Books: May Week was in June — Hell Below Zero |
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May Week was in June — Hell Below Zero


Somehow the Oxford and Cambridge Ski Club got to Austria by train. The club had no officers — it was just a letterhead — so the mass movement was more of an instinctive migration than an organised journey. The Americans caught the train at the last minute. They had planned to go in Delmer’s car. It turned out that nobody knew how to fill it with petrol. The filler cap had a combination lock which Delmer had not had occasion to open before because he had never driven the car far enough to run out of fuel. Also there was nowhere to put Marenko’s skis. Delmer feared that a roof-rack would damage his precious hand-rubbed paintwork. Apparently he had expected Marenko’s skis to be much shorter. This was a reasonable assumption. Marenko’s skis were made of metal and went on for ever, like two lengths of railway line.

Unseasonably, the snow at Zürs was fresh and deep all the way down into the valley. After hiring boots and skis I headed for the baby slope. I was alone. Françoise had been skiing every year in Australia since the first rope-tow had been put in at Thredbo when she was a child. Instantly she was off and gone. Strad ski’d like a gentleman. He went with her. Delmer spent the whole of the first day buying all his gear instead of hiring it, which promised great things. When he finally emerged from the most expensive ski-shop in Zürs, he was carrying a lot of big boxes and already wearing a sensational pair of boots. In those last days of lace-up boots, experts might wear clip-ons, but scarcely anybody had clip-ons made of plastic. Delmer’s were not only brilliant red plastic with silver clips, they had gnurled screws, screwed gnurls, grommets, gauges and three-way adjustable furbelows. ‘Get these,’ crowed Delmer. ‘Tomorrow I’ll be out of sight.’

But by then I had seen Marenko. As I lay there sobbing where I had fallen off the T-bar at the top of the baby slope, I had seen him high above me on one of the lower, slower stretches of a black piste. Unmistakable in his dark glasses and the black one-piece overall of an SS tank commander, he came bouncing down through a mogul field in a dead straight line, slamming from hump to hump, both his poles held by their middles in one hand while he adjusted his collar with the other. What was worse, he saw me. After disappearing behind a clump of trees like a gannet into the sea, he suddenly reappeared on the last, allegedly elementary stretch of red piste on the other side of the T-bar. At first he was going at a scarcely believable velocity, but what was really unbelievable was how smoothly he translated all that impetus into stasis. Changing direction at the last possible second so that he curved up the hill and around the top of the wheel at the head of the T-bar, he just leaned over and stopped, his poles still in one hand. ‘This goddam ski-pass keeps flapping loose,’ he said. ‘Nearly strangled myself up there on the Death’s Head. How you doin’?’

Though it hurt me to say so, I had to tell him that I wasn’t doing very well. For some reason he didn’t seem to realise this. He told me to take a run down the slope while he watched. Take a run. I took a crawl. Snow-ploughing rigidly with my nose between my knees, I headed downwards at one mile per hour, coming to a halt altogether if someone else had fallen in front of me. Marenko ski’d backwards beside me. ‘Don’t try to stop the skis,’ he said. ‘You’re choking them. Let them run.’ Momentarily I let them run and headed for the village. Between the baby slope and the village was a road. On a collision course from the right came a skidding bus with chains on its wheels and a driver whose arm was across his eyes. Luckily there was a barrier of snow-caked slush at the high edge of the road. While I lay in it face down, sobbing in a muffled manner, Marenko told me I was wasting my time on the baby slope. ‘You’re a natural,’ he announced. ‘Tomorrow we’ll get you up there on the Death’s Head.’

The next day dawned clear and bright, unfortunately. I had been hoping for a blizzard. Everybody was going up to the Death’s Head except Delmer. At breakfast he had announced his intention of starting slowly. ‘Gotta break in the new boots, men.’ And indeed the new boots looked as if they needed breaking in, almost as much as his ensemble needed toning down. A blue and crimson effort with a colour-coordinated beanie, it aroused expectations of speed which Jean-Claude Killy might have found it difficult to fulfil. No stretch pants had ever been so stretched. On the back of the quilted jacket appeared the words DOWNHILL ACTION HI-FI CHALLENGE. On the breast pocket the words RACING TEAM CLUB encircled the face of a snarling tiger. If Delmer had been the right shape for all this it would have helped, but there would still have been a problem. The famous new boots supported him so well that he couldn’t bend down far enough to get his skis on. Strad had to help him into them. Delmer looked impatient. Once the skis were on and the bindings were closed, he fell over. All this happened in front of the hotel. ‘Blow it out your ass!’ shouted Delmer. Some passing Austrian ski-masters, whose walking boots looked as if they had put their legs down the throats of live wolves, looked curious. ‘Was hat er gesagt?’ ‘Weiss nicht.’ We helped Delmer out of his skis and he waved us away, promising to join us later, after the micro-wedge plinth mounting on his boots had been recalibrated to match the barometric pressure.

The idea that Delmer had been wise to cop out early grew on me as we rose in the cable car towards the peak of the mountain known as the Death’s Head. My imagination was working overtime as usual. The cable car stopped well short of the peak. The tree line was still in clear view below and the slope looked quite gentle compared to the north face of the Eiger. I hoped it was from the cold that Françoise was trembling. She had advised me to go to ski class but I had shouted her down, keen as usual to take no advice, however sensible, until bitter experience had rendered it imperative. ‘This is more like it,’ said Marenko. This is more like what? I subvocalised. My lips were too cold to move. I just breathed very quietly through my nose and tried to look at only the first few yards of the slope. The angle it was at looked ridiculous enough by itself, without considering the cliff it turned into a bit later on. The only stroke of luck was that even the vertical bits were covered with fresh snow. ‘You can’t hurt yourself,’ said Marenko. ‘If you fall over you’ll stop eventually.’ But I was already gone, sliding on my face, held back by nothing except the minimal resistance of the snow through whose surface my nose was trowelling a thin furrow. ‘Stop!’ shouted Marenko as he sliced past at full speed beside me. The clear contradiction between what he was saying now and what he had said just before had obviously not had time to strike him. ‘Get your skis below you and you’ll stop!’ My skis were above me and I wasn’t stopping. Marenko cut in underneath me and brought us both to a halt with me crumpled upside down against his ankles. ‘That’s a good start,’ he said, fishing with one of his poles for my left ski, which had come off. ‘Shows you’re not afraid of the slope.’ Françoise and Strad appeared beside us, looking worried. ‘You two go on,’ said Marenko. ‘I’ll give him a few pointers.’ They wanted to. stay but I insisted. I didn’t want anyone else to be there while I was being given the pointers.

Each hour that ensued seemed like a bad day. I cried all the time. The tears never fell. They just tinkled in my eyes like Christmas decorations hanging in a window. Before I knew how to traverse across packed snow, Marenko was making me traverse across deep powder. I crashed into snow drifts with both my skis off. The automatic ski brake had not yet been invented. The skis were attached by thongs to your boots, except when the thongs came undone. Mine always did. The bindings, when Marenko rescued the skis from further down the same drift, or from the top of the next drift down, were caked with snow, which at that altitude turned to ice faster than a gloved fingertip could scrape it out. The bindings weren’t today’s forgiving, apparently simple affairs that you can just step into after a token gesture of knocking the snow off the bottom of your boots with the tip of a stick. They were spring and cable bindings which would not close unless all the snow had been brushed out of them and any hint of ice on the bottom of your boots had been scrupulously removed. Wallowing in a drift, I found these requirements impossible to fulfil. Marenko patiently waited, doubtless thinking about Yeats, while I waded out of the drift towards a firm footing. ‘Good training,’ he said. ‘Just like my first year at Aspen.’ He couldn’t seem to grasp that the reason I was just lying there was that I couldn’t move. ‘Don’t worry if you feel tired,’ he said, blowing on his dark glasses. ‘It’s just fatigue.’

Though we were on a red piste, which was theoretically much easier than a black piste, there were narrow stretches that I wouldn’t have contemplated trying to snow-plough down even in a snow-plough. I took my skis off and walked. On the wider stretches, however, Marenko insisted that I try to do parallel turns. The main difficulty, I found, was to go slowly enough in the first instance so that the turn could be initiated under some sort of control. I was already falling before I turned, so all that the turn did was to alter the direction of the fall. The instruction to lean out into the valley I found impossible to obey, because I had already fallen towards the mountain. The skis having become crossed while my body continued to move, then I leaned out into the valley, but by that time I was fully airborne. It was a parallel turn only in the sense that my flailing form was parallel to the snow. On the beaten piste the resulting impact was audible and painful. It was much nicer falling into the drifts. I began to look around hopefully for the next drift. Eventually fatigue reached the point where Marenko began to notice. The piste was about to narrow into a mogul-ridden swoop to the right, with its right edge curving up into the mountain and its high left lip masking a sudden drop to the foot of a clump of pine trees. You could tell how steep the drop was by the fact that only the top halves of the trees were visible. I looked at all this but it must have been clear that I wasn’t taking it in. We sat down for a while and Marenko gave me a piece of chocolate. ‘You’re going great,’ he said. ‘Only another hour and you’ll be down.’ At this point Françoise and Strad appeared. They were on their third or fourth run down the mountain. ‘He’s going great,’ said Marenko. All I had to do was sit there until they got bored and went away. Instead I somehow got the idea that it was now or never. In such cases the rale should always be: never. When in doubt, don’t. Françoise and Strad fishtailed neatly down the chute and waited at the bottom, looking up. Marenko schüssed in a sweet straight line, his arms held out to the sides like a falling crucifix as he bounced from hump to hump of the frightening moguls. He spun on his skis about two-thirds of the way down so that he was going backwards, drifted to a stop beside the others, and waved a pole to indicate that I should follow.

