Reader writing competition: Winners revealed

At the start of 2017 we asked you to tell us about ‘The Line of Your Life’. We were overwhelmed by the quality of submissions, and here we present the results…

What an excellent selection of stories you sent us in response to this winter’s reader writing competition. In our February issue we asked for 500-600 words on ‘The Line of Your Life’. Reporting on locations as diverse as NZ, the US, Estonia and… Wales, you sent stories of joy and woe, of near-disaster due to avalanche, of desperation for… the loo, and of losing a ski in a lake.

There was even a tale of a Russian sniper – yes, really! Childhood memories, loved ones returning to the slopes after crashes or illness… the stories made us laugh, grimace and wipe away the odd girly tear.

It was a terrifically hard choice, with such a strong line-up, to pick a winner. But after much chin-scratching and several sleepless nights, we did. Step forward Fiona Haward from Devon, whose torrid tale of a 1995 volcanic eruption as she calmly rode a chairlift in New Zealand caught our eye. Fiona takes home £500 of vouchers from Snow + Rock.

We couldn’t resist printing two of our favourite runners-up too – and if you keep an eye on over spring and summer, we’ll unveil our other favourite runners-up too, as well as details of next year’s competition.

Thank you to everybody who entered – you made us properly proud, readers!   

First place – by Fiona Haward

It had all started so well. The snow was white, the sky was blue. Our chairlift chugged its way upwards, with the usual excited chatter on board.

“She’s been puffing for weeks now.” “No worries, she’s always letting off gases!” “Doesn’t that one look a lot darker and bigger than the others?”

Crack. Boom! Just then Mount Ruapehu (aka volcano Ruapehu on North Island, New Zealand) decided to erupt for the first time in 50 years. A blooming, mushroom cloud of ash was soaring skyward, ejecting fountains of rocks and debris the size of cars high into that perfect blue sky. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring display of nature’s power, but we hadn’t bargained on having front-row seats.

Our chairlift plodded onwards, upwards, towards the summit. Closer and closer to the billowing cloud of ash, with fall-out beginning to rain down onto the pristine snow. There could be no retreat! We had to go up before we came down!

Spilling over from the crater lake, a long tongue of hot, black liquid mud licked its lips at the rim and then surged down the Black Magic piste. As it rampaged its way down it swamped the drag-lift pylons in its path. (Thankfully that lift had shut 20 minutes earlier and the piste was empty.)

Inexorably upwards we were carried, banter silenced. Top reached, bar flung up, we ejected ourselves and pointed our skis downhill. We weaved and dodged, picking the line of our lives through rock obstacles and ash islands.

The firework display behind us lent a certain edge to our skiing that day. Would a rock come plummeting down into our path? Indeed, one car-sized rock did land on a mountain hut, trapping two men inside who were sheltering there.

Far below we could see the one mountain road out from the Whakapapa ski field choked with cars racing to escape.

Left, right, left, right we continued our tortuous line down the mountain. My imagination running wild, the sounds behind me conjured up many images in my mind. Shrieks of banshees, whooshes of smoke-breathing dragons and crackles of fiery, flaming asteroids all pursued me down the slopes that day. On reaching the bottom, we looked back at the grey, ash-cloaked slopes, the blackened-streaked pistes and the subsiding plumes. Stunned and stunning.

Volcanoes and earthquakes are an accepted part of life in New Zealand, and in true Kiwi style, they weren’t going to let a little bit of smoke spoil their fun. After all, the wind had been a strong easterly and blown all the ash down onto the volcano’s western flanks, onto the Whakapapa ski fields. That meant, of course, that the Turoa ski field on the eastern side was
still clean, and the following morning it was business as usual as the lifts opened on time.

Second place – by Michael Jarvis

“So, if I fall here, will it be a nasty injury on those sharp rocks, or just a long and humiliating slide to the bottom?”

The run had begun minutes earlier as Chris and I reached the top of the summit T-bar and turned left for a short uphill push, leaving the crowds to tackle the alternative pistes. The snow was heavy and soft, baked in the April sunshine, and the view breathtaking, with clear visibility all the way to the bottom of the ski area and the flat expanse of moorland studded with glistening lakes.

