December 06 2010
Andrew Fitzpatrick was a moderate but, unfortunately, not a modest skier. He had learnt to slide downhill as a teenager during a holiday in Aspen, and later went on a couple of school skiing trips to Switzerland.
After that, his career on the slopes withered until, in his late 20s, he married. His wife, Carol, was keen on the sport. She had learnt to ski as a small child, spent her gap year as a chalet girl and at least a fortnight every subsequent year on the snow at Chamonix. And that annual two-week break was now inked in to the Fitzpatricks’ married-life calendar.
Skiing with Carol – she made him ski three yards behind her and follow her exact movements – meant that Andrew could now negotiate the gentle blue runs and even manage the occasional red. And this allowed him to swank of his prowess on the piste to his workmates at his local Corney & Barrow wine bar.
One of them, David Fleming, was a good enough skier to keep quiet about his own skill but he did say, in a rash moment, that at Chamonix he preferred to go off-piste “in the deep stuff”. And that pushed Andrew into boasting that, actually, he was planning to go off-piste this year, surfing the powder well away from the crowded groomed runs. After all, the Chamonix valley is famous for its extensive virgin skiing territory.
The Fitzpatricks always stayed at a chalet in Le Tour, which has not only some of the best skiing for beginners – it was where Andrew relearnt his forgotten teenage lessons – but also half a dozen red runs, a bumpy black and some of the finest off-piste in the valley. It includes an idyllic run through the trees down to the train station at Vallorcine (where one can have a stomach-kicking après-ski eau de vie at the station bar) and which is manageable by any relatively competent skier.
And it was this run that was suggested by David Fleming when he bumped into Andrew at the Charamillon restaurant at the top of the Piste des Caisets. Andrew – who was as surprised as David at the unplanned meeting – felt that, after his Corney & Barrow boast, he had no choice but to say yes.
The following morning Andrew, Carol, David and his wife, Anita, met up near the mountain top carrying avalanche transceivers and rucksacks with shovels, first-aid kits, survival blankets and energy bars. They’d hired a private French guide to find the best route and, hopefully, sniff out a powder bowl or two. Once the party had found the run they sped off, led by the guide and leaving Andrew to bring up the rear three yards behind his wife.
At first Andrew ploughed along happily enough, and when Carol saw he was managing she lifted her ski tips and set off in pursuit of David, who was already some way ahead. But Andrew was not managing. In knee-deep powder he was struggling to keep control and, unable to follow Carol’s neat fall line, he began to career off at an angle, faster and faster, before lurching over an edge into a steep gully and, arms and poles akimbo, shooting into a wood. His disappearance was followed by a mini-avalanche.
It was not long before Carol and the rest of the party noticed that Andrew had vanished, and so they hurriedly returned to where they had last seen him, turning their transceivers on to reception mode in the hope of hearing Andrew’s beep. Meanwhile, the guide skied back to the piste to direct the rescue workers who had been scrambled.
After a fruitless couple of hours, David and Anita reluctantly broke off from the search and skied down the mountain to Vallorcine, where they waited sombrely for a train to take them back to Le Tour. As they stood on the platform, fearing the worst, they heard a loud guffawing from the station bar and, through the condensation on the window, they saw a red-faced Andrew, several vins chauds to the wind, explaining to a group of young Frenchmen how taking a short cut without a guide was the true measure of the great off-piste skier.”