I spent the first week of January at Les Gets in the French Alps during the unseasonal spring weather. No snow and no lifts running. We drove 20 minutes further up the valley to ski on two-week old heavy wet snow at Avoriaz, and a couple of days it was even raining on the snow. A taste of what global warming has in store for us.
Over the last week, it has snowed heavily on the mountains around Geneva, and in Geneva itself. So my younger son and I went up to Les Gets for the day and had a wonderful day skiing on fairly fresh snow in brilliant sunshine. The temperature was about -6 C when we got there about 9.30 am and rose to a little above zero in the middle of the day in the sunshine. Here are some photos.
In my first post on near-death experiences (NDE), I recalled two incidents where I was knocked unconscious and would never have known if I had died (which was by no means unlikely). The following two incidents are quite different. In both cases I fell off a cliff and was fully conscious till I hit the ground below.
The first incident occurred on a solo cross-country ski trip in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. My friends and I had driven from Sydney through the night to arrive in Thredbo early Saturday morning. Our plan was to catch the chairlift up to the snow and then ski cross-country to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain at 7,310 feet. However, the weather forecast was bad with strong winds and low visibility predicted in the summit region and my friends decided it was not a good idea to go. I was not happy, having driven all night to get there, and told them I would go on my own without them. Not my brightest moment, although I had done this trip before and knew the route.
I skied the approximately six kilometres to Mt Kosciuszko without any problems. As I ascended to the summit, the wind became much stronger and the clouds blew in, reducing visibility to around 10 metres or less. I reached the summit, and then turned back, skiing so I thought back down the same ridge I had ascended. Visibility was very low and not too far along the ridge, I suddenly found myself airborn and falling fast. I had skied off a cliff in the white-out. I fell for long enough to have time to think about whether I knew of any cliffs on Kosciuszko or how high they were. There was no fear, and my life did not flash before my eyes, I was simply focused on figuring out whether I was in for a big fall. I landed in a deep drift of powder snow without any injury.
I assumed I had skied off the north side of Kosciuszko (as it later turned out correctly) and that if I skied down the valley I was in I would come within a kilometre or so to a line of snow poles that marked the track from Seaman’s Hut back to the top of the chairlift. So I set off down the valley still with very low visibility and soon enough reached the snow poles. I started to ski east following the snow poles and the visibility was just enough that I could see the next snow pole from the one I was at. However, the snow was deep and after a little while the snow poles ahead of me disappeared under the snow. I tried skiing as far as I could keeping the last snow pole in sight but I could not find another. It was now late afternoon and I was concerned that I might have to spend the night on the snow. I had come out in a shirt and wind jacket and was carrying no additional warm clothing.
Then two more skiers appeared. They had also been trying to follow the snow poles back to Thredbo. With the three of us we were able to use our packs and items of clothing to extend the search area much further while marking the route back to the last pole. We were lucky and found the continuation of the snow pole line. And were able to get back to the chairlift just before dark in time to catch the last chairlift down.
If I had not come across the other two skiers, there would have been quite a chance that I got lost again in the snow and probably would not have survived the night.
In the second incident, I was descending a canyon in the Blue Mountains with two friends. I was setting up a rope to rappel down a waterfall about 15-20 metres high, and it was very slippery. As I walked out to the lip of the waterfall to throw the rope down, I thought “if I slip I will just grab the rope”. I did slip, and I grabbed the bottom end of the rope, not the upper part closest to the tree the rope was looped around. The waterfall was close to vertical. As I fell, I bounced off a couple of rock ledges which may have slowed my fall. I landed in a shallow pool at the bottom of the waterfall that had a flat rock bottom and was about 1 foot deep. By chance, I landed with my body absolutely horizontal, and got up and walked away with some bruises. If I had landed at any other angle I would have been dead or severely disabled. I yelled to my friends up top: “you don’t need a rope for this one”.
In this incident, the fall happened so fast, that I don’t recall having any thoughts whatsoever. I was just in the moment, experiencing the ride and finding myself lying flat in a shallow pool before I had had a chance to think of anything at all. In this type of NDE, everything happened quite fast, and if I thought at all it was practical thoughts like do I have any idea how far I will fall? And in both cases, stupidity was the cause and sheer luck resulted in survival without injury.
A couple of days before Christmas, my younger son invited me to join him for a day skiing in the Swiss Alps. Champéry lies in a side valley of the Rhone valley under the Dents du Midi (“Teeth of Noon”) mountain range. I’d last skied there years ago (see earlier post). At less than a day’s notice, I rang the hotel he was staying at and booked a room for the night. The hotels and the ski slopes were half empty because of the Covid travel bans, particularly for the many British who had planned ski holidays in Switzerland and nearby France.
Not far down the corridor from my office in WHO was a floor-to-ceiling bronze relief sculpture showing the struggle of Man against Death. It was a gift to WHO from the Vatican in 1966, and was located very appropriately, given that a major focus of my unit was to monitor trends and improvements in death rates and their causes.
Switzerland has kept its ski resorts open while all neighbouring countries closed. Hardly surprising that 4,200 British skiers turned up for the Christmas-New Year period just after the new faster spreading covid-19 virus took British new cases through the roof at exponential speed. The Swiss then imposed a retrospective quarantine on the British visitors after they arrived, and almost all of them snuck out during the night and left. Left a lot of anti-British feeling behind.
I and my boys are of like mind that it would be madness to go to one of the major resorts like Verbier, where many British go. Likely the people there are now incubating new infections. But my neighbours packed their car and head up to Verbier today, confident the virus left with the British. I’ve spent a number of New Years at Verbier, particularly back in the noughties (2000-2009) during part of which I rented a studio apartment in Verbier so I could go up for weekends and longer holidays whenever I wanted. Here are some photos from those days.
