Tuesday, 10 November 2009


When I was looking through some old photographs I came across one of me taken on the ski slopes of Chamonix. I look ecstatic as well I might. It is the last day of my first ever week of skiing, in which I have survived being left stranded on an Italian mountainside by my French ski school.

The week had started promisingly enough. The Partridge and her siblings had invited their friends to Chamonix to share a chalet. The resident Chalet Girl provided us with breakfast, a three course evening meal and coffee and cakes on our return from the slopes in the afternoon.

As a complete novice I signed myself up to attend classes at one of the local ski schools. It felt such an achievement to be able to move along on skis without falling over even if it was spent at fiirst on the exceedingly flat nursery slopes. By the end of the week we had progressed from green to blue to the occasional red slopes as our competency and confidence grew. We were to spend the final day at the neighbouring Italian ski resort of Courmayeur.
“Now don’t get lost,” warned the Partridge over breakfast. “Apparently last week they left a skier behind.”
That was hardly likely to happen two weeks running I reasoned.

The morning lesson went well. As it ended, the instructor waved his ski stick vaguely in the direction of the mountain and told us to meet back at the car park at 4 o’clock for the return journey to France. At no point had he bothered to explain to us the basic rules of mountain safety.

Rule Number One
Always ski in groups of at least three people. That way if one person has an accident, one can remain behind with them and the other can go off in search of help. I was skiing with several others from the class until I suddenly fell over. When I picked myself up they had long vanished and I never saw them again.

Rule Number Two
Make sure you provide clear instructions as to how to get back. At around three o’clock, wanting to give myself plenty of time, I started making my way back to the car park. That was when my troubles began in earnest. I could not understand the map and sought advice from various people. Unfortunately they gave me differing directions. By now it was growing dark.  I skied into a group of Italian men sending them and me falling down like skittles. They helped me to my feet and gallantly agreed to take me to the chair lift, whose entrance was concealed behind a café. When we reached the chair life we found it was shut for the night. The Italian men persuaded the operator to start it up again just for me. Thanking them, I hopped onto the chair lift along with one of the operators. At the top, he got off and went away on his snowboard leaving me quite alone.

Rule Number Three
Understand the significance of signs posted on the mountains to warn of danger. Having no real idea in which direction I should be going I just kept on skiing along the path until it suddenly diverged. I did not know which path to take but in the end opted for the one without the yellow sign. I later discovered that the yellow sign was there to warn skiers the way was potentially treacherous.

To my immense relief I eventually spotted a cluster of buildings and skied towards them. They were deserted but at least I could sit down in the warm. At length I was joined by another skier.
“If you’re waiting for the telecabine to take you down the mountain, the last public one has gone. But there will be another in an hour or so to take the mountain staff down.”
Okay so it wasn’t the best of news. But at least the coach would be waiting for me when I did finally get down the mountain-side. To my shock, the car-park was deserted when I made my way across to it. The ski school had left me stranded on the mountainside at night. I stood by the car park for some while feeling completely helpless, leaning on my upturned skis for support.

Rule Number Four
Make sure skiers have contact numbers in case of emergencies. I had no way of contacting anyone to tell let them know where I was. Finally, I trudged wearily across the snow to a café I could see along the roadside.
“When is the next bus back to Chamonix?” I asked forlornly.
The Italian owners spoke to several seated Frenchmen.
“These men will take you back to Chamonix in their car,” the Italian couple explained.
It struck me, that as a single woman, it was not usually the wisest of ideas to travel across borders with strangers. As lurid headlines flashed through my mind, I could see readers tut-tutting and wondering how I could have been so foolish as to accept such a lift. On the other hand it was freezing cold and I felt I had no alternative. If I did come to an unfortunate end, I hoped the Italian café owners would at least be able to provide a description of my fellow passengers to the police.

As it was the Frenchmen turned out to be perfectly charming. They were on a skiing trip away from their families. They dropped me off close to my chalet with my heartfelt gratitude. Now that I was safely back, I had the luxury of imagining the turmoil in the chalet as they pondered my fate. When I went in, the Partridge and the others had still not arrived back from their own day’s skiing but the Chalet Girl was there.
“I was so worried about you,” she exclaimed. “The ski instructor said if you didn’t arrive back soon he would have to send out the mountain patrol. He thought you might have committed suicide,” she added darkly.
 For a ski school that had had managed to leave students stranded on the mountain for two consecutive weeks, it seemed a damn cheek to try and blame the victim for their incompetence.

I never thought I would ever go skiing again after that little adventure. However six weeks later the Partridge told me a friend of a friend had a spare place available on a ski trip to Livigno. If I was ever to ski again I should accept it. In the end I did go and subsequently skied in Switzerland, Canada and the United States but never in Chamonix or Courmayeur.