more of them with every passing hour. Stopping for lunch, I was surprised to find how tired I was. Normally I would ski much harder terrain and yet feel fresher than I was then. I ended up going back to the car each afternoon, setting my watch alarm and having an hour of deep sleep. Refreshed, I would be ready for another couple of hours' slow practice before getting back behind the wheel for the long crawl down the mountain to a warm bath and good dinner in the city, a soft bed and a book to fall asleep over.
Practice. I used to think that it was a terrible word. It once carried (and in echoes from the past it still sometimes does) unpleasant overtones of being virtually chained to a violin or piano, doing endless scales and repetitions of 'pieces' with slowly rising skill of execution, but rapidly falling enjoyment of the music itself. My mother would got me to agree to take lessons, telling me what a pleasure she found music, which was certainly true. She spent happy hours at the piano, playing and singing, both for herself or for the enjoyment of her friends, almost every day until shortly before her death fifty years later. But somehow she could not graft the same dedication for the piano onto me. Maybe it was simple childish rebellion, but I did not want to practice as she insisted, and the harder she pushed the more stubbornly I opposed. The whole exercise became tainted with conflict and confrontation, and when I had passed piano fourth grade we called a truce and abandoned that battleground. Shortly after, though, I discovered the trombone, of my own volition, and fifty years later I still spend happy hours with it. But perhaps it is not quite as suitable for pleasing one's friends as the piano would have been.
My first skiing trip was taken at about the same time as my first piano lesson, also arranged and supervised by my mother. Fortunately for my enjoyment of this sport, my mother was much less accomplished on boards than on keyboards and what ever skiing ability my parents had, I surpassed within the first hour. Like all kids on skis I was too close to the ground to know much fear, and learnt much faster than the adults, so I was soon beyond any danger of getting advice from my mother, which with my stubborn rejection of her teachings would have destroyed my pleasure in skiing, forever.
Fifty years later I am still skiing, perhaps a little better that I play the trombone. I do take occasional lessons in skiing; as you get older a mistake on the snow can lead to serious injury. Playing the trombone is generally much less risky - provided you keep it quiet enough not to disturb the neighbours - so lessons aren't so essential.
After the two days of practice my slow turns had become more consistent and I booked another lesson with Jorge, looking forward to the tutoring that, he had promised, would be 'a little more advanced'.
Jorge was as good as his word, but I had not understood what he meant by 'a little'. Again we spent an hour doing slow, gentle turns, but this time with subtle variations, designed to help me, he explained, unlearn even more of the bad habits that I had picked up during the last half-century. At the end of the hour Jorge once more told me to keep on with the practice. Oh, yes, I could let the speed rise a little, but only if I still had time, in every turn, to recite in my head, and rehearse with my skis, all the points he had made about the techniques to use with these damned, slow turns.
As he left me for his next class he told me that I was learning well, for my years, but that I was unknowingly making it hard for myself by skiing on straight edged skis. By now, at my age, if I wanted to keep coming up to the snow, I should consider the new design of skis with edges 'carved' to the radius of a large circle. This they would follow, as they were tilted and the edges bit, carrying you around your turns with much less effort. More suitable for my deteriorating strength. He had put it more tactfully than that, but I got the message and promised him that next time I went to the snow I would at least hire a pair of 'carvers' and see if they helped. Then I went off to continue with my practice.
The next day the field was closed due to a forecast of strong winds, which could pluck a car as if it were a toy, off the narrow road dug into the sheer side of the mountain, and drop it to crash and burn on the rocks hundreds of metres below. Fortunately the strongest winds brought the best snow. When the wind dropped the slopes would be well covered, so I took my enforced break in the city with the anticipation of much better conditions to follow. Anyhow, I reminded myself, I had flown in from Sydney both to ski and to visit friends, who I was now able to see without feeling that I was missing time on the slopes to do so.
When the winds fell, the buses and cars once more began grinding up the narrow ledge to the ski basin just below the peak. I then had only two days left before I would have to fly out, back to Sydney, but the previous day's wind storm had indeed brought excellent snow and I was able to concentrate on practising my long slow turns, going progressively further up towards the steeper parts of the basin as I got used to the change in style, and as additional runs were opened. I soon discovered that my speed on those turns was gradually increasing, almost without my noticing.
That afternoon, I found myself skiing with a Japanese who was visiting Mount Hutt for a conference on the training of ski instructors. His skill with English was about on a par with my skill on the snow, but at least when we talked about skiing we were able to augment our words with actions. He managed to communicate to me that he thought the exercises I was doing would eventually lead to better speed and control due to finishing each turn completely, without side-slipping, before starting the next, but only after I had increased my strength a little more. My respect for Jorge rose even further.