I should have taken my skis off and walked, but I was too tired. And they had made it look so easy. I started to traverse across towards the outer edge of the piste. After an inspired snow-plough turn I was traversing the other way. But the second turn, which took me some way up the high wall to the right, was of such large radius that it didn’t slow me down at all, so when I headed back to the left I was going at full clip. ‘Too fast!’ shouted Marenko. ‘I know!’ was my agonised reply. Heading up and out over the high left edge of the piste, I tried to stop myself by sitting back. Thus lightened, the skis moved even faster, so I was actually lying down in mid-air as I sailed out into space, ‘Death,’ I thought. ‘This is it. Here it is.’ Pine tree branches snapped off in quick succession. They sounded like a pom-pom firing. Their thickness, as it happened, might have been precisely calculated to break my fall instead of my back. My skis came off in the tree, so when I bombed into a drift I was not only moving just slowly enough to survive the impact, I was spared the usual humiliating search for lost equipment. By the time the others materialised below me, having beaten a path through the trees, I had .reassembled my stuff and was able to make a brave show of having meant the whole thing. Marenko, in his way, helped. ‘You’ve done the hard part now,’ he said. ‘Nice work.’

Marenko’s teaching methods were, of course, the worst possible for a beginner. Having ski’d most of his life, he had no idea of what it was like not to be able to, and thought that you were incapable from mere recalcitrance, which could be overcome by exhortation. Natural athletes are rarely the best teachers. The person who can teach you something is the one who remembers how he learned it. There was another inhibiting factor. Skiing is a technical sport which has little to do with strength. At that stage I was still quite strong and all too ready to try turning the skis by brute force. It can work only on gently sloping, packed snow. For the last part of the run, some of that was available, and even after my day of torment I was foolish enough to believe that I was getting somewhere. The other three took it slowly so that I could keep up. I fancied that I looked part of the group as we came sweeping down past the baby slope. I rather hoped that Delmer would be there to marvel, but at first there was no sign of him. Then Strad spotted Delmer’s beanie. It was sticking up out of the snowdrift at the bottom of the slope. The weatherbeaten, superannuated ski-masters who tended the baby slope were gathered round the beanie. One of them was poking the snow with a long thin stick. Muffled sounds could be heard from under the snow. I recognised Delmer’s catchphrase, modulated into fluffy softness as if shouted through a pillow. ‘Was hat er gesagt?’ one of the ski-masters asked us. ‘Macht nichts,’ said Strad. ‘Er sagt nur dass er OK ist.’ I was amazed. I never knew Strad spoke German.

Strad didn’t like to show off. He was reluctant to reveal that he was capable of anything until circumstances forced him into it. My own character being incurably different, I envied him his ability to keep his light under a bushel. For me, being able to do something meant that I had to prove it, and being unable to do something was a taunt from Fate. Being unable to ski would have been more bearable in, say, Barbados. In a ski resort it was intolerable. I resolved to dare all. Next day Delmer appeared in full ski kit but without his boots. He had bought himself a pair of yak’s hair après-ski bootees, and with these crossed in front of him he settled down in a deck chair to cut the pages of his New York edition of Henry James, which had just arrived in a crate. Until the technology had been sorted out, he announced, we would never catch him putting on skis again. His place in the ski class — he had booked himself in for a week of advanced lessons — he kindly gave to me. The ski-masters advised me to swap it for elementary lessons. It was a blow to the ego to be skiing with the children but when they did it better than I the message sank in. Drawing on my usual reserves of fanaticism, I set to work on mastering the stem turn. I mastered it so well that in later years, when the stem turn went out of fashion, it took me an age to unmaster it, and even today, in moments of stress, I find the back ends of my skis drifting apart by that tell-tale inch which brands my generation of skiers more surely than the waffle pattern left by thermal underwear around the thickening waistline. At the end of the week I could get down the red piste on the Death’s Head without taking my skis off. It wasn’t much of an achievement — there was a six-year-old girl in a crash helmet who would go past me three times while I was coming down once — but it made me absurdly content. What I liked best about skiing was how it made loneliness legitimate. Raised in the hot sun, my idea of romance was to feel cold. North was a thrilling word to me. Balzac said that a novel should send the reader into another country. My dreams were like that. They still are.

