'My father was killed doing what he loved best - skiing'

Ten years on from his father Robert's death, Simon Usborne reflects on what their brief time together taught him – and why his quest for adventure is as strong as his father's

Friday 18 February 2011 01:00

At the departures lounge at Salt Lake City airport in Utah, I hugged my Dad, Robert. I was 18 and three inches taller than him. He was 46 and fit; his body wiry, thanks to a fitness regime that involved pre-breakfast running up and down the stairs in our house and sessions on the creaky rowing machine in the basement. Now I say: "Look after yourself" when people I'm close to go away. Back then, after a pat on the back, I said, "Bye, Dad. See you next week" and watched him head to his gate.

Two days later – and 10 years ago today – my dad was skiing with my mum, his wife of 22 years, in the Monashees, a fabled range of forested peaks in western Canada. They had been there before, drawn as they were to some of the world's deepest snow and steepest terrain, which can only be reached by helicopter. But on the first day, Dad fell on a steep slope named Costello. When another skier came to help him, the mountain let out a dull crack. "First the ground shook slightly," my mother, Gilly, recalls. "Then the snow to one side of me started moving, slowly at first but rapidly gaining speed. And then everything was a blur. I just remember shouting: 'Where's Robert? Where's Robert?'"

My father was among five skiers swept away by the avalanche. A vast layer of snow, more than 20 metres wide, 30cm deep and weighing hundreds of tonnes, had separated under the weight of the men from a deeper layer, crumbling into wet, unyielding clumps. The snow tumbled and slid for more than 250 metres down a slope dotted with trees. It would become apparent later that Dad had slammed into them. The response was immediate and, just three minutes after the snow settled, the guide leading the group located my father. The other men escaped, though one – Richard Beldam, a close friend of my parents – also hit the trees and shattered his leg, which doctors were later almost forced to amputate. Dad had no pulse and was not breathing. Half an hour later, my mother took a seat in the back of the helicopter en route to the hospital in Revelstoke, the nearest town. She watched as a Swiss doctor who had survived the slide performed CPR. There were no signs of life. "Eventually he stopped and signalled to me that it was over," Mum says. "It's hard even now to put into words how I felt. Numb, disbelieving and very, very sad."

An emergency team at the hospital attempted to resuscitate Dad but it was hopeless and they pronounced him dead at 4:40pm on 18 February, 2001. Many victims of avalanches are left conscious and in panic, entombed in snow that sets like concrete. Often several minutes pass before they suffocate and die. But my father had broken most of his ribs and two vertebrae – and severed his spinal cord. He will have known what was happening when the ground began to slip away. He will have fought against it for the second or two before he hit the trees. But then it will have been quick.

Four days after he died, we cremated him in Canada in the shadow of the mountains he loved. The mortician had done a good job – he looked perfect, as if he were about to wake up after a snooze – but as my Mum, brother and I sat in a row on the plane back to London and the house we'd shared for most of my childhood, Dad's ashes weighed heavily in the overhead locker. I was barely out of school, living at home and now faced entering adulthood without a father.

Grief is impossible to map or navigate. It's a mountain shrouded in cloud. But there are levels and, I guess (although it's hard to know when you're there) a peak at which the going gets easier. First there was the shock of discovery – in my case in a phone call to my mother two days after the avalanche (I had been travelling alone, out of contact). Then the adjustment – the quiet mornings, the empty armchair, the redundant rowing machine. And then the difficulty of telling people and the stiff upper lip during the memorial service. Eventually – and sooner than you might think – you establish a new routine.

Ten years on, I don't know where I am. I think and dream about Dad less. I feel bad about the memories that fade: the precise combination of lacquer and sawdust smells that filled the air at his workshop, where he ran a furniture-making business; the look of concentration on his face when he stood in front of the hall mirror trimming his beard with the kitchen scissors. I've lost some sense of what he would have thought about things – 9/11, the financial crisis and the choices I've made.

Where would I be now – and what kind of man – if he were here to dispense advice, encouragement or even disapproval? I will never know. All that's left – perhaps as a way of stepping off that mountain – is to remember who Dad was and what he left me. And in his case, skiing, more than anything, stands as a metaphor for it all.

It was a heroic gesture that sealed the deal for my mum, when my Dad swept her off her feet. My parents started skiing as children in the Sixties, when the boots were still made of leather. They first crossed tracks as teenagers, on a holiday for young people in Switzerland. "I was too shy even to dare to talk to him," Mum recalls over a cup of tea in Oxford, where she now lives with her partner, Ian. "But I thought he was lovely: fun, good looking and very sweet." Gilly would get a second chance three years later, again in the Swiss Alps. They were skiing hard one afternoon when Mum's ski broke as she went over a jump and she couldn't continue. "Dad slung me over his shoulder and carried me the whole way down to the bottom," she says. "Apart from thinking he must have rather muscley thighs, I thought he was a bit of a hero."