But there was an additional confirmation still to come. On the last day of my holiday I decided to seek a final session with Jorge, to check that I had not slid back into the old habits, and to cement what I had learnt from him. There was no doubt that he had taught me well. I had to acknowledge that in very few days I had been brought much closer to my aim of skiing all surfaces with confidence and safety. Although I was still only doing long, smooth turns, they were no longer baby-paced. I had progressed to far greater speeds than I had ever managed before. And I had a comfortable sense of control, with much less concern about the surface. I was doing those long turns off the groomed trails and over mixed bumps, slush and ice, without dismay, let alone the fear that they would have roused less than a week before. I felt safer, and I am sure that it was not merely imagined.
Unfortunately, I could not get my final booking with Jorge. The Olympic ski team were having a training day; he was their coach and therefore unavailable. It made no sense to take a lesson with someone else at that late stage, so I just continued practising the long turns, not knowing what, if anything, to move on to. While I was doing so, late on that last day, I was overtaken by a muscular young woman, crouched low, racing through a series of long, smooth curves, no stocks, her hands almost brushing the snow. Below me I saw her come to a stop and recognised Jorge standing beside her.
He waved a pole in the air, and shortly another young bullet flashed past me, following the same course. Well, I figured, if he's got the Olympic team doing long, smooth curves it can't be such baby stuff as I had originally feared. It had certainly done me no end of good. And if he was that right about my style he was probably right about my skis, too.
There and then I made up my mind that next time I went on the snow, it would be on carvers.
So here I am, late in the morning of an early spring day at Blue Cow. Instead of my trusty Head MX3s I am on a pair of hired Fischer X-Carve, widely flared at front and rear, and ten centimetres shorter than I would usually ski. The spring snow is soft with a heavy sort of fluffiness. Later in the day, if it keeps warm, it could reach almost a porridge consistency.
Remembering Jorge's lessons I start on the baby slopes, intending to do some long, slow turns. No way! These skis have got a mind of their own. They are certainly not doing what I want of them. Several times I come close to falling over, or running into bushes, rocks, or other skiers. I feel as if my feet are being pulled in all directions, and eventually that is exactly what happens, the safety binding finally releasing me to fall uninjured, for the first of many times that morning. I recover the ski, brush the snow off the binding, kick my boot back in and try again. And again. I must be overlooking something obvious. Then I remember something else that Jorge had said. On carvers I would not need to plant the poles quite so vigorously, perhaps not at all, and I might need to edge more with my knees and maybe less with my hips.
So I take the chair-lift up the baby slopes yet again, and this time it all seems to come together, sufficiently for me to be encouraged onto the easiest of the intermediate runs. The first time down I pick the very easiest way, taking one turn at a time, with less unweighting and minimal pole-plant. After each turn I pause to compare my performance with Jorge's mental list. I know I should be running smoothly out of one turn into the next, but it's too much for me to manage all at once. However, after several more runs the turns begin to link together and I start to get some same sense of control over these hired carvers that Jorge had helped me get over my own skis. When I manage a whole run without falling I decide that I am ready to leave the learners' area.
Though the sky is still clear, the weather report has been bad, so there is no queue for the chair-lift up to the peak. During the ride, alone on the four-place seat, I scan the snow below, checking which trails are clear, and where there are rocks showing. This is an area that I have skied many times before, but obstacles appear and disappear as the snow depth changes with the season.
For the next few hours I take myself back through the sequence that Jorge taught me, gradually increasing the speed as I become more accustomed to the carving skis. I rock my knees into long slow turns, then progressively into long, fast turns. I take some steeper runs, reducing the pole-plant until I am only holding the stocks, not poling at all, just using hand balance like the young Olympic team had, on my last day at Mount Hutt, two months earlier.
Now I seem to have speed and control. Can I manage moguls? Normally the answer would be a resounding No. Moguls have always been hard work for me. I have made a habit of skiing them from time to time, so that I won't be stuck there if that's the only way down, but it has never been a pleasure. Today is different. Either my improved long-turn technique has somehow generalised itself magically to the short-turn style that moguls demand, or the magic is in these skis. Perhaps a bit of both. I know that I'm still flailing a bit as I go round the bumps - but much less than I used to. The best part is that there is no sense of strain - this is not giving me the shakes. Actually, it's only now that I recognise that for years, skiing moguls has had that effect on me. No wonder I used to avoid them when I could.
Today the moguls have been tamed, possibly for ever. I make several runs down between the rocks and trees, over and round the bumps, with increasing comfort and enjoyment. Then, my confidence at a new high, I head over to the back face of the mountain, down the longest run on the field, marked on the charts for more advanced skiers only.
This is a run that I have attempted only three or four times before, perhaps once each season. Each time it has been a halting exploration, at not much more than a walking pace, rather than a ski-run. Lots of stops to let my legs recover from their quivering. Progressing by side-slip and snow-plough, finally reaching the bottom to collapse onto the chair-lift and be carried back, with relief, to the succour and safety of the intermediate runs that were then all I could really handle.
There is another reason why I generally avoided the advanced trails. Not only were they beyond my skill, but they are also less well supervised. Intermediate trails seem generally to be cut on the parts of the mountain that are always visible to the lift staff, but advanced trails are mostly quite out of sight, although they are patrolled at regular intervals. I wouldn't want to fall, and need help, alone and unseen. If I come to a fork with both an easy and a hard way down, my options are simple: go down the intermediate trail; ski with exaggerated care (as I have done in previous years); or wait and go down in a crowd, when one comes along.
Now I feel such confidence that I head up to the peak with the firm intention of skiing an advanced trail with verve. Pride won't let me take the easy ways out, so I wait until several groups are about to take the back trail, and head off among them.
I have a momentary qualm as they point their tips straight down the slope and start to swoop off, but I recite Jorge's mantra and push off, too, in my now habitual, long, linked turns. Amazing - I am actually staying with the others, though they seem to me to be skiing with speed and style, whilst I feel that I am just doing my basic practice exercise. Still, it's serving its purpose. Then the run narrows between the taller timbers of the lower slopes, and steepens. Without even thinking, I find myself doing short, fast turns. One of the groups is ahead of me by now, and as we come out of the trees I see that they turn straight down the hill, picking up the speed they need to carry across the flat meadow that leads into the bottom chair terminal. I do the same, now confident that the skis and technique will be up to it. Finally, with the long, smooth curve that has almost become second nature, I end up gliding through the empty marshalling rails, right up to the auto-gates just as they open; through the gates and on to the embarking point, all with one easy, controlled, continuous sequence, perfectly timed to sit me in the very next chair. Magic!
For the next hour I ski that long, advanced run as if it is what I have always done. Then, to vary the pace, back to the moguls. They too have the possibility of becoming truly smooth and controlled under my skis, though I may need another lesson to find out how to tame that tendency to flail when my confidence lapses briefly.
Well, I'm having a perfect day. The sky a full, rich blue. The snow rough and slushy enough, with patches of ice here and there, to test my new technique and these self-steering skis. But now, at three o'clock, I feel that enough is enough. After all, I have been skiing without a break for four hours, and it is time to call it a day, given my age, before I tire to the point of danger. It's always on the last, late run that the accidents are said to happen, and I don't want to add to the statistics.
I turn down one of the intermediate runs, heading to the chair-lift that will take me to the terminal where I will catch the cog-rail train down through its tube in the heart of the mountain, and out across the valley to where my car is waiting.
This is the first time today that I have come this way, though I have skied it many times in the past, and I checked it out from the chair as I went up a nearby lift, earlier in the day. I sweep around a grove of trees and find myself at the edge of a small gully, hardly more than a depression, that cuts across my path. I prepare to drop over the edge and make the quick right turn that will carry me back out onto the groomed slopes below. I put my weight forward as I go over the lip, and then too late, I see the extra wind-blown ridge of snow along the bottom. Too small and far below the lip to have been visible from the chair-lift, but perfectly placed to bury the ski tips, bringing them to a sudden stop.
The safety bindings snap free instantly as I am catapulted down into the yielding snow of the far side of the gully, tucking my head in, bringing up my hands to shield my face, and closing my eyes. I have a moment of pleasure that I wear shatter-proof, spring-framed glasses under my new, one-piece, padded goggles, and then my head is forced down to my chest with the force of the impact. I feel a stabbing pain in the back of my neck and at the same time I hear a sudden snap as everything goes quickly through dark blue to black.
As I open my eyes to the light again, I wonder whether I had blacked out, or had I merely lost the light as I plunged my head, face down, into a snowdrift, and then seen light again as I rolled away from it? And what was that snap? Have I broken my neck? My spine? Will I ever walk again?
I do a brief inventory. I am lying head down on the steep slope, out straight, on my right side. My neck is twisted to the left so that all I can see is the sky. The day pack is wedged behind my back. My left hand and arm are free and my right hand is under my head. I can wiggle my toes and fingers, so I still have a spinal cord. But if I have a neck fracture, trying to move could sever that delicate bundle of nerves, so I'm not game to try to see the chair-lift operators.