We poled across the short plateau with growing excitement, as the run was finally open – would it live up to its reputation as the steepest and toughest line in the country? More to the point, would we be up to the challenge?

The ridge at the end of the plateau had lost much of its cover as we picked our way between rocks and the odd tussock of grass. We were clearly the first to venture this way today. “Why is that? Are other people too scared? Or wiser? Do they know something we don’t?”

A minute or two of rock-hopping brought us to the top of the steep pitch… and it really was steep. On the plus side, nice and wide; on the negative were the jagged cliffs half way down.

I took a deep breath and set off, rolling my knees into the first turn. I dropped down until, much to my relief, my skis found some purchase.

“Commit, commit! Turn again. Don’t traverse the slope like a numpty!” My uphill hand was catching on the snow above me as I made a second turn, then a third, gaining speed and confidence as the late spring snow flowed down around me. “This must look pretty cool to anyone watching. What the hell is that?”

A large crack in the snow pack was right in front of me, stretching across the whole of the face. If I catch a ski in this, I thought to myself, I’ll be tumbling all the way to the bottom.

“WWTD? (What Would Thovex Do?)” To be honest, he’d probably have done a back-flip on entry, then straight-lined the whole thing, barely noticing this metre-wide crack.

I planted both poles near the edge and hopped, flipping my ski tips upwards. It worked! I was safely on the other side of the crack. A few more exhilarating turns and the steep pitch was finished. Chris joined me shortly afterwards and we looked back up at the face; ancient rocks and pure white snow.

Time to head for home after a dramatic final run of our season; we pushed off in heavy snow for the traverse around the mountain to the lifts.

It’s not the longest run in Europe, nor the most difficult, but the stunning April weather, the sense of solitude and the wild beauty of the Highland scenery combined to make our descent of Glencoe’s famous Flypaper a memory to relive for many years and beers to come.

Third place – by Julian Hodges

The run in question doesn’t involve powder, steeps or hairy moments. In many ways it would be forgettable – except for the fact that it was the first run my wife was able to do following major spinal surgery.

Let me rewind. Back in 2015, my wife was experiencing numbness in all her limbs and underwent an operation that involved removing discs from her spine and replacing them with ‘cages’ or spacers to take the place of the removed discs. This operation wasn’t so much to rid her of numbness, but to prevent the bulging discs from causing further damage to her spinal cord and nerves. I’m no expert, but even I understood that any operation near to the spinal cord carried a degree of risk.

Happily, the operation was a success, but in terms of recuperation and exercise, she was very limited in what she was allowed to do. As we enjoy outdoor activities, including mountain biking and, of course, skiing, it was frustrating being prevented from doing the things we loved together. The possibility of her never being able to do them again was unimaginable.

Gradually, as her confidence and strength returned, we booked flights and headed back to St Gervais for a long weekend skiing – an area we discovered by chance several years ago. Being a tight Yorkshireman, I always opt for ‘intermediate’ hire skis and take pot luck, much to my wife’s dismay. Upon being presented with my skis, which looked as though they’d been plucked out of a skip, wifey decided to upgrade hers and ended up with a new pair of Elans.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect – blue skies, a good covering of snow – and the usual lack of crowds. With some trepidation we caught the gondola up to Le Bettex and the next one to Mont d’Arbois. Normally we’d have taken the short black run down to the rickety two-man chair, but this time opted to stick to the red and blue runs initially.

I can’t begin to tell you how proud of my wife I was. Although she’ll never admit it, I could tell how nervous she was at the start of that first run, reverting to snowplough the first couple of turns and doing a passable impression of Bambi… However, after a couple of runs, she was pretty much back to her competent self.

She’s worried about holding me up or not skiing fast enough. What she doesn’t know is that I’m just delighted we can still enjoy skiing together, and that it’s always been about shared experiences and memories. Now, for us, any run is the run of our lives.