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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Grinding into the snow at Zermatt

I am writing this while sitting in a glass cage at the train station in Visp, Switzerland. Seated with me are the elderly, the frail and a few other commuters who are escaping the chill while waiting for the train to Zurich.
The train, which is a connecting one from the ski resort town of Zermatt to Zurich, has been delayed by an hour, an odd occurrence I would have thought for a nation famous for keeping time.
My media tour mates are not with me in the glass cage. They are robust. They are standing outside. I am more vulnerable. I am light-headed from painkillers, I have a splint on my right leg and am walking (incompetently) with crutches. These are not regular crutches. They are Swiss crutches. They have reflectors for night walking and special scary-looking pull-out spikes for the snow. I wonder if I can sell them on Gumtree when I return home.
So how did I get into this sorry state?
I went skiing down a blue slope (I could swear it was vertical) at the ski resort town of Zermatt during a media travel tour of Switzerland, a one-off adventure.
Three of us - all virtual beginners and gung-ho South Africans not all that familiar with pistes and poles and ski lifts - plunged down the slope from Rotenboden (quickly nicknamed Rottenbottom)  to Riffelberg. I almost made it to the ... bottom ...  mostly by extreme split-like snow-ploughing, a useful technique I thought I had mastered during the rare occasion I have had the opportunity to venture on to a pristine white slope.
About 200 metres from the Riffelberg station, I panicked at yet another Cobra-like dramatic drop. All attempts to slow down failed. Wobbly, my skis rammed into each other. My pole struck the snow. I tumbled. My leg twisted awkwardly. I manged my right knee.
I felt the damage, even before I thundered to the ground.
The rescue was fast and Swiss-efficient. A ski instructor in a delicate pink outfit swooped by  and stopped with perfect precision at  my side. She untied my boots and called the rescue service (of course I  wasn't carrying a cellphone). I could not move my leg, it was like lead on the snow. My good Samaritan formed a cross with two skis behind me so that I would not get rudely rammed by a skiier gliding down the piste. Within five minutes a rescue skiier carrying a papoose-like stretcher sled arrived from behind.  He took control, but not before I filled out a card verifying my insurance details.
He bandaged my knee and helped me onto the stretcher. He said he would take me to the doctor in Zermatt but added that it was likely that I would be lifted by helicopter to the nearest hospital, at Visp.
He then towed me on the back of his skis down to the train station. It was one of the smoothest rides ever, with not even a bump. He hauled me into a ski train carriage and left me on the floor. The train moved. I gazed out the door as the snow-capped pines whizzed by, and also the jagged 4000 metre high Matterhorn peak. About 35 minutes later, the train stopped at Zermatt.
The doors opened, commuting skiiers got out. I was left on the floor of the carriage. I waited, wondering if I had been abandoned. About two minutes later, a slick team arrived. They lifted the stretcher, transporting me by foot to a doctor conveniently located a few metres from the station.
I had two X-rays before seeing the doctor, who was treating a number of  morning ski injury victims. The doctor then examined me very briefly. She said I had no broken bones but various torn ligaments.
Within 30 minutes, I had a brace and a pair of space-age crutches.
I got the bill - 734 CHF (swiss francs), plus 250 for the mountain rescue, plus 34 francs for the painkillers. That's close to R10 000.
Now I understand why you can't set foot in Switzerland without insurance. Ouch.
* This article also appears on the Cape Times web site as a travel blog: