Higher up in the couloir but out of sight behind a rocky constriction, Joel hears the scream bouncing off the steep walls of the Rectiligne and, I assume, my enthusiastic cries of “cunt!” and “stop stop stop…” Around seventy metres below him, and, closer to the action, my own ears are filled with the sound of leather gloves scrabbling around ineffectively, and the noise of trailing ski edges and face-flesh dragging across hard snow. Fifteen, perhaps twenty metres after my left ski tip had buried itself under a regrettably thick crust, throwing me into a perfect somersault, I somehow grind to a halt. Hanging onto a hole in the crust with one hand, I swing my skis below me and stand up, noticing painlessly that I can’t raise my right arm, but all the fingers still work. I throw in two quick turns and slide across to a little niche in the side of the couloir, out of the way of any debris Joel might dislodge as he skis down, but then my phone rings. It’s Joel, suggesting we abandon the original plan – to ski the Rectiligne, tour across the bottom of the Pas de Chevre to the Poubelle, then boot it back up to the Bochard – and instead turn around. He’s having about as much fun as I am on the impossibly-icy snow, and the Rectiligne somehow feels steeper and scarier than usual. I readily agree, then hang up.
With a small degree of alarm I notice the pain in my right shoulder steadily increasing, and with only one hand it takes a fair while longer than usual to switch to crampons and strap my skis to my pack, but soon enough I am on my way back up. When I get near to Joel, I suggest it might be quicker for him to put the bootpack in – I’ve already done my fair share anyway, he just didn’t get to follow me up it. We eventually reach the mouth of the couloir, and have to climb back over the rocky step that required some interesting dry skiing manoeuvres on the way down. The snow, barely covering the rocks at the entrance, crumbles away under my feet, and as I drag my way up with crampons and axe plugged blindly onto brittle rock, my helpless right arm flops around under my chest. This causes a pain as bad as any I can remember, the kind that makes you want to vomit, and my shrieks and yelping do nothing to curb it. Finally, I make it out, and breathing deeply through gritted teeth, I glance behind me: the couloir beneath us now glows in glorious sunlight, and will probably be incredible skiing in about half-an-hour’s time. If only we had had a little more patience.
A hot bath and a cold beer do nothing to cure my ills, and after a quick trip to Dr Hurry the next morning, I have been sent straight to hospital.
Ceiling tiles fly past as I am trundled along a corridor by yet another very pretty, impossibly cheerful girl at my feet, and a dashing young porter at my head, out of sight. They are taking me to the anaesthetist.
“So what’s wrong with you,” she asks with a grin, “Your knees?”
“No no, broken shoulder.” I reply, tapping it gently.
“Oh…” she frowns, looking at the notice pinned to the end of my bed. “You sure?”
“I think so!”
“So your knees are okay?”
“For now, yes…”
The three of us laugh.
Ten minutes after stabbing my neck with a series of scary-large needles, my anaesthetist comes over to check on me.
“See how you can’t lift your arm now?” he says, picking it up for me. “That’s the local anaesthetic starting to work.”
“Okay, but I couldn’t lift it this morning, either…”
“And there’s no pain, see…” he continues, dropping my arm roughly back onto the bed. I wince and inhale sharply in disagreement.
“Well, we’ll just wait a bit longer then.”
A breathing mask is placed over my mouth and nose. “It’s just oxygen,” another beautiful face tells me from behind her surgical mask. I glance over my left shoulder again at the computer screen detailing my breathing rate and heartbeat. They are lower than they were a few minutes ago. Someone is gently rubbing my right knee, patting my leg soothingly. The bed opens up below me, I’m falling backwards in slow-motion. The drugs take hold, the narrative ceases.
So, three screws and thirteen staples later, I guess that’s it for me, for at least a few weeks. My immediate future contains a lot of telly and painkillers, and very little in the way of outdoor activity. All I can do, though, is count my blessings: my cell mate, who spent his whole Christmas holiday in bed with a rock-shattered hip, tells me that the last guy in the room was a ski instructor who had also done his shoulder, except he has seven screws, future surgery, and over six months out of action. No matter what goes wrong in your life, there is always, always, someone worse off than yourself.
I hope that the rest of you make the most of your time out there in the snow, and I pray that you make all the right decisions. I’m sure I’ll be able to join you soon enough, but until then, have a blast!