Am I hidden from them, in the bottom of this dip? I know I will be easily visible from the other trails around me. How can I attract attention without moving? And what can I do to prevent some other skier coming over the same edge, and right down on top of me? My poles straps are still round my wrists, so I wave the basket of the left pole in the air, keeping my arm immobile and only using the wrist.
I keep the basket swaying, balanced on the end of the hand-grip. My head is ringing, my feet, hands and face are numb and tingling, and I can't stop shivering, even though I don't feel at all cold.
Several skiers come right past me, but if they see me they give no sign of it. That's not such good news. However, there is at least another hour of good daylight yet before the field closes down, and I know that the whole area is thoroughly patrolled at the end of day, so I'm not likely to be left here over-night. Besides which, given enough time to recover and try some very gentle movements, I may find there is nothing broken, and be able to make my own way out of this. But the pain in the back of my neck suggests caution above all, and if I needed any further convincing, recalling the sound of the snap, as I hit, provides all the motivation that I need to be patient, and give help plenty of time to arrive, rather than risk becoming a basket case.
How ironic, I muse, if I have survived neck cancer and radical radiotherapy, only to be crippled by a broken neck on the ski slopes. Years earlier, I had given up skiing, figuring that the risks of fracture might be getting unacceptably high. But soon after that, when I was fifty, the cancer was diagnosed and I was given odds of seven to three against surviving if I had the operation and the treatment; and twenty to one against, if I didn't. After all the fuss and discomfort (quite severe discomfort, as it turned out) of the treatment, I actually survived, despite the odds. After that, the risk of a broken leg or two seemed trivial, and I figured that I might very well have been dead by now, in which case it would have been plain foolish to have given up such a pleasure as skiing in case some time in the future it just might have led to a sprain or fracture.
But now that I am lying here, rehearsing for quadriplegia, I begin to think differently about it. What about my dear Amelia? With her arthritis and high blood pressure she already depends so often on my strength and fitness. There is no way we could reverse those roles. She would never be able to lump my flaccid body around. Never. We would need daily nursing help for the rest of my life. That could be another thirty years. And how could I carry on writing?
Actually, I realise, my writing would be the easiest problem to solve, now that voice-operated computer dictation systems have finally come of age. And I perceive how one might design (if they weren't already available) voice-operated, computer-controlled, wheel-chairs and lifting systems, so that the two of us might manage tolerably well, with strong assistance perhaps only early each morning to help me get dressed and ready to face the day.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. This is a maudlin way of thinking, though it is passing the time while I wait to be seen and for help to arrive. I feel somewhat ashamed only now to be planning ahead. I should have been planning ahead more carefully when I came down this hill. I should have slowed at the edge of the gully and checked rather than going over at the speed I had, thinking that a glimpse from the chair-lift was sufficient. A little more care would have avoided this accident, and instead of lying here hurt I would have been in the cog train, on my way down to a glass of good wine and a decent meal. Ah, well. Too late for recriminations now. But it's something to remember for next time, if I come out of this still able to ski.
A shadow falls across me and a cheery voice says that he is Ian, and not to move, and what is my name? I tell him.
"Well John, can you tell me, without moving, do you have any pain?"
"Yes, the back of my neck."
"Can you feel your fingers and toes?"
"Yes, and I can wiggle them." I demonstrate with my left hand.
"That's good. Do you have any numbness or tingling?"
I think about that. The shivering has stopped and the tingling in my toes and fingers has decreased considerably, but my lips are still stinging somewhat. Later I realise that I have actually been struck in the face with a snow bank, and of course my lips will sting, just as our hands did when Mrs McDonald strapped them, during morning class, if we had not done the homework she had set.
Mrs McDonald was the senior teacher of the junior section of my last primary school, fifty-five years ago. She was herself clearly a Scot, as well as being married to one. At least, I think she was married, though in those days many single women, especially in the professions, called themselves 'Mrs' as a courtesy title. She had a thick accent, though I cannot say from what part of Scotland it came, and she had what I would now call a vigorously Calvinist approach to education. At the time we just called her 'The Ogre', and left it at that. I actually believe that she was one of the most reasonable and warm-hearted teachers I ever had, but the psychology of persuasion and motivation would not come into vogue for another twenty years, so she taught and disciplined as she had been trained to do; but I am sure she applied as little force as she could to her infrequent strapping, short of making a complete mockery of the proceedings.
I tell Ian that I have tingling lips, "As if I had been playing the trombone for too long, but that might not mean much to you."
"If it's anything like playing the euphonium for too long, then I might have half an idea." I am in luck, I think, being rescued by someone with first-aid skills, who is also a fellow brass band player with a good sense of humour to top it all off.
