It had been another long day in the office. The clients had treated me to lunch, a very important part of my working day – it was my only fee for being their guide. Now it was time to be their chauffeur and drive them back to the chalet.
It was January and Season 5 had just got into full swing thanks to a much-needed dump of snow. I was really enjoying being back at what I called ‘work’ after another long summer.
If I needed confirmation, and I often did, that I was ‘living the dream’ it was on my commute to work. After four consecutive ski seasons in the Alps I’d started to take many aspects of my winter life for granted and some had become mundane. However, the fabulous scenery still took my breath away and reminded me why I’d chosen this winter life.
Landie, my battered Defender, was the worst company car I’d ever had. In my previous life, the make, model and engine size of my car seemed important, but no matter how luxurious or fast my vehicle was, I’d spend more time in it screaming at the traffic, stressed about being late, than driving it on the open road. There wasn’t a rush hour in this winter wonderland and the traffic was always light – I always enjoyed driving Landie on my commute to work.
Parking at the office was never an issue either. Landie could get to parts of the Ardent car park that lesser vehicles couldn’t reach – I could always find a space right next to the piste. I used to brag that the chalet might not be ski-in/ski-out but the back of my Land Rover was.
I didn’t always drive to Ardent. Not all my guests wanted a guided tour of the Portes du Soleil (PdS). If they did, the Ardent bubble provided direct access into Les Lindarets and beyond into Switzerland, avoiding the often congested Avoriaz area.So the twenty-minute drive there saved time.
The road from Ardent wound its way down to Morzine past Lac Montriond, a sight that could only be surpassed in beauty by its unfrozen self. I’d visited the lake during the summer too and seen the abundance of fish swimming in its turquoise water. Whenever I drove past in the winter I thought of them, now trapped in their ice-capped tomb, waiting for summer to return.
The lake usually has a square hole, made by ice divers, a hundred metres out from the bank. I always wondered what kind of lunatic wanted to go ice diving – perhaps lunatics who didn’t find skiing exciting or dangerous enough?
I tried scuba diving once in Egypt and didn’t really get on with it.The Ski Demons had obviously contacted their aquatic relatives (The Dive Demons) and they got inside my head.When diving, it’s important not to panic and shoot to the surface – something I had an almost irresistible urge to do. I never went deep enough to risk getting the bends if I did. However, my instructor had explained the respiratory damage a rapid surfacing might cause – ironically, while she puffed on a fag. In the Red Sea, the reward for taking such risks are obvious – seeing a coral reef at first hand. The attractions of floating in the dark under a sheet of ice are not so obvious – although it does take away the danger of premature surfacing, I’ll admit. Anyway, back to skiing.
Despite its beauty, Lac Montriond has had a macabre past. Recently, it’s been the site of a murder and a suicide. A jealous husband, suspecting his wife of infidelity, cut her air pipe and then his own,while under the ice.When I heard the story,it confirmed that my assessment of an ice diver’s mental health was accurate.
The Morzine-Ardent road has a reputation for being treacherous. Friend and ski-shop owner, Michel, had warned me about the road many times, but I had not heeded him. It didn’t seem that bad to me and, anyway, I was driving up and down it in a vehicle perfectly designed for the task.
I’d had one minor scare a few seasons back when the road was covered in snow, while I was ferrying a group of heart surgeons to their hotel. I was giving them my tour guide spiel, pointing out the hole and telling them about the ice murder, when I noticed that my brakes weren’t being especially effective. I kept schtum and hoped that the decision not to put snow chains on wouldn’t result in a major setback for Birmingham’s heart-transplantation service where most of them worked – luckily it didn’t.
That January however, the road was dry and I had been skiing with my favourite group of property developers, along with their lawyer.They’d been supporters of the Chalet Project since its conception and had become friends.We’d had a great day skiing and an even better lunch. I didn’t give them my tour guide spiel because they’d heard it many times before, along with my opinions on ice diving. I decided to put some music on and get the après ski mood going.
The road ahead had been cut into the side of the mountain. Like many alpine roads, sections of it had concrete canopies to shield it from avalanches but the last such structures were behind us.The steep mountainside was covered in snow that flanked the road on its left, effectively creating a wall of snow. A small drainage ditch ran along the bottom of the snow wall and a tree-filled gorge ran down the right side of the road, which might have warranted a safety barrier had this section of the road not been long, flat and straight.
I took one hand off the wheel to fiddle with the portable boom box dangling from Landie’s mirror and tried to turn it on.While doing so I noticed in the mirror that Landie’s rear wheels where no longer following her front ones, but trying to overtake them.
I wasn’t alone in noticing this overtaking manoeuvre, judging by the communal intake of breath. I took my foot off the accelerator and steered left into the skid. This appeared to work, and the rear wheels fell back into line with the front, causing everyone to breathe out.
Luckily there was no oncoming traffic because we were now on the wrong side of the road, heading towards the snow wall and its ditch. So I pointed Landie towards the right side of the road, only to see the rear wheels swing out to the right – we all breathed in again. I steered into this skid too, successfully, realigning the wheels, and we all breathed out. But now, although we were on the right side of the road we were heading towards the gorge, a far more worrying destination than the ditch – once again we all simultaneously inhaled.
This time I dabbed the brakes while applying the opposite lock, but this seemed to increase the arc of the pendulum that the back of Landie had become.We headed back to the ditch, everyone exhaling. Nothing I tried seemed to dampen the pendulum’s swing – I’d effectively become a passenger too. Each oscillation of the pendulum took us closer to the gorge or ditch in turn. It would swing back and forth several more times before our breathing exercises were over.
It was like watching the white ball bounce around a roulette wheel after putting all your money on black.The gorge was red and an encounter with its unyielding trees would mean almost certain death.The ditch represented black and an encounter with its snow wall would be far more survivable. Landie was the ball and she had an equal chance of coming to rest on either colour.