Two parapenters fly above the mountains at Verbier
View from the top of Mont Fort (3330 m). The three peaks on the horizon from l.to.r are Dent Blanche (4356 m), Matterhorn (4478 m in niddle) and Dent d’Hérens (4171 m)
Switzerland has angered neighboring countries by keeping the ski slopes open this winter, despite the risks associated with skiing and the coronavirus pandemic. However, national and cantonal restrictions apply, and Les Portes du Soleil where the boys and I have often skied has set a quota for the numbers of skiers allowed on the slopes. I’ve decided to avoid the ski resorts this winter, at least until the covid situation improves or we have been vaccinated.
Its snowing here on Christmas Day in Geneva, though not quite enough to ski on. I’ve been skiing around the Christmas-New Year period quite a few of the years I’ve been in Geneva. Here are a few photos from two Christmas’s spent at Arosa in northeast Switzerland in 2001, 2005 and 2007. Good times.
Below left: looking down the Hörnli Express to the village of Arosa. Right: Hörnli 2511m.
Enjoying the winter sun on the piste in December 2001
Lamp post in the forest near our hotel. I think I must have gone out through the wardrobe.
I have just spent a week skiing in the French Alps with my younger son. We stayed in a chalet above the village of Les Gets in Les Portes du Soleil ski doman (the Gates of the Sun). Normally the snow is down to the village, but this February is the warmest I have experienced since I have lived in Geneva and the snow did not extend much lower than our chalet. Fortunately it snowed quite a bit after we arrived, and there was plenty of fresh powder for skiing. And enough to ski back to our chalet at the end of the day.
Its starting to turn cold in Geneva, and my thoughts turn towards skiing in the coming winter. I was cleaning up my photo library the other day, and came across some photos from January 2003 of skiing in deep fresh powder snow at Verbier in the Swiss Alps. Verbier is a bit under two hours drive from Geneva and is a renowned ski resort with spectacular scenery and skiing, with many difficult “black” pistes, and extensive off-piste skiing. In the first few years I was in Geneva, Verbier was my regular ski destination, and for a couple of years I rented a small studio apartment there so I could go up for weekends and longer periods when possible. The following photos were all taken in the main ski domain around Atelas (2727 m), La Chaux (2260 m), Fontanet (2485 m), Col des Gentianes (2950 m).
This is my last free solo story. Engraved in my memory like it was yesterday, though I am not sure what year it happened. Was around 1975 I think, though possibly a bit later. In those days, I was hanging around with a bunch of rock climbers and following them up easier climbs. I didn’t think of myself as a rock climber though, because I was content to follow as a second, belaying the lead climber leading the pitches. I occasionally led a pitch if I felt comfortable, particularly if it was a chimney or a good solid crack where I felt pretty comfortable that I could glue myself to the rock. Much less so on slabs where it was all about balance and using friction on tiny ledges and bumps in the rock.
Climbers on Hermes, Booroomba, ACT.
This particular trip was to Booroomba Rocks, not far to the south of Canberra.This has spectacular climbs on granite, and the main cliff line is up to 140 metres high.The photo above shows two friends climbing Hermes (Grade 16, 50 m high), one is visible climbing the crack in the middle of the photo and the other is belaying from a ledge below him. The climb continues up the crack just in the shadow and then towards the right under a big overhang .Someone died around 1971 attempting to free solo Hermes, He fell from near the overhang.
We camped in the valley below the cliffs and walked up to do various climbs. It may have been the trip on which the photo below was taken in 1975.One of the climbers decided to spend a few hours scrambling around on a lower cliff line doing some unroped free climbing. I foolishly decided to go with him.
Myself (middle holding book) with friends at Booroomba, 1975
Initially, we were doing little more than scrambling up some steep gullies and small easy climbs. Then we came to a larger face that was probably about 20 metres high with a well defined crack running up it. My friend assured me that it was a very easy climb and within my capabilities, so I followed him up the crack. However, the crack ended a few metres below the top of cliff, and the final stretch was on close to vertical rock with small holds. My friend was just above me, and we were climbing together. I moved up onto the small holds, and realized that I had got out of my depth and no longer had the strength in my fingers to continue up the last couple of metres, and no possibility to retreat either as my strength was going. So I told my friend and said to him that I was going to come off the wall in the next 30 seconds. He said to hold on, and he moved up a few inches and grabbed a small tree trunk at the top of the cliffline with both hands, and then said “Grab hold of my ankles”. At that moment, I lost my grip on the small holds I had and as I came off the cliff I grabbed his ankles with both hands and swung free below him. I was probaby close to 20 metres from the base of the climb and would have probably died if I fell. I climbed up his body and over the cliff edge. If this had happened even a metre lower on the climb, where my friend would have had no strong holds to use, I would have fallen. Utter stupidity on my part to attempt to free solo a climb of that height without ever having done it before to know what it involved. One of a few occasions around that period of my life where pure chance saved me from my own risk taking. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky.
Seeing Free Solo (mountainsrivers.com/free-solo-inspiring-and-disturbing/) reminded me of my “free solo” on Federation Peak years ago. Barely a rock climb, but the exposure was similar to that on El Cap. In Dec 1980- Jan1981, I did a three week traverse of the Eastern and Western Arthur Range in southern Tasmania with my then wife. One of our objectives was to climb Federation Peak (1,224 metres or 4,016 ft), whose spectacular summit rises like a spike in the middle of the Eastern Arthur Range (see photo below).
Looking towards Federation Peak from the Four Peaks.