“I can’t hear you” I yelled as loud as I could, his words echoing along the line but drowned out by the howling wind.
“He said there is a chalet not far from here and we should head towards that” was the relayed message from the person at the front of our group to me at the back.
It was hard to walk into the blizzard and took all of my strength to push forward. The backpack I had on weighed enough without the thick layer of snow added on to it and I could feel my shoulders sagging and aching. The snow smacked into my face with vengeance feeling like a soft yet spikey chain and momentarily took my breath away.
I called to the woman in front of me “Ask how much further?” and she relayed the message.
Apparently it was about another ten minutes. I could handle that.
I actually didn’t feel cold, just exhausted It was supposed to be just another skiing trip – a long trudge up the mountain (after taking a day to get here) and then a ski trip from top to bottom. But it all went horribly wrong.
We, all six of us were all seasoned skiers, solid mountaineers and we all knew how to read the conditions, but as we all know nature has a mind of her own and if she wants to suddenly create an avalanche then she will. The avalanche rating was low to moderate, even though there had been a heavy fall in the past twenty four hours and the wind had changed direction.
We had reached the bottom of the mountain in daylight as planned. We were all ready and prepared for the climb but after only twenty minutes of steady walking, we were greeted with a party coming down. “We’re not going any further, got three quarters of the way up and could see what the ground was doing – major cracks everywhere” He went on “My cousin was caught in that avalanche last year on Mount Karnet – same conditions as these but a lot smaller mountain. She’s lucky to be alive. Only two escaped from it and she was one of them. She told us that trees collected by the snow on the way down hurtled past her as she clung on to a big thick trunk of a fallen tree. Said it sounded like a thousand barrels of oil banging together as they rolled down the slope gathering speed as it went. Took her with it at one stage and flung her to the side and she lay there half-conscious, choking on the snow that kept filling up her mouth, watching and waiting. She thought it was end for her. It should have been but someone was watching over her. It was the end for seven of the eight others”.
We all looked at each other and immediately knew what we were going to do. The weather could change so quickly in these parts that even walking back to where you came from, if ill equipped, could mean death.
“Let’s keep on going and when we reach Mount Linmore. We can see how the conditions are then. All agreed?” the self-appointed leader asked.
“He’s a bit of a bossy one isn’t he?” said my friend Lynn to me and raised her eyebrows. “Do you know him?” she asked and I replied that I didn’t but I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t been in the armed forces at some stage!.
I didn’t care to lead so told him that it suited me just fine, and besides I didn’t want to be the first one to die in an avalanche.
And like a temperamental mind the weather changed from a beautiful blue skied day to a late afternoon blizzard. So we headed for the lodge.
I was beginning to think we would never reach it. I was aching all over from fighting the force of the wind and my lips felt blistered. I had been drinking my water but had developed a headache.
Suddenly just within seeing distance was the outline of a building – the ski lodge. I felt so relieved although it looked a bit smaller than I thought it would.
More slow trudging and it was in close proximity.
“Here it is” Mr Leader called out to us all and for some reason we all cheered - probably thinking that we were lucky to be alive after hearing the story about the man’s sister and the avalanche.
It wasn’t a ‘ski lodge’ per say but a private house, although very large by my standards. I couldn’t wait to get inside. Mr Leader, whose name was actually Alex lifted up a very heavy looking metal rock and underneath it found a key – I say ‘found’ but he obviously knew it was there.
“Oh is this your place?” asked June, a tall dark haired lady, probably in her late forties who I had met a few times.
“No” he answered and left it at that.
The solid front door was opened and after banging our boots on the wall to get most of the snow off of them, all filed in.
At first glance it looked clean and well maintained, as if used quite regularly. The hallway had a few doors leading off it and I assumed these were the bedrooms.
“Ok everyone. Let’s leave our skis at the front door on the porch and the other bag you can put in the room you choose. I’m afraid two of the ladies are going to have to share a room, but hopefully it will just be for the night”.
The six of us, including Alex walked to the front door, opened it and left our skis outside. There was a long deep box attached to the wall and we put them into it, one of the other men holding onto the front door as the gale was forcing it open and snow was blowing inside. The howling and screaming of the wind sounded eerie and the darkness was falling all around. It felt good to close and lock the door.
“Right then” the commander said “We need a fire to heat the water. Who will do that? There’s kindling, paper and large logs in the basket and matches on the fire mantle.
Someone volunteered, Mark, who seemed a lot younger than most of us and very fit, so while he was sitting on his haunches scrunching up paper I asked him a little bit about himself. He told me that he had grown up in New Zealand and had been skiing since he was about five years of age. Being in this type of situation didn’t bother him in the least, not after being snowed in for weeks at a time when he was a youngster. He had stayed during his school holidays at his Grandparents place high in the mountains. “Sometimes we would be snowed in for a couple of weeks at a time” he told me in his Kiwi twang “And we just sat in front of the fire, played cards and eating. It was awesome. You have to be prepared – that’s all!”
‘Not like us’ I thought to myself.
He soon got the fire going – a small spark turning into a bigger and brighter flash and after a couple of minutes tall flames were dancing cheerily and racing up the chimney.
“Won’t be long until it warms the room up” Alex told us.
Out of the six people I really only knew one person well and two others a little bit. It wasn’t the usual set of people I came hiking or skiing with but with a group of people having the same interest it was usually easy enough to get on with everyone.
After deciding which rooms we all wanted – Lynn and I said we would share, after all she had nursed me when I broke both wrists in a car accident, so there wasn’t anything she didn’t know about me or any part of me she hadn’t seen. All my secrets were locked in Lynn’s vault!
The kitchen was surprisingly well stocked, which led me to think that this chalet was often used. I made a mental note to get a bit more out of Alex over our shared meal.
We all contributed when it came to making our dinner. There seemed to be plenty of pasta and sauce in the cupboard and between us all we had quite an assortment of sweet treats for after.
Mark asked if it would be alright if we had a little sip of the red wine that was in the cupboard. “Goes beautifully with Italian” he said,
“So do parmesan, meatballs and panna de casa” added Mark and it gave us all something to smile about.
I couldn’t stop looking across the table at the short stocky man. He was very quiet and I hadn’t seen him talking to anyone really. I recognised his face and was wracking my brain trying to figure out from where but it just wouldn’t come to me.
“Sure go for it” Alex told Mark referring to the red wine.
“Alex, excuse me asking but I’m curious as to how you know this place. Do you know the owners?”
“It’s mine actually” he said “It was left to me by my parents, quite a few years ago now. The thing with being an only child is that although it can be a lonely existence, especially if you are born to older parents but it has its advantages too – no sharing your inheritance”. And he left it at that.
‘Well that cleared that up’ I thought, ‘but I won’t be asking any more about it!’
The noise of the wind howling outside seemed to be getting louder and the piercing shriek racing through the large trees outside had a hollow, almost sinister sound to it. The fire was blazing now, everyone taking turns on putting large logs on to the blue and orange flames, and it had warmed up the quite small room so much that it was feeling a bit too warm.
With dinner over and the washing up done, and not by the ladies either…we transferred into the lounge and onto the wide armed chairs and couch.
I went into my bedroom and took off a layer of clothing, it has to be tight fitting for the trek but now I was feeling like I could breathe again! Sitting on the double bed it felt soft and inviting and even though I was tired I didn’t want to be the first one to go to bed. I sat and thought for a few minutes about the man I recognised and it annoyed me that I couldn’t recall where from. I went through the alphabet in my mind hoping that the letter his name started with would jump out at me. It didn’t so I walked back into the lounge catching the end of the conversation between Mark and the mystery man.
I heard him say in an accent of some sort “I did all my skiing in Switzerland but have only started again recently”.
“Oh when did leave?” Mark asked him
“When I was a boy. A long time ago” he answered hesitantly and sounding as if he didn’t want to carry on with much more conversation. But I wanted to know where I knew him from.
“I’m Mary by the way, and you are?”
“Jim” was his curt reply.
“I’m sure I know your face from somewhere (then I felt acutely embarrassed as she had a thick scar running across his right cheek).Where about do you live Jim? I’ve probably seen you at the local shops or somewhere equally as simple!”
“I don’t recognise you” he told me curtly “Just outside of London” and shut down the conversation as quick as he could.
“Who’s for cards?” asked Alex
I know I didn’t want to be the first one to go to bed but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The heat of the room wasn’t helping me so I bade everyone a good night and left the room. Lynn followed me into the bedroom.
“I know him from somewhere” I blurted out
“Who are you talking about?” Lynn asked me
“”Jim” I replied but she wasn’t interested
“Oh it’s so cold in this room after that other one” she said shivering “I’m wearing most of this clobber to bed!”
“Well I’ll tell you for a fact that you’re changing your socks “I told her and laughed.
I was out like a light. The bed was comfy, and warmed up when you had been in it for a while. Just before I shut my eyes I could hear Lynn snoring loudly!
The reinforced glass in the windows rattled with the force of the wind and a piece of metal must have been loose as it squeaked back and forwards during the night. I was usually a light sleeper so it didn’t take much to wake me up. I lay awake next to my snoring friend thinking about what it would be like if we were stranded here for a while. I think I would start to feel claustrophobic after a day or two – I didn’t like to be cooped up for too long.
When I worked as a prison warder a few years ago I would be very grateful that I was able to walk out through the front gate into freedom after my shift and be able to do whatever I liked, go anywhere and take up as much space as I wanted. I would wonder what some of the inmates felt like when their door was locked in the evening – did they have the feeling of tightness in their chest, knowing that no fresh air was blowing into their room, not much light coming in from anything outside and not much space to stretch out in. I couldn’t bear it.
Alex had the two way radio so I’m sure he would let us know when he heard about the weather. I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 4am. ‘It’s too early to get up, and it’s too cold anyway’ I thought and shut my eyes.
“Oh my goodness” I said out loud sitting bolt upright and shaking Lynn.
“Wha, wha, what’s happening?” She asked still half asleep
“I remember where I’ve seen Jim – in jail. He was in Rochford when I worked there. It was the security wing, so probably serious. What shall I do Lynn?”
“What do you mean what should you do? You don’t have to do anything. He’s served his time”. And then she added half laughing “Unless he’s on the run!”
“Lynn he could be dangerous. He could have killed someone”.
“Well you don’t know that. How long was he in for?”
“I can’t remember – it must have been over seven years ago that I last saw him – that’s when I retired”.
Lynn rubbed her eyes, awake now, “We might be leaving today if the weather is good and then you’re home, never have to see Jim again. Don’t worry about it until you have to”. Lynn was so calm and reassuring, always. “Anyway to me Jim looks like more of an armed robber than a murderer, so that’s not so bad!”
We all met for breakfast, getting the good news from Alex that the weather had changed and we could continue on. I couldn’t help but watch Jim like a hawk. I knew that it didn’t matter now as we were leaving, but I knew I would keep a close eye on him!
Outside it like a new scene in a play! The wind had abated to a light breeze, the sun was shining and glistening on the powdery snow like gold threads had been weaved through it.
We all thanked Alex for the use of the chalet, promising to buy meals and drinks on our return. He put the key back under the rock and we were off.
It was a great feeling knowing we had all dodged a bullet – an avalanche! We were all alive and well and headed for home. When we eventually reached the base of the mountain we had intended to scale, from there it was just an hour of walking in the snow. When you realise what could have been you find yourself feeling happy, grateful and promising yourself that from now on you will make sure that you won’t stress about ridiculous things, and you will be kinder to your friends, even generous. But as with New Year’s Eve resolutions…..they last five minutes and then you’re back to your old self again!
We all got to our respective homes in one piece, tired, a little battered but able to sleep in our own beds!
I was determined to find out about Jim. When I worked there I would always make a note of who to keep an eye on and be aware at all times of where they were and I don’t remember that about Jim, although it was a few years ago!
The next day I rang Lynn. “Are you sitting down?” I asked her.
“Yes why, what’s happened?” she asked calmly.
“You know Jim from the group, the one who had been….”
Before I could finish she interrupted with “Yes Miss. Marple”
“Well I’m glad the weather changed and we could all leave the skiing hut… (Here I paused for effect) – he murdered his partner of four months on a skiing trip - he caved her skull in….but claimed it was in self -defence and that she started it. He got twenty five years and was out in twenty two, the last eleven being served at Rochford”.
“Oh well he served his time and nothing happened to us”.
“Yes but Lynn, here’s the interesting part….Jim’s first wife disappeared five years earlier and she’s never been found.