I’ve never been a gambling man. I’ve been to Vegas a couple of times, but the biggest risk I took there was getting married. Gambling is the one vice I don’t have.This is because I’ve always considered myself to be an unlucky person – if such a person can exist. My pessimism has never really let me down so I only take risks if the odds are massively stacked in my favour. I always try and have a backup plan for when/if things go wrong because, being an unlucky person, they usually do.
I’d been taking a small, calculated risk every time I’d driven down that road, but now the odds had risen to fifty-fifty and there was no backup plan; it had turned into a gamble and we were all in.
Now that I was a passenger and a gambler, there seemed to be lots of time to reflect. Many say your whole life flashes before you when you face imminent death and that the slideshow takes only a few milliseconds to complete.Time definitely stood still for me and I remember some of my thoughts.
Three years earlier, at my lowest ebb, I wouldn’t have been that bothered which colour the metaphorical ball landed on – except that red, in the short term at least, might be more painful.
That wasn’t something I generally shared with people back then. Nobody wants an apathetic fatalist with suicidal tendencies for their chalet host, let alone their driver. However, while watching the metaphor spin, I realised that things had significantly changed for me – I had quite a big stake on black.
Apart from the irritation of my own looming death, five other souls shared my fate and I really didn’t want to be responsible for theirs. I consoled myself with the thought that at least they were property developers, not heart surgeons, and their death would be less of a loss to humanity – if more than my own.
I then noticed the lawyer was sitting next to me and he was wearing his seat belt – as unusually was I.We stood a much better chance of surviving a tumble down the gorge than those in the back who were not. Nobody wants to survive a fatal crash they might have caused and you certainly don’t want the other survivor to be a lawyer.
Also, I regretted chucking the skis in the back with their owners instead of putting them on the roof rack. Should we roll down the gorge they would make effective blades in the human liquidiser the back of Landie would become.
Next I felt annoyed. If I died I wouldn’t be able to finish my book.Would it get published posthumously? On the positive side, my death would probably help sales. Perhaps I might end up only badly injured? I was looking for a more dramatic last chapter – this could be it.The book would have a pleasing symmetry if it started and ended in a French hospital.
I had other unfinished business too. Not least the stew I had left in the slow cooker that morning. I was irritated that, having gone through a lot of trouble reshaping my life (and peeling the vegetables for the stew). I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy it. I’d previously professed to want my death to come through misadventure (in a no-alcohol related incident) but I’d envisaged it being a far more glamorous event and some distance in the future – although this was at least a beautiful spot to die.
If I did die or, worse, simply got injured, who would run the chalet? I’d let a lot of people down. I might not be too upset at dying, but it would really damage my business – my family (new and old) would be quite upset too.
After five swings of the pendulum, the front left wheel went over the edge of the ditch pulling Landie into the welcoming bosom of the snow wall and time returned to its normal pace.
We ground to a halt, tipped up on our side at a forty-five-degree angle, with the left-hand wheels in the ditch and the front right- hand wheel in the air. I was the first to speak.
‘Well, that was exciting. Everyone okay?’ I enquired.There was no immediate reply, presumably my passengers were doing a self-assessment before speaking or were simply lost for words.
I turned to see four ashen faces looking back at me. I don’t remember exactly what was said next, I do recall a lot of expletives, but the general sentiment was along the lines of ‘thank fuck for that’ – never have six blokes ever been so glad to find themselves in a ditch together.
I climbed out of the elevated driver’s door and the lawyer followed me – the snow bank prevented him from opening the passenger door. Mercifully he was uninjured. Those who had narrowly escaped liquidation spilled out of the rear door. Some crossed the road and peered down the gorge giggling nervously. I started assessing the damage to Landie, which was surprisingly light, and started chuckling to myself – perhaps I wasn’t such an unlucky person after all?
Unfortunately, Landie’s differential lock was broken and wouldn’t engage, so I could only get power to the airborne wheel, which wasn’t terribly useful. A snowplough went past, the driver more annoyed at the obstruction we were causing than interested in our plight, then a passing Land Cruiser did stop and the driver offered to pull Landie out. Despite the humiliation of having my nation’s finest off-road vehicle rescued by Japan’s, I accepted. Luckily I had a towrope, more commonly used by me to rescue other vehicles than to rescue myself.
The Ardent Incident, as it became known, shook me to the core. It wasn’t the first or indeed the last time I’d be a passenger behind Landie’s steering wheel,but nothing quite so dramatic had occurred before or has, thankfully, since. I turned into a nervous driver for most of that season and seldom drove to Ardent. Winning the gamble of my life had a more profound effect too – it sent me down a different philosophical road.
Having almost just lost my life, I began to wonder if I was wasting it. What exactly was the point of my existence? What purpose did it serve? Was I born to ski, eat and drink a lot, then die? How would I be remembered and what legacy would I leave? Was hedonism really for me? The ball landing on black had given me a second chance and I still had a useful amount
of time left. Should I return to reality, get a proper job and start living a meaningful life? Was it time to end the Chalet Project? These questions preyed on my mind for most of that winter and the following summer too.
One good thing: the property developers obviously didn’t find the experience particularly profound because they returned to Morzine and stayed with me the following year.They even rode in Landie – although they insisted the skis went on the roof and they did bring their lawyer again – but I made him sit in the back.
Each had a slightly different account of the incident and each account diverged further from the truth each time it was told – as no doubt does mine. I argued that black ice was the most likely culprit and my driving skills had actually saved their lives, not endangered them.2
My truth is that we were all both very unlucky and yet incredibly lucky at the same time that day – and, most importantly, we all lived to enjoy the stew.