Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ski Stories

Every year around 40 people die from skiing accidents. The argument about whether or not helmets should be compulsory is largely irrelevant. At the speeds most recreational skiers zoom around, even a helmet can’t guarantee protection. Skiing is dangerous, and, to me, the most uncomfortable of sports. The news of Natasha Richardson’s tragic death has opened up wounds of personal grief, because I too lost someone very close, and I’ve always felt slightly responsible.

My best friend, best man at my first wedding and godfather to my son, was BBC Newsnight reporter Ian Smith. Tall, handsome, intelligent and incredibly athletic, Ian would turn heads wherever he went. He played tennis to county level and when we knocked a ball about on Saturday mornings he would return my weedy serves with smashes so violent the ball had to be prised from the netting. Ian was completely obsessive about hobbies – he did nothing by halves. When he took up cooking, he wasn’t interested in everyday food: he attempted the most sophisticated recipes and we all had to endure his experimental gourmet evenings. Then, one day in the early 80’s, I persuaded him to go skiing. It transformed his life and eventually killed him.

I myself would never have ventured on a ski slope had it not been for a beautiful woman. At the age of 29 I fell head over heels for a girl who lived in Brussels. Like most people on the continent who can pop up an Alp for the weekend, she was a stylish skier. One day she rang to say she had met a diamond dealer who had offered her the use of his chalet in Verbier. Sensing her excitement and panicking that she might go off with the dealer, I feigned enthusiasm and said I’d love to join her. “I never knew you skied”, she said. “I think skiing’s amazing” I replied, disguising the fact that I had never worn a ski boot in my life. But I did have a cunning plan.

We agreed our date in Verbier then I flew down a few days early and checked into the local ski school. Watching tiny children bombing down the mountain I thought, what’s the big fuss? Such a mistake: I never could understand why you should put all your weight on the downhill ski when every human instinct tells you to just sit down and enjoy the view. Nevertheless I plugged away and, by the time the girlfriend arrived, I could just about manage a shaky snowplough. The first morning she suggested a notorious black run. As we got out of the cable car I fell headfirst into a snowdrift. Through tears of laughter she said it was touching that I’d made the effort. A year later we were married.

I dutifully allowed skiing to share our life and, after listening to us droning on about the delights of gluhwein and mountain views (though secretly I hated the fact that I was always too cold or too hot, and invariably soaked through), Ian was eventually persuaded to join us. He was instantly hooked. Although nearly 40, he took to the sport like a 5 year old.

He became obsessed by powder snow and heli-skiing, and eventually quit his job to spend more time in the mountains. However his body didn’t have the suppleness of his ambition and he often had to be collected from Gatwick with sprained or broken limbs.

One day they brought him home in an air ambulance. He’d slipped over the edge of a glacier and hit his head. Ian never spoke or smiled again. The man who’d been one of the most promising television journalists of his generation spent the last five years of his life in a vegetative state in a home for the incurables. I have never skied since.


Expat mum said...

You can't blame yourself. It's not as if you dared him to try a particular run or anything. But it must be awful to lose someone like that. The poor Richardson family must be in complete shock. I know you can't really legislate about ski helmets, but I am quite manic about urging people to wear them. No matter how good a skier you think you are, there are dare devils and idiots all over the slopes who take risks with other people's lives. Thank goodness in the States, there are quite a lot of ski patrollers holding up signs saying "Ski fast - lose pass" to deter them.

Tom Gutteridge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Gutteridge said...

One element I left out of my post was the story of Ian's great love. She was called Helen, and was tall, blonde and incredibly beautiful. She operated the autocue in our television studios.

One day Helen quite literally dropped down dead - at the age of 24. She had a blood clot in the brain, complained of a headache, and next moment she was gone. Ian never quite recovered. This sudden departure of a loved one, as experienced by the Richardsons, must cause the most appalling shock, as you say.

With Ian the effect never dissipated and he was incapable of forming a stable relationship for the rest of his life.