SWD-III-1. Right Place, Wrong Time

I’ve always hated the sight of blood – especially my own. It was therefore alarming to find myself lying in a pool of it on what was now a decidedly red piste. All I could hear were the words, ‘je suis désolé,’ emanating repeatedly from Max, a young bare chested Swiss man, kneeling over my leg.

It was hard to be angry with someone who, so overwhelmed with remorse, had stripped naked to the waist in the freezing conditions.

Max had taken his upper garments off to use his absorbent base layer as a compress but, despite his efforts, the blood (my blood!) was rapidly pooling around me.

He may not have been the cause of the collision, but it was his board which had sliced through my leg, so I guess he felt responsible and had taken charge of the situation. Both of us knew that this wasn’t the time to be allocating blame. I wasn’t in significant pain or in shock; I was just concerned about the loss of blood.

I didn’t think my leg or my life were in jeopardy – I didn’t realise just how serious the situation was until I heard the sound of a helicopter.

I’d set off that January morning with the A-Team. Five of the best skiers I know: two former Ski Club leaders (Paul & Sarah), the Ski Nazis (Val & David) and Carol whose attitude towards skiing made the others look like skiing socialists. Even though they all knew the area well, I was leading this elite bunch because the Portes du Soleil (PdS) was my backyard and, after spending seven consecutive seasons in Morzine, I knew it better than most.

Season 8 had got off to a cracking start. Unburdened by chalet problems, Land Rover issues or hangovers, I’d been skiing well – although any skiing self-assessment is seldom an accurate one. I’d been training hard with other hopefuls, in a deluded attempt to improve my ski-instructor grading, by passing another course later that season. Despite a loathing of ski lessons, I’d recently invested a lot of time (and money) in them, and it seemed like some of the instruction had found its way to my legs.

That day, the off-piste had been uninviting, so we had opted for a piste tour of Switzerland.We had just crossed the border and were descending down the Swiss side of Mossettes, the highest peak in the PdS. We’d taken the steep, yet relatively easy, black run into Les Crosets and the Swiss canton of Valais. Any danger seemingly behind us, we schussed into the busy skiing crossroads at its centre.

Skiers and boarders were converging from several directions. I seemed to be on a collision course with a boarder. We both noticed that our trajectories intersected; we both changed to a new course but unfortunately they too intersected. Finally, at the last minute, we both turned sharply in opposite directions and the edge of the snowboard sliced across my right leg.

The impact didn’t knock me over. It felt like I’d been kicked in the shin while playing football – so, instinctively, I went down for a penalty. As I lay there protesting, I noticed a large slash in my salopettes.This pissed me off because they were brand new that season. Then I noticed blood trickling out of the tear and the realisation that I hadn’t been kicked with a football boot but with a sharp snowboard, sank in.

I hastily rolled my trouser leg up to reveal a close-up from a horror movie. The edge of the snowboard had sliced cleanly through the right side of my leg – the kick I’d felt had been the board hitting my shinbone.

‘That’s going to need more stitches to repair than my salopettes,’ I thought.

Thankfully Max had changed from snowboarding assassin into a bare chested superhero and immediately set about stemming the flow of claret. At the time, I didn’t realise they were the same person. I had thought the boarder I’d collided with was female and I was pretty sure she had been wearing clothes.

Val had skied over just in time for the gory reveal. She gasped and the look of horror on her face confirmed to me that I needed urgent medical attention – ‘Get me a pisteur,’ I cried, pointing at the closest lift station assuming they could quickly call for a paramedic. ‘A pastor?’ she questioned, having misheard me. A ‘pisteur,’ I repeated, thinking it was a little early for the clergy to get involved.

I wanted the lift-station attendant to call in a paramedic, as nobody else seemed to be bothering! There was actually a Poste de Secours (first aid post) only fifty metres behind me but I didn’t realise this or that Sarah had been over already and requested assistance. There was a delay because all the paramedics were attending other incidents.

Sarah subsequently returned to the post and explained the urgency of my situation – I was losing a lot of blood. Most skiing injuries are broken bones and ripped tendons, none of which require especially urgent attention, but blood is finite and I knew time was critical. Max was doing a good job but his undergarment was already soaked and, unlike my female friends, I didn’t want him to strip off any further.

Max was babbling on in French. Paul knelt by my head and acted as translator while trying to keep me calm. He suggested that I didn’t look at my injury – a statement that is only ever going to further alarm a victim who isn’t calm. I felt relatively calm and it seemed to me that those around me were not, which was alarming. Then Max, through Paul, asked me some seemingly unimportant question:

‘How old are you?’ – ‘Too young to die,’ I told him.
‘Can you feel your foot?’ – ‘No, it’s too far away for me to reach.’

