March 19, 2006—St. Anton
Imagine a young man in his prime. He is quite tall, has clear, deep green eyes, brown hair thick and so dark it can gleam almost to black, and a longish face balanced by strongly defined cheekbones and jawline. His look is humorous, challenging, engaged; there is a vivid charge of energy to be felt in his presence. He has just turned twenty-nine and after a week’s hard snowboarding he is fitter than ever; that is the reason he will be known by the doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit as the Athlete.
It is early morning on the last day of his skiing holiday and the sun is just beginning to glint and sparkle on the night-hardened snow. Inside his room it is still dark and he will have had to set an alarm to wake this early, for early rising is not his forte. There is that particular hush in the air that comes after a night of heavy snow, broken now only by the distant sound of the piste machines with their wide corrugated tires already busy preparing the empty ski slopes. Turning off the alarm, the young man lies back luxuriously in his bed to contemplate the day. Tomorrow he will be back in London and back to work, and he realizes with surprise that it’s not an unpleasant thought. In fact, there is nothing right now that he doesn’t feel positive about, a state of mind he used to associate only with childhood. His school years were not straightforward and in his early twenties his bent for introspection descended into a suffocating depression, during which he came to recognize the hard-eyed gremlin sitting on his shoulder overseeing his every move, judging, criticizing, never drawing breath. “The rabid prattle in my skull,” he once wrote. But over these last few years the prattle has subsided and now it is gone; his mind feels as sharp as a new razor, his sight is clear. If you asked him, he would admit he feels capable of achieving great things. Indeed, he is anticipating it; in an attempt to clarify his aims he has written in his journal:
Step back. What are the principles?
Don’t want to abstract. Want to create.
Want to create things of great beauty and power.
Want to change the world.
He sees his future brightly lit and gleaming ahead of him. Having reached that point where ambition and self-awareness happily coincide, he now acknowledges his weaknesses and knows his strengths. With exhilaration he feels that anything and everything is possible.
He gets up and draws back the curtains, letting sunshine cascade into the room against a backdrop of snowy mountains and blinding blue sky. With a prickle of adrenaline he remembers the day’s plan—last night he and his friends had decided they couldn’t leave without attempting the notoriously high jump in the snowboard park that they hadn’t yet tried. For the first time in all his years of chasing the thrills of skiing and snowboarding he is going to get himself a crash helmet. That is why he has to get up early today, to give himself time to go to the ski shop where he will buy the best one available; he likes the best of things and now he can afford to be extravagant.
He packs his small bag, throwing in his clothes without a thought, no careful folding or smoothing. Then he takes a quick shower, long enough to enjoy the sting of hot water washing off the suds as he feels the tension in his muscles; keeping fit is one of his hobbies, which is why he has taken up amateur boxing back in London. This reminds him of a former girlfriend, Annabel, and he thinks now with pleasure about her body, as lean and supple as a ballerina’s even though exercise was as alien to her as ballet is to him. Together with his mother and sisters, it was she who nagged him to give up boxing when he came home one evening from his weekly bout with his T-shirt covered in blood. You have such a magnificent brain, Annabel had said, it’s one of the things I love about you! He considered giving in to them, for in a rueful sort of way he enjoyed the fuss they made.
Breakfast is served downstairs in the small dining room of this old Alpine hotel with its checked gingham curtains and cozy decor, everything so strangely diminutive compared to the view through the mullioned windows. When I have a chalet in the mountains, he thinks, I’ll have one built to amplify the light and the vastness, to feel on the edge of such awesome beauty and to see and know it is dropping away beneath me. Soon he is joined for breakfast by his friends, Ben and Charlie, both fellow snowboarders as well as colleagues back in London, and after some laughter recalling last night’s exploits they confirm the day’s plans. The snowboard park, the jump and then the dash to the airport to get the flight to London. They discuss the jump, how long the descent for it should be, where to start; it is difficult to judge at what point and at what speed it should be taken to remain on balance, which is where the thrill comes in. The longer the approach down to it, the faster you go, the higher you jump. He is the only one not to own a helmet, so he leaves them finishing breakfast and makes his way to the ski shop.
This is St. Anton and the shop is appropriately stocked. The clientele of the elegant resort is a mix of ambitious snowboarders and well-heeled classical skiers and there is every fashionable accoutrement for sale. He is distracted on entering by a striking girl assessing herself in a long mirror, clearly wondering about the figure-hugging pale turquoise ski suit she is trying on. He catches her eye as he walks past and wants to say, You look beautiful in that, but he doesn’t and fleetingly regrets his reserve. Soon she is forgotten and he is looking at helmets, listening carefully to the laid-back long-haired ski pro describing the merits of each. Trying them on, he is surprised by their lightness but dislikes the sensation of containment. He wonders if it might be disorienting; absolute concentration and balance are needed when making a serious jump, and the helmet could be a distraction when he is not used to it. The assistant explains the technology and shows him how the fit must be precise, the strap under the chin tightened and adjusted just so to keep it in place. And of course it needs to look cool, because undoubtedly part of the fun of snowboarding is looking cool, which he can’t help thinking is compromised by a helmet. But the jump today is very high and he is going to take it as hard and as fast as he can, so this precaution is the responsible thing to do. As he pays for the sleek black choice he’s made he senses the familiar excitement beginning to build. Picking up his snowboard as he leaves he feels an added surge of pleasure; he bought it while in the States a few months ago and he hasn’t yet seen one like it here. There’s nothing to match its curled smoothness and sleek design, not even in the racks of gleaming new boards in this shop.