To the mild horror of her father, Mum returned home only to quit work, leave her respectable boyfriend of two years and fly back to the mountains to be with a balding man with scraggly hair, a bushy beard and no proper job.

Soon, her father flew out and summoned the young couple to his hotel for an interview. Dad may not have looked the part, but nobody could resist his charm. My parents were married early enough the following spring, in 1978, that they could spend their honeymoon in the mountains. They would ski together every season thereafter, except for in 1982, when bad timing meant that I was born late in April. My brother, Patrick, had arrived two summers before me and during our early years we were packed off to stay with grandparents while my parents went skiing and mountaineering. It wasn't until we were eight and six that Dad took off his crampons and turned from adventurer to instructor. It was an education that would last for as long as our childhood.

For my father, skiing wasn't worth bothering with if you weren't off-piste; as far away as possible from the groomed fairways that form most people's experience of the sport. And few people skied better than him. The master of crud, windslab, breakable crust, ice and – when he was lucky – powder, he could ski anything with a head-turning combination of grace and aggression, like a ballerina riding a bull.

He caressed the mountain with his skis and he was so good it was sometimes annoying – especially when you were a gangly 10-year-old who got stuck at every turn.

"He was so patient with you at the start," Mum says. "Do you remember that time in Ischgl when you took an age to navigate one tiny bit of mountain?" We were slow and it should have been frustrating for him but, says Mum, "He couldn't have been happier than on those trips. He took the utmost pleasure skiing with you and watching you grow." It was a long apprenticeship: a week here, two there; two steps forward, one step back – and countless crashes, tantrums and sunburned ears in between. But trying to keep up with and copy our teacher soon paid off. We were still young teenagers when we were managing the most challenging pitches, climbing with mountain guides, or just with Dad – and bounding along slip-and-die traverses in pursuit of the best snow. Occasionally other skiers accused my parents of being irresponsible. But we knew we could do it. More than that, I believe, it taught us a physical courage that has been as useful in life as on the mountain. Skiing is a frustrating sport, but there comes a time, usually during one run you'll never forget, when things come together. Dad called it "graduating". For Patrick it came a couple of years before the avalanche. For me, there were just days to spare.

We had been in Utah, where I last saw my father alive, to ski at Alta, a former mining town with a quiet reputation for some of the lightest and most plentiful snow on the planet. We struck gold and flakes as big as ping pong balls filled the sky night after night, covering the mountain in so much snow it was possible to choke on it while skiing. Towards the end of my week there – and after years of trying – it clicked and I skied a steep run through trees almost as well as Dad.

I had graduated.

"I remember going up in the chairlift with him just afterwards and he was bubbling over with excitement," Mum says. "He said it made his heart sing to see you ski so well."

Delivered into adulthood as a skier – and a man – by a father who was great at being both I, along with my brother and mother, who had been through more than either of us, might have considered giving up a pastime that had broken our family. But it never occurred to any of us. The following winter, keen not to spend our first Christmas without Dad at home, we booked a trip to the French Alps. But then, to round off a bad year, we were skiing off-piste on Boxing Day when I hit a rock and was hurled forwards, head over heels. Only a few inches of snow covered the frozen ground and, when I landed upside down on the top of my spine, it folded in half.

Mum arrived seconds later to find me conscious but making a guttural, gasping groan that sounded alien even to me – and made her think the worst. "It was horrendous," she recalls. "I thought you were going to die too."

I had broken my back, sustaining six fractures across two vertebrae. It would be five days before I could eat and more than three weeks before I could walk. But less than three months after my accident – and little over a year after Dad had been killed, I was back on skis. And I have skied every winter since.

My mother, who's now 54, skis too – with Ian, whom she first met the day Dad was killed. Last week, they decided the time was right to return to the Monashees. They'll be there next month and may return to the slope that gave way, which was re-named "Robert's" in Dad's memory. "I never contemplated not skiing again," Mum says. "It's part of my life, it's in my blood and, apart from anything, I love it. The sensation of floating down through deep powder with snow sparkling in the sun like crystals is irresistible.

"That's what Dad loved and he would have wanted me to continue."

My brother and I are stronger skiers – and men – than we were when our father left. He's already missed a lot. He doesn't know that my brother's a talented architect or that I dropped out of university and am now a journalist. He doesn't know that people say I look increasingly like him (alas, I've inherited his hairline). He won't know our children – or whether we'll teach them to ski, which seems likely. But if he'd had time to think before he died he could have been satisfied he was leaving us in good shape.

Last month, Patrick and I travelled to the Swiss resort of Verbier and the mountains in which Dad had always felt most at home. It was here, two winters after the avalanche, that we brought that box of ashes, which Mum had kept in a drawer under Dad's old jumpers. We dug a small hole in the snow and buried the ashes with pieces of Toblerone (Dad's appetite for snow was matched only by that for chocolate) near the Croix de Coeur, a large wooden cross on a quiet ridge overlooking the town. We've been there several times since to say hello. And we paused slightly longer than usual last month, sharing a hug as the sun went down. And then we clipped back into our skis and went home.

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