The rest of the A-Team and some bystanders peered over my two attendants creating a tepee of concerned faces above me, some offering advice on whether it was a good idea to take my boot off. David, apparently more concerned for Max than me, took his jacket off and placed it around Max’s bare shoulders. Someone was trying to make me eat a piece of Mars bar and drink water. ‘Sod the water, where’s the St Bernard with the brandy?’ I thought. More importantly, ‘where is the real paramedic with a sledge?’

Eventually one turned up – a paramedic, not a dog that is. More accustomed to the sight of blood than the rest of us, the medic casually placed an industrial sized compress over my wound and secured it tightly with what appeared to be gaffer tape. He had a greater grasp of English than Max:

‘Where are you from?’ he asked.

‘England,’ I proudly declared, wondering why my nationality was important and hoping it wasn’t going to influence his decision making.

‘No, where are you staying?’ he added.
‘Morzine,’ I confirmed.

This was apparently quite important. He explained that he could simply take me to the nearest Swiss medical centre but the logistics of getting back to France after treatment would be worse for me than death – ‘easy for him to say,’ I thought. I then realised my passport was back in France. Knowing I was going to cross a border that day, I should really have been carrying it. I was an illegal immigrant and weirdly more scared of the resulting paperwork than of death.

So I agreed: a helicopter back to Morzine was the best option. Knowing that helicopter rides weren’t cheap, I accepted that the incident was definitely going to cost me an arm if not a leg.

Pointing to Val, the paramedic asked if my ‘wife’ wanted to travel with me. Her face turned from horrified to mortified and she quickly informed him we were just friends. Paul and Val then had a delicate discussion about who would be best to accompany me – a free helicopter ride was the prize at stake.

I asked Paul if he would come along. Instinctively, I knew he would be good in a crisis. Not only was his French effective but he was also a relatively casual friend. In order to appear brave and stoic, I needed the audience of a relative stranger. Val and I were too close – she knew I was neither brave nor stoic and it would have been hard keeping up pretences.

Using humour to deal with a crisis is a very British thing. In fact the best humour is borne from crisis and perhaps that’s why our humour is so renowned. To make light of a bad situation gives us perspective and helps us deal with turmoil; humour helps us emotionally disengage from a crisis and deal with it more effectively; humour is worn as armour to protect us from fear; humour in a crisis relies on the common understanding that life is mostly absurd – once you stop laughing at life you are sunk.

It turned out there wasn’t enough room for a chaperone on the helicopter, so after helping me aboard, Paul stood back and waved me off – with a small trace of disappointment on his face. I was disappointed too; I’d lost my translator and my audience – my sense of humour would soon follow.

The noise of the engine and the whopping of the rotor blades increased and we took off. I waved back at Paul smearing blood from my glove onto the window – my day’s skiing had turned into a war movie.

Once airborne I was distracted by the views and started to think more optimistically. They’d just sew me up at the medical centre in Morzine and I’d be joking in the bar with everyone that evening. I was unlikely to lose my leg and I was fairly confident I had renewed my travel insurance – so I’d be keeping both my arms too.

It was fascinating seeing the PdS from the air. We flew round Mossettes then swooped down the beautiful Abricotine valley. I could make out the pistes and the ant like figures skiing down them. I’d stood on those pistes many times and looked up at passing helicopters wondering who had been injured and how seriously – and this time it just happened to be me.

We banked hard left then passed over the Field of Dreams – a favourite off-piste skiing area of mine. We then flew down the Ardent valley and over Lake Montriond, which I had walked around two days earlier with friends.Through the chopper’s window, my favourite ski resort resembled a model railway layout. Instead of miniature tracks and trains, tiny skiers moved around the pistes. I was one of those figurines – extracted for repair by a giant hand.

The on-board medic tried to get my attention. He handed me a form to fill in and sign. I didn’t have my insurance details on me – who does? So I left all the boxes blank and simply signed the box next to a figure of €965 and waved my credit card at him. I’m not sure what the point of the form was. The price could have been €6,000 and I’d still have signed. Does anyone in that situation ever say, ‘that’s outrageous, drop me off here’ ? Anyway, if I was paying for the ride, I wanted to look out the window, not fill in a form.

We landed at Montriond, just outside Morzine, where an ambulance was waiting. Once I was loaded into the ambulance, the driver asked me how I was going to pay for the 1.5 km trip to Morzine’s medical centre. I waved my credit card again and we set off. The ubiquitous form appeared but no pen could be found – so I offered to sign it in blood. I don’t believe the French would actually leave someone to die if they couldn’t pay – France isn’t America after all – but they certainly give you the impression they will. I was delivered to the medical centre, transferred to a gurney and wheeled down a corridor into a windowless room.

The ambulance driver skilfully took my ski boots off, which was impressive; I find it a hard enough thing to do when both my legs are fully attached. He put the boots, along with the rest of my equipment (skis, helmet, jacket and gloves), into a cloakroom then busied himself cleaning up the trail of blood we’d left along the corridor. He then produced a credit-card machine. I got my pin code wrong a couple of times, which was alarming for us both, then the machine finally accepted I was the card’s rightful owner and spat out a receipt. He wished me ‘bonne chance’, then left – the good luck wish had only cost me €125.

I lay on the gurney for about twenty minutes listening to the sound of blood dripping onto the floor and wishing I’d extracted my phone before parting with my jacket. Then the infamous Dr Julian appeared and slowly started to gather suturing equipment. I asked him to retrieve my phone – he obliged.

Anyone who has been injured in Morzine in the last two decades will have met Dr Julian – not all encounters are reported favourably. He must be tired of treating Brits with what are essentially, self- inflicted injuries so his bedside manner should be excused. I had met him several times before, while accompanying injured guests, but this was my first encounter as a patient. His familiar grumpy face was reassuring.

Dr J called his assistant into the room. I watched her face gasp as he removed the final layer of the paramedic’s compress. After poking around in my wound for a bit he put his tools down.‘This is too deep, you’re going to need surgery in the hospital at Thonon’, he declared (Thonon-les-Bains); to his credit, this was the right course of action.

My heart sank. I was going to enter the French medical system. I knew from personal experience how hard it was to escape from that institution. I’d pulled it off once before in Reims a few years back, but I’d had the use of both legs that time. Even though I’ve seen the Steve McQueen movie ‘Papillion’ several times, I still maintain that it’s easier to escape a French penal colony than a French hospital.

By way of resignation, Dr J peeled off his gloves then left his assistant to apply a new dressing to my wound, which she secured with the now familiar, gaffer tape. She took her gloves off too then left me alone in the room with my thoughts. I reflected on the accident.

It wasn’t really Max’s fault. He may well have sharpened the edges of his board the night before, but we were both culpable for the collision. It could easily have been one of my edges that had sliced through one of his limbs. If his board had hit me four inches lower, the only damage would have been a badly scratched boot. If the impact had been four inches higher his blade would have sliced through my knee – the consequence of which I didn’t want to contemplate. I concluded that I had actually been lucky.

Luck had also chosen a good place for my first serious skiing accident – the bottom of a piste near a first-aid station. Had I been deep off-piste, medical attention and evacuation wouldn’t have been so swift. However, I had been unlucky that no paramedics were immediately available. I’d been injured in the right place – but at the wrong time. Luck had also been kind with the weather. It had been a still day with good visibility. I’ve often skied in conditions where helicopters would have been grounded.

In a childish way, I had hoped that, should I be injured, it would be during some foolishly gnarly descent and hopefully caught on video. A survival story, that got more heroic every time I told it, might have emerged. But as luck would have it, I got felled at low speed on a flat area, in good conditions with lots of people around to help. I wanted a story of misadventure, not one of random bad luck – but those are the breaks you get.

I contemplated what I could have done differently to avoid the accident. Perhaps luck, or bad luck, had nothing to do with it? I could have chosen another route and taken the red instead of the black run to descend into Les Crosets; I could have headed to a different lift, there were two others nearby; that day, we could have decided not to ski over to Switzerland at all.

We had discussed having coffee only twenty minutes earlier, but the Ski Nazis were having none of it. I could have skied more slowly, put in more turns or paused to enjoy the view half way down the black run – but I was leading the charge. If we hadn’t loitered for a second cup of tea before leaving the chalet, the whole time frame would have been different and the collision would not have occurred. Had I made a different choice at each juncture I wouldn’t have found myself in that place and at that time but my choices, however unknowingly, had led me to my destiny. Of course, in a parallel universe, Max might not have existed or I might have been a seagull – but that’s enough fatalism for now.

Next I contemplated whether or not to call Debbie (Dr Debs), my soon-to-be wife. What could she do in England other than worry? Legs weren’t really her medical speciality. She at least needed to know my intended location (Thonon) in case I passed out, so I reluctantly made the call.

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