Ian feels for my pulse, tells me that it's strong, so he won't have to worry about me fainting on him. He asks me to describe what happened and what I experienced as I fell. When I have told him, he radios for assistance, describing where we are on the slopes, and giving each of the outcrops near us names that I have never seen on any of the maps and charts that are handed out to skiers, nor on the huge enlargements on the walls of the cog-rail stations. He calls for a medium neck brace, a scoop stretcher and a rescue sled, one of those canoe-like toboggans, with handles front and back, that most skiers will probably have seen sometime, leaning against the wall of a chair-lift station, or, at worst, being skied down a hill with a ski-patroller at front and rear, bringing some hapless casualty down to where they can get proper attention. There would be a few more who have seen that, after today. Right now, I rather wish I didn't know that they are nicknamed 'blood-buckets'.
When he has finished that radio message Ian explains to me that it will take a while for help to arrive with the equipment. While we are waiting, could I tell him something about myself?
Glad of the company, I ramble on a bit about what a great day I had been having up until then; how I had seen the ski patrol practising with the rescue-sled earlier in the day and my ghoulish thought about offering myself as a practice body provided I can only pretend to be injured. Ian seems to enjoy the irony. At any rate he gives a huge, warm laugh. His good humour is infectious and I find myself cheering up and starting to feel rather better.
"You know, I may merely be winded. There may be nothing wrong with me at all. I should not be putting you to all this trouble. I might have hurt myself a bit, but not have any injuries at all. In fact, I'm feeling steadily better as time goes by. Not that I'm enjoying being head down on a steep snow slope, having just banged myself round a bit, but taking all that into account, I could be a lot worse, perhaps."
"Perhaps, but as you say, we have to practice on someone, and we should get you checked before you try to move. You're obviously feel pretty good now, all things considered, and it would be a tragedy if you moved your neck and it all went wrong for you because we rushed things along too much."
Soon, several more people arrive, and between them they hold my head and body still while Ian takes off my goggles then eases off my neck-band and puts a neck-brace in its place. A half-stretcher is put down on the snow in front of me, and I feel what I guess is its other half being placed behind me. From what I can see it must be rather like the jaws of a 'clamshell excavator'. Two aluminium side-tubes that can be joined at head and foot with clipped crossbars, and along each of the side-tubes a series of wedge-shaped scoops that almost meet in the middle when the two sides are brought together, through the snow, underneath and without moving the patient, until the crossbars at head and foot finally meet and clamp the whole thing together. Then when it is lifted, the patient comes up too, without any change in the position of the limbs, head and neck.
Well, that's what it feels is happening to me. But before they lift me I am half buried under a criss-cross of webbing straps over feet, legs, body, arms, hands and head, with bolsters each side of my head. Then the whole lot is gradually tightened, gently but firmly, until I can't move, even if I were jolted around.
It's just as well they have strapped me in tightly. One heave - there must be quite a number round me by now, but still I can only see Ian - one heave and the stretcher is in the air, the foot still much higher than the head. I hear something being slid under me, and then I am lowered, neck-brace, stretcher and all, obviously into a rescue-sled.
Before they ski down with me, the patrol discuss where they will aim for. It will be too soft for the skidoo to tow me up to the cog-train terminal, so they decide to call for an ambulance to come up, and they will ski down with me and meet it when it arrives. I don't like this idea so much. Ambulances cost, and I would rather have one if I really need it, not just on the off-chance. I know the field has a fully equipped medical centre and I ask shouldn't I be taken there first for observation, before we go to that expense?
Well, they give me the choice. I can take the ambulance or I can get up now and walk away. They can't force me, either way. But I have a suspected neck injury and before they let me move, and risk becoming a quadriplegic, they want me to sign a release - while I can still move my arm and hand, perhaps. Actually, they don't put it quite that way, but the message is loud and clear. So I just lie there. Strapped in as I am, I have no hope of getting up without their help, in any case.
They radio for the ambulance, then two of them set off to meet it, down the hill at the head and foot of the blood-bucket, and me on it travelling head first. By that I mean head downwards. Not comfortable in itself, and made even worse by the jouncing and bouncing. Don't let anyone tell you that snow is soft and yielding. The noise - it's like being in a tin bucket while it's beaten with a stick. If I wasn't so tightly strapped down I would be getting a whole new set of bruises. And I don't know where they can possibly be heading, where they can reach a roadway, on skis, downhill, from where I fell, to meet the ambulance.