On the snow I didn’t know what I was doing. As compensation, there was a concert at the end of the week. From the hundreds of student skiers, those who thought they could do a turn came shyly forward. There was the amateur magician with the duff patter and the American girl with the guitar who could sing all the songs Joan Baez sang except that they sounded different and she couldn’t remember any of them all the way through. ‘Oh Gard, I’m sorry, No, wait ... No. It’s gone.’ In this context I was able to shine. I hit them with my ‘Lucy Gets Married’ number and followed it up with my new one about the lost H-bomb. The Americans, in particular, were delirious. By then the concern with the Vietnam imbroglio had built up to the point where even the Ivy League Americans — and these were certainly those — had doubts about their country’s role as a world policeman. As an Australian at a British university telling American citizens how they ought to behave, I was in an anomalous position if I stopped to think about it. It was a less anomalous position than being upside down in a snowdrift, so I didn’t stop to think about it. I just rode towards the laughter like a heat-seeking missile. This was the first time I had played to an audience outside Cambridge. I might have been encouraged by the results if I had envisaged a career as a performer. At that time I thought of my own appearances on stage as nothing more theatrical than a form of writing with a light shining on it, like a goose-neck lamp on a desk. It was just a form of expression. I wasn’t even sure what form it was. It wasn’t acting. I didn’t even memorise the stuff. I just read it out. Timing was for real performers: it usually struck me as artificial even when they did it, and when I did it it was ludicrous. Establishing a tacit understanding with the audience that I wasn’t going to perform, however, generated an air of complicity which I dimly saw might be a way ahead. A ski resort in Austria was an odd spot to be struck with such a formative notion, but that’s often how these things happen. Developing a personal style is largely a matter of recognising one’s limitations, and the best place to recognise them is somewhere off the beaten track. At the end of the concert I felt pleased with myself. Next day there was a last morning of skiing before we packed up to go home. Pride the night before was duly followed by a bad fall

I was having one of my customary rests at the side of the red piste on the Death’s Head when Marenko appeared from above, heading straight down the mogul field through which I had just spent half an hour painfully picking my way. I was amongst a pack of other heavy-breathing rabbits so he didn’t see me. He must have been skiing back the quickest way to the hotel after doing his usual half a dozen black runs in succession. Holding both poles in one hand, he had his dark glasses off and was breathing on the inside of them as his heavy metal skis kissed the crests of the moguls like a fiat stone bouncing rapidly across a rippled pond. Below me, where the moguls eased into a smoother piste, he decided he wasn’t going fast enough and started to skate. He hooked his dark glasses back on, redistributed his poles so that he had one in each hand, sank slightly at the knees, planted his right pole, and disappeared in a diving turn over the side of the piste. Half a minute later I saw him far below and far away. He had schüssed across the face of an old avalanche covered with fresh powder. The rabbits around me sighed with admiration.

Deciding that I had not been daring enough, I tried to straight-line the rest of the mogul field. Miraculously I got through it, although my knees, which despite my fear I somehow managed to keep loose, must have looked ridiculous bouncing up around my ears. The predictable result didn’t happen until I reached the smooth bit. I was going the fastest I had ever gone and perhaps it was a mistake to be yelling with exultation. ‘WEE HAH!’ I cried. ‘WHOOEE!’ The ensuing fall was the most embarrassing kind you can have. The skis went outwards to each side, spreading my legs so wide that they were practically in a.straight line. Luckily the bindings snapped open almost straight away, otherwise my nose would have been broken. Like an arrowhead ! flew on for some distance, still with a pole in each hand. Making a three-point contact — mouth, chest and seriously shrivelled genitalia — I kissed the piste and slid on at full speed, slowing down only very gradually. The main braking effect was provided by the snow accumulating inside my clothes. About fifty pounds of it was forced into my stretch pants. When I finally contrived to stand up again my pants wobbled like bags full of water. I was so completely winded that I thought all my ribs were broken. Symbolically, my recently eloquent lower lip was badly bitten, the blood seeping through the caked snow around my mouth to give the effect, I was later told, of an Italian raspberry gelato. My lucky break was that my skis both missed me. Travelling very fast, they went past me on each side on their way down to the hotel, where I joined them an hour later, feeling chastened. The abyss between wanting to and being able to had once again made itself manifest. A man can fall into that gap and vanish. To him it will be small consolation that those who never aspire never appear in the first place.