Out in the sunshine he puts on his sunglasses and looks around. There is a photograph of him taken at this moment by one of the friends who has just arrived, so imagination is not necessary here: he doesn’t know it but he is as handsome as he might ever wish to be, and the girl also caught on camera coming out of the shop in her new turquoise ski suit thinks so too as she gives him an inviting smile. He doesn’t notice, for all he is interested in now is the perfection of the moment: even down here at resort level he can see the snow is still thick from last night’s fall, so he knows the slopes higher up will be ideal for snowboarders, the thin cool air just warmed enough to be comfortable for working up a sweat. If they get cracking they might have time after the jump for a quick sandwich and a beer in the sunshine before they leave. He zips up his jacket, puts on his padded gloves, and casually tucks the snowboard under his arm as he walks with his friend across to the chair lift.
Arriving at the top he thrills to the view spread before him. Pushing himself off the chairlift, he slides across to the edge and stands quietly for a moment, taking it in. It is the thrill of being on the tip of the world, snow-covered peaks in every direction fading into the blue distance, the sense of latent power brooding within the vastness. To be made aware of his insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur but to know he is an essential part of it too; he remembers when he first thought about it in that way, a small boy talking to his mother as they sat together on the balcony of their Alpine chalet, how grown-up he felt when she took his discovery seriously.
He can hear his friends have all arrived, so he turns from the view to join them. Together they set off towards the snowboard park, moving down in unison over the freshly fallen snow.
And now he is standing at the top of a slope that leads in one steep drop to the dip and rise of the jump, a curved tusk of packed snow protruding out of the whiteness. It looks huge even from this distance and he recognizes the sudden blaze of mental clarity that accompanies adrenaline release. This is when he is at his happiest, under pressure, pushing himself to succeed. He likes the sense of breaking through ever more challenging barriers; he savors the private confirmation of his own worth. It is not conceit—depression and introspection have saved him from that; it is simply a clear conviction of his rootedness in the world, of the value of this existence, here and now, his intention to live his life to its limits.
He adjusts and fastens his new crash helmet as he was advised to by the ski pro. He checks the bindings on his snowboard; they’re working fine. He is ready to go. Adrenaline and excitement mixed with a sudden sharp twist of fear; he can smell the acrid whiff of his perspiration. Then, taking a deep breath, he pushes himself off and down the slope. At first gliding and swooping from side to side as sure as a hawk descending to its prey, his path gradually straightens into an arrow of gathering speed for the final descent towards the jump. Too fast now, he fears he could lose his balance and then he has reached the dip of the jump and he knows he is not in control as he is taken by force up the ramp, skewing sideways as his board clips the edge and then he is hurtling, spinning up, up into the free blue sky ahead . . .
The thwack of board and helmet on hard ice, the cries of onlookers, the blue of sky and white of snow. Silence. Then, very slowly, the fallen figure sits up, raises himself, stands shakily. Friends gather around, supporting him, their faces grave. After such a fall how can he be all right? He speaks: Jesus, that was something. So shocking was the fall that someone feels it necessary to ask him, Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is? St. Anton, Sunday, he says, thickly. He takes off his helmet and slowly pushes himself on his board to the edge of the slope and sits down. Motionless, head bowed, and then, suddenly, violently, he vomits onto the clean white snow. The friends’ faces now in horror, watching as his eyes roll upwards and his body convulses in front of them all, back arched, limbs juddering. A doctor skiing past stops to help, the Rescue Patrol is called, paramedics are removing the young man’s jacket, T-shirt, cutting through his vest in the race to keep him alive, the air reverberating with the thump, thump of a helicopter’s blades.
In the helicopter the young man stops breathing. Below him the mountains glitter impassively in the slanting afternoon sun as he dies, for a moment. But the two paramedics immediately put their skills to work, passing a tube down his throat and connecting the other end to a portable ventilator. He is made to breathe again; he has been prevented from dying, but he is still critically injured. The neurosurgery team at Innsbruck University Hospital have been warned that he is coming; it is a Sunday, so the on-duty surgeons are called from their homes and when the helicopter lands on the rooftop landing pad and the young man is whisked down to the operating theater they are ready, waiting for him. Without them he would have died again, his brain bleeding and swelling, lethally compressing his brain stem, but they are excellent and dedicated neurosurgeons and for the second time in three hours his life is saved.
From Beyond the High Blue Air. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2017 by Lu Spinney.