It’s always good to have a snigger at people’s misfortunes, especially when there’s a happy ending so I thought I’d recount something that happened this spring so you can snigger away guilt free. I was hiking way up high, around 2600m and there was still a lot of icy, compact avalanche snow in the lee of the ridge. I spent quite a while hiking over it but as it was still hard and dry because the sun hadn’t got to it yet it wasn’t that much of a problem. But to avoid a long section on which the snow seemed to be colder than it had been up to that point, a bit wetter maybe, I followed some footprints of a group of hikers I presumed had passed earlier that morning, before dawn or late the night before, and which seemed to be going in the direction I was going in. Walking in ready made footprints is always easier than slipping and sliding on virgin icy snow in an attempt to make one’s own, so I was, for once, quite glad to see traces of humanity. Apart from the tracks there was no sign of people at all, and most agreeably I saw nobody all day.
At a certain point the tracks led over a wide snow bridge spanning a pretty much raging torrent. I crossed cautiously but without a hitch to reach a snow free area beyond and there I continued my hike on rock which warmed gradually as the day wore on as the brilliant sun beat down on it. In fact, because it was such a nice day and I had no need to rush, I extended my stay beyond my normal time and started my return journey, back the way I had come, cutting down across a snow field and aiming for the snow bridge, sometime after four o’clock.
I’ve crossed snow bridges before and have always taken great care, they can be killers especially after the snow had been warmed by hours of hot sunshine, so I was quite surprised at my incompetence when I found myself half way across it having taken none of the usual precautions at all. In my defence, I think maybe I hadn’t realised exactly where the bridge was as I had obviously approached it from a different direction; maybe it looked the same as everywhere else, but that might just be an excuse. Either way, a split second after realising my stupidity, I stopped dead in my tracks metaphorically as well as literally because it was my barefoot tracks that alerted me to where I was. Mistake. Before I had time to throw myself backwards I plummeted downward, face-palming furiously as the snow gave way beneath me, only saving myself from an accusation of absolute, extreme and Darwinian stupidity by widening my arms to prevent myself falling right through. Unfortunately the gods were definitely trying to teach me a lesson. There was something spiky and sharp evidently protruding from the stream bed beneath the snow and it went right into my foot driven home with some force I might add. So thus it was that I found myself in the cringingly embarrassing position of being buried up to my armpits in wet snow, suspended over a raging torrent of melt water at up at a desolate 2600m at the end of a peopless day with no chance of help and with something nasty sticking into my foot and icy water pummelling my legs. Of course after spitting venom at the universe and inventing a few new and what I thought were very good swear words and having quite run out of ideas for any more, taking it more or less for granted that the situation would not get any worse and thus not require any further new ones, the sun chose exactly that moment to pop behind a huge cloud for a quick cuppatea. ‘Twas a tad chilly and I was also a tad annoyed. I couldn’t push myself up because the only thing that my feet could touch was the sharp point and I’m not much of a hero and I did not want to faint or anything wimpish like that. There was nothing to grab hold of and I was wedged in tight with my rucksack still on my shoulders. Nice view though.
Of course as I am here to tell the tale I was not swept to my death under the ice, not did I bleed or freeze to death. With some difficulty, I wiggled my rucksack over my head allowing a terrible wind to blast up out of the hole and pummel my sweaty back with icy air and, trying desperately not to slip backwards into the now large and rather whaline blowhole to disappear under the rather noisy water below, I clawed a few hand holds strong enough to wriggle myself out with and prolapse myself onto the ice. Not decorous by any means. In fact I invented some new grunts and straining squeals too in lieu of swear words just for the occasion. My ears still burn red thinking of it. The shame, the embarrassment, the loudness of the squeals.
By the time I had got out and flailed myself across the rest of the bridge to safety, well, comparative safety anyhow, the snow was pink with blood looking very much like those shots in BBC documentaries - before the era of political correctness and contrived squeamishness - of the ice after a polar bear has killed and devoured a seal. Had I had the presence of mind to do so, it would have been worth rubbing out a few tracks and forging some bear prints just for the fun of it, but I really did have other things on my mind.
I read somewhere that you’re supposed to roll in the snow when you are wet, which I did. I can’t say I feel that it worked. I just felt colder if anything and a little sillier and the bits that were dry just got wet. So somewhat of a fail there. My hands and feet were blue as were my nether regions, in view of the fact that my trousers and rather attractive camouflage underpants had been dragged half way down my legs in the effort to de-stopper myself from the hole. Modesty prevents my describing the state of my willy after being dragged walrus like across the snow, but large was not a word that could have been used. I cleared the snow out of my clothes (at this point I’m supposed to say shivering uncontrollably but actually I wasn’t at all) and pulled them back to their correct places
I dug my shoes out of my pack and tried to get my pierced foot into one but it had swollen up way too much and my fingers were too numb to undo the laces. I washed my foot in the stream, sitting on the snow just to increase the fun, and the swelling seemed to deflate, presumably with the cold water which oddly seemed to be of a warmer cold than the cold cold of the snow. The swelling at the top of the foot went down just enough to enable me to get a sock on and lever the shoe over it. I know I will be thrown out of the Grand Order of Barefooters for such a confession but really I was very, very glad that shoes existed in the universe, albeit shoes of the tennis variety. So I started to hike, or hobble, back to the refuge where I had left the scooter. It usually takes me two hours barefoot. It took me four. After twenty minutes or so, when I got off the snow, the bleeding seemed to have stopped and I took my shoes off again to try to maintain, or rather regain, some flexibility which did actually seem to work. And towards the end of the trail I was walking quite normally albeit with some considerable discomfort (that’s heroic terminology for ‘it was bloody agony’). So here’s the fun bit. When I got down to the refuge there was no way I was going to give anyone there cause to snigger or think ‘told you so’ because of my bare feet, I still had some pride left, so I sat on the warm grass some way away and washed the caked blood off in the river and tried to clean the wound as best I could. I must have looked distressed because a lady came up to me and in terrible Italian seemed to be asking if I needed help. Now considering that, globally speaking, I’m in a relatively obscure valley up a backwater in the Cottian alps way off the tourist routes it came as quite a surprise to find out that she was English… and a nurse too. How cool is that? She very efficiently cleaned and medicated my foot, put a bandage on and got me to swap my socks around and sent me on my way with an anadin of all things. She even kick-started my scooter for me. I think that is really neat. I always carry shoes with me but I am always even more careful now to ensure that I have some in my rucksack. It took a month for the wound to heal and I still have a hard lump under the skin as a sort of keepsake. Lessons learned: never assume you are safe, never lose concentration no matter how nice the weather and never pre-tie your emergency shoes.