They stop, and, fortunately, I stop with them. Forty years ago, at Arthur's Pass, where the bottom of the field ends at a bluff, I saw a ski-patrol, practising with a blood-bucket (and a sack of snow in it to give it weight) lose control of it, and despite their best efforts, not be able to hold it back from going over the edge and down onto the rocks below, sack of snow and all. I didn't fancy being that sack of snow, not then and most certainly not now. But this isn't Arthur's Pass, and this run just levels out at its foot, so I guess I'm not really in that sort of danger. But nor am I anywhere near a road. How will we make contact with the ambulance?
My question is soon answered, as a growing roar heralds the arrival of what, with my reduced field of vision, looks for all the world like a road train of two white, armoured, personnel carriers - the sort that was made famous in the Gulf War. The back one opens out, someone jumps down and a new face comes to look at me.
"Hello, my name is Peter, what's yours?" I am getting used to this routine. By the end of this day, at least I will know how to say my name, and I do so now. "Well John, we are going to lift you up, head first, into the back of the Ambulance," - that's a joke. He should call it a tank - that's what it really is, "and then lower the head end down and strap you in. Okay?"
If I could have, I would have nodded. As it is, I say "Fine." What else can I do, suggest that feet first might be better? Or sideways, perhaps? So, I am slid in, head first as agreed, onto a low shelf at one side of the thickly padded interior. More straps and clamps. Peter climbs in with me, crouched low, almost crawling, I think. The inside of this thing is really very cramped, just a little box, like a wide coffin with peep-hole windows. Just room for me on my stretcher and Peter crouched beside. The driver must be in the front box, I guess, quite closed off away from the one we are in. I must have got quite the wrong impression from my viewpoint, lying on the ground, when I thought it was huge.
The motor roars into life, and rises in pitch as we move off. The thick padding seems to be working. Despite the noise I can hear Peter when he tells me he is going to put an oxygen mask over my face, "Okay?" Everyone has been telling me their names, and what they are going to do, and asking me if it's okay. I really do feel looked after, having my fears, needs and wishes considered. The service here is excellent. If I could get my hand into my pocket I would give them all a tip.
Peter must have read my mind. "What's your surname, John, and your address? What health fund do we bill?"
"What makes you think I am in a health fund?"
"They wouldn't have called us in otherwise. It would be a dreadful expense if you had to pay it out of your own pocket."
"Well, I'm not. You'll just have to bill me direct, I guess. How much am I going to be up for?"
He tells me the minimum fee for up to twenty kilometres, and explains, "but for that you get free use of oxygen, drips, pain killers and other drugs, heart starter, bandages and above all, my time and care." He's got me convinced. Perhaps I could go into cardiac arrest, on the way, to really get my money's worth. Actually, when I think about it, this is not an expensive service. Last time I had to call out a plumber to fix the guttering, when a rusty patch gave way and threatened to flood the lounge, it cost a great deal more than the hire of all this equipment and the support of Peter and Arthur, our driver who Peter talks to by two way radio. And as well, the plumber was there for less time.
Arthur, I think, is a rotten driver. He must be picking our way over the rockiest ground he can find. I thought the blood-bucket was rough, but this track-laying machine is bumping along like an unsprung old dray on a demolition site. I must be showing some discomfort, for Peter, to reassure me, says, "He will be changing gear soon, and there could be a little jolt." Little! There is a bang, like the blow of a huge rubber sledge-hammer on our padded coffin, and the bumping gets worse. "The Haglan gear shift is a bit savage, but we've never been able to get it any smoother." Great.
I lie there, thinking about how we would be heading to get to the medical centre. My best guess is that we have gone straight downhill to the Perisher River, barely a trickle at this time of year, and are now bouncing at full speed along the rocky river-bed. Of course we could be going by any other route, for all I knew. No way would be smooth; it would be naive to expect that. We are in the trackless mountains, rock-strewn and rugged, and as I am not actually being hurled against my straps by every bump, I think that I am actually getting a very gentle ride, given the nature of the landscape.
Peter keeps asking me questions. When did I learn to ski? What about it do I most enjoy? He keeps me talking all the way down the mountain, just as I was told to keep my brother talking, almost thirty years ago, at Mount Hutt, when he needed the inside of his left leg stitched up, where it had been cut by his right ski in one of his rare, but spectacular, wipe-outs. The field was then quite new and still had limited medical facilities. We could have waited almost an hour for an ambulance to grind up from the plains far below, and the same time again for the return trip, or they could strap him up temporarily, shoot him full of pain-killers and let me drive him down in the family car. Doing that, I could, and did, get him into the hospital casualty department in half the time. After the first-aid team had settled him in the back seat, ready for the long descent, they told me to keep him talking. As long as he was coherent I could be sure his vital signs were adequate, and could safely concentrate on the driving.
