Intuition and instinct came to play in an important and unforeseen way while driving home yesterday the A9 near Aigle, Switzerland. Here, the autoroute passes several tens of kilometers of flat stretches in the Rhone River valley between Martigny and Montreux, which is on the north shore of Lake Geneva, near Lausanne. As it’s Sunday, the traffic volume is moderately heavy, and K and I are on our way home after a day of skiing at Verbier, in Val de Bagnes, about an hour’s drive from where we live. The traffic is local Swiss returning home from one of many ski resorts in the region called Valais (valley in French in normally spelt vallée, but this is dialect), which includes the well-known resorts of Crans Montana, Zermatt and Sass Fee as well as many smaller, less-known ones.
It is a two-lane highway with the occasional tunnel. This is unusual for highways in Switzerland; that is to have few tunnels, since there are very common on other highways of the national network. This stretch of highway however is along the flat, alluvial fill of the great Rhone River as it channels its way from from the source and glacier at the head of Valais and waters of Lake Geneva. The lake forms a gigantic recipient for the mighty river before it flows out its western outlet, through Geneva, to continue its onward journey south through France and the Mediterranean, near Marseille. This is a glacier at the head of this ice and water sculpted trench that is surrounded by many of the highest peaks in Western Europe (Matterhorn, Jungfrau, Dent Blanche to name a couple).
Needless to say, there is plenty to admire as one drives along. At least that is for anyone who appreciates mountain scenery. Today especially, the clouds are lifting and the contrast is deep between frosty forests and the snow-covered summits. As well, surprisingly for some, there are a large number of vineyards and apricot orchards along parts of the highway. Seemingly an anomaly for a mountainous country, the occupy the sunniest flanks at the foot of the great, craggy mountains. The mountains serve to nourish and protect them the valley climes and supply water and warmth from the rock and snowy summits. Meanwhile, we humans scurry about at their bases, as well. We amuse ourselves like ticklish ants with an army of activities and worries, to scratch out are homes and brief livelihoods in the shadow of these patiently abiding mountain behemoths. The valley is our bed for life and afterwards.
Certain of us are inevitably drawn to visit the mountains. Correspondingly, K and I were just now concluding our first ski day of the season. Here it is, the first week of March, and we are just not getting this first day. Our jungle vacation in Thailand and a home renovation project are the principal reasons for being slow off the marks. No matter, the mountain air, brilliant sunshine and wine for lunch had been ample reward as a getaway for a Sunday. As it is, we were unable to prolong the outing in spite of our enthusiasm to enjoy it.
Our early departure was due to fatigue, partly. Naturally, as we like to say, we are not getting any younger. Another factor was to play. During our ski descent from the invigorating sunlight high in the resort, we entered an area of thick fog (more like low clouds, since we were above 6000 feet. The effect is the same, though.), when we were beckoned to the aid of a pair of women who had found themselves out of sorts. It seems the one, whose name we later learned was Julie, had reached a point in the fog and afternoon of fatigue where she had stopped us to ask us for direction to the village, Verbier. At first, this seemed a ridiculous question. I mean I thought, of course, my dear, the village is in the valley below us. I refrained quickly uttering a facetious, or even unseemly response asI realized that there was more to the question than at first apparent. She and her companion, Jane, who was snowboarding, had stopped because the one at least was very apprehensive in the fog and cold, suffering a panicky disorientation.Treading on the gentle side of valor, I explained that we too were making our way down to the village. Nevertheless, I was not entirely certain of our location. I went on to add that, as a general rule, we can always assume that the village is below us and all trails eventually lead down to it. She declared herself at the point where skiing down to the village seemed to her inconceivable as she was more or less fed up and exhausted from the difficulty posed by the fog. You see, this sort of fog obscures all features of the terrain, including slope signs and trail junctions. In mountain-speak, this meteorological condition is called a “white out”. The ground, covered with snow, and the sky, obscured by cloud or fog blend into a single, indivisible and featureless white. At times, the skier cannot even determine whether they are moving or stopped. The slightest irregularity or change in steepness are things that spring as if from the shadows of a night that is white with darkness, if that makes any sense. For those unfamiliar with the sensation, the disorientation can incapacitate.
I continued to speak to Julie and describe the best I could where I thought we were and what would be the options for someone who found themselves at the end of their strength and, daresay, fearful of their mortal end on skis in a place where heaven and earth were indistinguishable . K then suggested that if they could if they liked, follow us down. She and I both tacitly agreed that this might greatly aids their progress. It is something we do ourselves in the thick fog and that is to let someone ski just ahead giving a little sense of the terrain and an object to aim for. So it was, we found new skiing companions, by chance, while the share the slip-sliding of the last ski run of our first day in a season near fully gone.
By default, as the most experienced skier of the group, I started off to take the lead. Not to mention is the fact that my ski jacket is bright, fluorescent orange. The trail we descended was of intermediate difficulty and groomed. There were few surprises in the form of bumps or icy patches. Julie, having declared herself the most intimidated, followed directly behind me as I made slow turns. K and our snowboarder, Jane, were next. I kept my eyes out along the sides of the trail which was regularly marked with colored, bamboo stakes. They are spaced every thirty feet (10 meters). A certain relief came when other skiers would emerge occasionally then melt away as they passed us. At one point, a chairlift became visible above us. It had been the only indication of our whereabouts, and then it was a supposition to know which lift it was.
At one point, as time itself can get lost in this type of fog, I attempted to maintain Julie’s flagging spirits by making the observation that it is very likely that our descent will eventually lead us out of the fog at a lower elevation. The effect that we were experiencing is often called a “sea of clouds”; that is when viewed from above. In the thick of it, the impression is that one is submerged. However, once below it, the impression is simply that they are overcast skies. With certain relief, and after about fifteen minutes of white-out angst and loathing, the cloud layer began to dissipate and the vague visions of the village emerged from the valley. We stopped for a short rest and talked again. Jane spoke about how this was the first day of their planned week of skiing. They accompanied a group of students aged between 12 and 14. They, as chaperons for the group were in effect, on a day-off for them. The students were taking a group lesson.
