A couple of years ago now, a horror film called Frozen set out to do for skiing what Jaws did for swimming. In it, three friends enjoying a day on their local skiing hill sweet talk a morbidly obese liftie into giving them one last ride up in a chairlift, even though said resort is about to close for the day.
But oh no! The liftie is then called away on important business – something to do with a goldfish, if memory serves. His mate takes over, suffers a bit of an arithmetic fail and shuts down the lift, trapping the skiers high above the ground for the night … no … sorry … make that A WHOLE WEEK, because this is a horror movie, and a single night wouldn’t be anywhere near long enough for things to get gruesome. You can probably imagine the rest: heavy falls, broken bones, hungry wolves and a nasty incident involving a gloveless hand becoming stubbornly attached to a chunk of frozen metal. Some critics gave the film the sort of gleeful savaging normally reserved for works either directed by or starring Madonna, but for skiers and snowboarders the world over the quality of the acting was neither here nor there: Frozen took our deepest, darkest last-lift fears and made them – ahem – flesh.
I mention all this because the other week I found myself “doing a Frozen”: hopping on the last lift up – alone – at a small, out-of-the-way ski resort somewhere in the Alps. With snow falling heavily all day and a harsh wind whipping in from the west, our little group had had the hill more or less to ourselves, as spoiled-for-choice locals hunkered down in bars and cafés to wait for the weather to clear. By 3:50pm everyone else was powdered-out but I wanted to squeeze in one last blast before the lifts shut at four, so as my friends all headed for the gondola back to the valley I darted down to the bottom of my favourite lift, scuttled through the turnstiles and slid into the loading zone.
I was just lowering my derriere to the appropriate height as a chair swung around behind me when I saw a red flash out of the corner of my eye. It was the liftie, sprinting out of his hut and heading straight for me. Thinking all the skiers had gone home for the day, he’d put all the seat backs down on the chairs. He got to me just in time and, with a Venus Williams-like grunt, slammed the back of my seat into the upright position. Two seconds later and I would have been left facing a very uncomfortable ride up the hill.
Once the noise of the machinery at the bottom of the lift had subsided, I started to enjoy the near silence that comes from being the last person left on the mountain. Apart from a slight hum from the cables above my head, all I could hear was the whistling of the wind and the soft pitter-pat of snowflakes being blown against my jacket. To my left, towards the resort boundary, I could plot 100 different lines through evenly spaced pine trees; directly beneath me, I could see the race training piste beloved of svelte, Lycra-clad locals, the few tracks carved on it during the day rapidly filling in with fresh snow; and up ahead and to my right, partially obscured by cloud, I could see a wide open bowl, easily accessible from the top of the lift. Decisions decisions.
I was still weighing up these options when the lift slowed down a little and then – suddenly – stopped. I was about halfway up the hill, about 40ft off the ground and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Ordinarily this would be nothing to worry about – chairlifts stop and start all the time and for all kinds of reasons – but, perhaps because I was alone, perhaps because it was late, my mind started to play tricks.
Was I imagining it, or did the chair just stop more suddenly than usual? And if so, could that be because they shut it off in a different way at the end of the day to the way they do it the rest of the time? Had the liftie forgotten about me and gone home? Was I going to freeze to death up here and have my bones picked clean by the birds? I scanned the hill: still no-one. The wind moaned, the chair swung. I wondered how long it would take me to arm-over-arm to the safety ladder on the nearest pylon. My heart thumped more loudly. Then the lift started moving again, a couple of skiers emerged from the trees and my phone rang in my pocket. Sorry birds.