The main difficulty with that strategy was that my brother had never seemed too coherent to me and, doped to the eye-balls so that he would feel no pain, on that afternoon he was even less so. Fortunately the drive only took an hour. Keeping him talking was no problem - you couldn't shut him up. By the time we reached the hospital I had heard enough get-rich schemes and bird-pulling techniques to last a lifetime. The joke was probably on me, though. I should have listened more attentively. When we reached the hospital he managed to get assigned the friendliest, most attractive of the senior nurses. He persuaded her, when she had stitched up his leg, to stitch up his cut clothes as well, and, when she came off duty, to 'look after him' for the rest of the night. And he later went on to apply the other principles he had told me about. As a result, he became very successful, highly respected, and did indeed 'get rich'.
I wish I could ramble on this afternoon as usefully as my brother once had, but I haven't been given any pain-killers, though I do have an oxygen mask dropped over my face. As our noisy ride continues I keep chattering on until Peter is convinced that my condition has stabilised, when he agrees to tell me something about himself. When he is not on an ambulance roster he likes to ski as much as he can, and in the winter season he ferries his children to school then heads up to the snow slopes until it is time to pick them up again. I want to ask him what he does out of the skiing season, but we have run out of time. Our ride has changed from jouncing to the rumbling vibration of rubber tracks on sealed road. We have come off the rough slopes and are driving through Perisher Village to the medical centre, above the underground station where the cog-train climbs in its tunnel almost to the surface, halts briefly, then plunges down once more to continue its journey through the heart of the mountain.
Peter tells Arthur to pull up past the ambulance entrance, but not to back up to the doorway. He tells me that in reverse the ride can be very bumpy. Well, if it hasn't been bumpy up till now, I certainly would not want to experience it when it was, not in my present fragile condition, at any rate.
The rear hatch opens out, Peter unfolds himself out onto the ground then hauls me out after him. I feel more than hear the wheel frames drop into position and lock under me. Several other people, white gowned, join us and between them wheel me into the medical centre. The doorways, ceiling, lights and ventilator outlets go by overhead, backwards, just like they do in the movies. Out of the corner of my eye I see Peter tear a sheet of paper from a pad he is holding, and hand it to one of the white-coated figures. I now realise he has been taking notes in duplicate (or maybe even triplicate for all I know) as we made our bumpy way down.
One of the faces gathered around bends lower. Dark hair, medium length. Eyes kind, but tired. "Hello, I'm Dorothy. What's your name?" I tell her. She checks against the paper in her hand. "That's right. And what happened to you, John?" I tell her. She checks the paper again, shines a torch into my eyes. "Where do you hurt?"
"My feet. I have been suspended by these boots for so long that they have pressure points. My neck hurts, too, but right now the feet hurt more!"
She smiles briefly, then raises her voice, "I want him lifted onto the clinic trolley, stretcher and all, then the collapsible stretcher removed. We need two more people over here now, please. Thank you. Check your grip. Okay? One ... two ... lift!" I am swung off the ambulance trolley onto another. Hands support my legs, shoulders and head and the restraining straps are taken off. The clam-shell stretcher is taken apart and removed from each side, then I am told to hold myself rigid, and they roll me from one side to the other, and back, as they remove my pack, so I can be laid back, flat. Then they wheel me into a curtained cubicle.
Peter leans over me. "I'm going off now - I've left your skis and goggles here for you, but I'm not sure if I've got the right poles. Are they black?" I tell him they are vivid blue, grips, baskets and all, with a red flash down each side. "Oh, then I must have taken a staff pair by mistake." He straightens up, speaks into his radio. Gets the answer he wants. "They have got them up there. Julian will ski down with them and pick up his own. Worse things happen." He grins. "You'll be fine now. Okay?" I thank him. "Wait till you get our bill - see how you feel then." He leaves the cubicle and I hear him ask Dorothy for a medium neck brace, as he had passed his on to the alpine patrol in exchange for the one they had put onto me.
She replies that she wants to check my neck out now, in any case, and asks him to help take the brace off so he can take it back with him. He holds my head while she undoes the brace, asks me where it hurts as she feels around the back of my neck, and then puts another brace on. Peter gently releases my head and picks up the neck brace I had come in with.
"These things do move around a bit, but I can't think how the ski patrol got this one." He shows me where it's marked for the Flying Doctor Service, Northern Territory! Then he is off.