This explained why Julie had repeatedly denounced herself. She had said more than once that “Oh, this was such a bad decision to do this,” and “Dear, why have I ever let myself think that was a good idea.” This sort of self dialogue is a common enough, but really can be detrimental to what are already unfavorable circumstances in the mountains. In all fairness I have to say, that our regrets and druthers are vividly part of the experience of mountain weather that turns unpleasant. On the other hand, they don’t change the simple fact that finishing the task at hand is to do one’s best to get out the fix, safely and with as much aplomb as we can fashion. Fortunately, Julie’s colleague, Jane, was considerably more sanguine, and thusly a good aid.It was at this point that Jane characterized how she found many of her students. She described them as disarmingly innocent. She added they were even astonishingly so. She ascribed this to children born to exceptionally insular and protected environments. She thought that this was the case at home as well as at the boarding school where she worked. In effect, the school perpetuates any awareness of the harsher world that awaits them. She found it regrettable that they were shielded from gaining any kind of “street smarts”. Strangely, her observation created an acute effect in me. I experienced an unmistakable epiphany. Her perspective as teacher (and well-traveled adult) gave a powerful insight into something that I had recently been puzzling about. As it was, Jane had just precisely described my circumstances at the tender age of 16. The stage was the precursor an emancipating and cataclysmic period of my adolescence. In my own case, it was my arrival at boarding school that represented my ejection from sublime innocence of a highly protective environment into the greater disquietude of a broader reality. In a banal way, it dawned on me that this insight was the reason that fate had our murky ski path cross that of Julie’s and Jane’s. This thought elicited in me a moment of profound gratitude.
Getting back to the task at hand, we all started off again. Between K and myself, we alternated leads for Julie in helping to find the easiest trail down. Jane as it turns out was game for all the more difficult slopes. And now that we could see where we were going, one pair would branch off on the easy terrain while the other would meet up again where the trails intersected further down the harder slope. All told, the travails for Julie lasted about 40 minutes when we reached the final, slushy turns above the concrete steps of the village center. It was here that we parted company with our temporary comrades and drawing to a conclusion a sociable time of unexpected pleasure for our cloudy descent into the Verbier ski village.
As K and I left, we both agreed that the best choice was to forego another ski run, though we were tempted. We chose instead to head off to the lower valley which is a long, steep gondola ride and start our drive perhaps hopefully ahead of some of the Sunday traffic who would be returning home from doing what we were doing. And so it was at this moment that K and I found ourselves about halfway home as K’s eyes began to droop just ahead of a catnap in the passenger seat and I driving with my own fatigue. I had noticed myself lulled by the fluidity of the traffic thus far and the steadiness of the highway speed on this long, straight section of roadway. The net effect was to show itself to be nearly fatal.
I am not certain whether at the critical moment my thoughts were mulling on the “good deed” of helping Julie during her difficult ski descent or more pertinently on the line of traffic, which included a lumbering bus, that was merging with the lane to my right on the highway. Suffice to say that there came an abrupt and compelling sense of panic out of nowhere. What I can recall remembering is noticing something peculiar about the car that was traveling ahead of us in the passing lane. Like an electric shock my entire body switched in an instant from a purely rational, tranquil presence of mind to a mind withdrawn and replaced by an overwhelmingly urgent and disembodied force that surged in its place. The force darkened uncontrollably my vision and redirected the all the senses of my awareness to the auditory sense. I can’t say that time stopped, but I did witness something like a momentary “black out” as all my driving reflexes reacted without conscious thought with the fullest speed and energy to jam on the foot brake. The action was so impetuous and so infused with violent force that I wondered afterwards how our vehicle ever kept a straight line of travel in the crowded lane of traffic.
After a timeless moment or two, my normal awareness returned, as did my sight, to miraculously find our car had slowed to a fraction of its former speed. We had been traveling at the speed limit of 120kph (about 75mph). In addition, a distance of twenty meters (60 feet) still remained between us and the dark-colored Mercedes that had effectively been at a dead stop in the lane ahead. Not to forget, the vehicle that had been traveling behind ours had managed by its own swift evasive action (or by the hand of his unseen force) reduced its speed and remained a safe couple of car-lengths behind us. Once regaining composure, both K and I commented at the mutual realization that that had just had an extremely close-call. The result of which were nightmarish to contemplate.
For that point onward, the traffic continued stop-start all the way home, but without the same sudden transitions with unprecedented surprise. It was later that I connected this incident with an experience described by the author and journalist, Pierre Jovanovic. In the translation of his book, An Inquiry into the Existence of Guardian Angels, he too is riding in a car on a highway, though he is the passenger. He experiences what he comes to describes as the force from an unseen hand that delivers him from the path a bullet that for some random and inexplicable reason had been shot at the car. He and his friend were driving down a California highway when the dodged bullet nearly grazes his body. He is left totally unharmed, but is subsequently induced into an inquiry to understand what unearthly force he had sense physically push him out of the path of the bullet. The random bullet for Mr Jovanovic had been in my case a black Mercedes stopped in my lane within a vanishingly short stopping distance. I am convinced that a similar force had moved my leg with absolute precision and purpose to activate the brake pedal. Furthermore, it had guided our rapidly decelerating car in a straight line without tires squealing or rear end swerving or automatic brake system pumping. I felt as I had been the instrument of that force as it invincibly saved me from a terrible mass of steal, glass and flesh wasted on the side of the beguiling road home.