Dorothy says that if my boots are hurting me we had better take them off. The ski-patrol had already loosened them, when they first put me in the stretcher, and I would be able to kick them off for myself. Dorothy won't have any of that, though. "You just lie there, John. Don't try and move or do anything for yourself until the doctor has cleared you. Let me do this for you. By now I am very experienced at taking off skiers' boots and gear. Just relax and leave it to me." So I do. Then she drops a blanket over my stockinged feet and pulls the curtains behind her as she leaves.
As I lie there in the cubicle I hear other casualties arrive. From the conversations you can tell quite a lot. Some are brought in by friends, one by Peter and Arthur on their next trip in the 'ambulance', and another who had come down the mountain on a trolley in the cog-train is brought up from the station platform in the luggage lift.
Some time later my curtains open and a young man comes in with a clipboard. Large, and blond, he smiles. "Hello. I'm Herman. What's your name? I'm going to x-ray your neck." When he has finished writing up the details he wheels me off. Lights and ventilators sliding past, overhead; in the other direction this time.
In the radiography room, warmer than the cubicle, he partially removes my parka, enough to get zips and pockets out of the way so they will not cast shadows on the film, and takes several views of my neck, placing the film holder beside me or behind me. One shot is through my open mouth. Another, through my upper chest, he has to repeat because I hold my ski pants up with braces, and their metal fittings have cast a shadow just where the image of one of the suspect vertebrae should have appeared. Finally he is done and he chats to me as we wait for the developing machine to finish the films. Like Peter, Herman is a keen skier when he is off duty, but he does not live in the mountains with his family. His wife is a professional whose work keeps her in Sydney, and they have no children, so they accept that during the ski season they will only see each other for a day or so every few weeks. Up here, weekends are the busy times, so his days off are mainly rostered in mid-week, and then, of course, his wife is at work.
Finally the developing machine beeps softly and the last of my films is held up to the light and inspected. "They're good and clear, and I can't see any breaks or abnormalities, but I'm not the doctor. We'll see what he has to say." Back to the cubicle, curtains drawn and left to wait again. Out of the warmth of the radiography room I wish I had thought to ask Herman to put my parka back on for me, and Dorothy would be displeased if I tried to do it for myself. Ah well, it won't be for long, I think, and close my eyes against the lights.
I am woken by my next visitor nudging the trolley as he takes the xray films from the tray underneath, to hold them up to the light. I must have been asleep for some time, and I'm feeling rather chilly. I try to get more of the blanket round me, without moving my shoulders or neck.
"I'm Doctor Martinez. Don't worry about the blanket, I think you will be on your feet in a few minutes - there is no sign of any abnormality, but I'd like to check where you are feeling pain. First, let's get this neck brace off. You just lie still while I do that. Now, as I move my hand you tell me when it hurts. There? How about here? Worst just there, eh? Uncomfortable, sore, painful or agonising, would you say? Sore to painful - definitely not agonising? Good." He stops groping around my neck.
"As I help you, please sit up now. Feet over the other side, back to me. Good. I'm just going to feel your back and shoulders. No pain here, or here? Good. Still hurts here, but no worse than before? Good. Well, you can get dressed now, and leave, after you have paid your bill, of course. Have you anyone to look after you? Where are you staying? The neck is fine - I am happy to clear that for skiing tomorrow. The report says you heard something snap - well, it certainly wasn't your neck!" He laughs. I feel reassured, but only for a moment.
"There is still a chance that you were concussed. You need someone to check up on you late tonight and early tomorrow morning, and get you to the surgery if you cannot yourself because of any problem like dizziness, spasms, bleeding or vomiting. But if, as I expect, you are still fine by then, you may feel a bit tender, but you can go back on the slopes." I promise to get someone to check that I am okay, night and morning, and get me to the doctor if there are any such problems.
"Fine, then. You can get your clothes back on, collect your gear from the rack by the door, pay your bill and you are free to leave." So I put my damp, chilly skiing clothes and boots back on, vowing that in future I will carry a dry change in a back-pack, and go to pay my bill, handing over my credit-card as I reach the desk.
The surgery assistant glances through my notes, punching the codes on her keyboard, and swipes my card. As we wait for the printout of my transaction, she says, "Aren't you the lucky one. Land on your skull, twist your neck, hear a snap, but no signs of damage on the x-ray and only the slightest chance of a latent head injury."
She checks my signature against the card, gives me my receipt and points out the ski rack where I can see my skis and my bright blue poles.
Finally, she reaches down behind the desk and brings up my gloves and my special, new, anti-everything goggles.
"Oh, you might want these, too. I've put the lens back in for you."
"Thank you, but I didn't know it had been dislodged."
"Oh, you would have. It makes such a noise when it happens. As it popped out of its frame you would have heard it for sure!"
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins