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Tales From The Crib

May 22, 2006

A vacation that almost turned deadly

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My father-in-law is visiting from Buffalo this week. An insurance agent with blue eyes, sandy brown hair, and an open smile, my father-in-law’s an affable fellow who loves to tell stories.

Like the one about the trip he took with a group of college students, his best friend, and his 67-year-old father to fulfill a dream to ski the Matterhorn. Thrilled to be leaving the country for the first time in his life, Jim, Sr. had no idea he might never return.

They stayed in a small hotel in Cervinia, on the Italian side of the majestic mountain. Although the skiing was fantastic, the three men ventured into Switzerland (the mountain borders both Italy and Switzerland) to try the more technical slopes on the Swiss side.

They woke up early to clear blue skies and bright sun, a perfect day to make their trek. They planned to spend some of the day exploring the charming Alpine village of Zermatt that they had heard so much about—a place where Bernese mountain dogs pull small children in sleighs alongside horse-drawn buggies carrying wide-eyed tourists.

So they loaded street shoes into large backpacks, carried their skis in hand, and trudged in ski boots towards the funicular and lifts that would take them up the Italian side of the mountain so they could ski down the Swiss side.

Seven miles of downhill skiing later, Zermatt was everything they expected. Jim bought a pair of women’s boots with fur on the outside for his wife, and a small black Swiss Army knife for his son. “They gouged me,” he laughed. “But it was the real deal and there was no way I was leaving Switzerland without something for Jimmy!”

On the return trip to Italy things started to go wrong. They boarded a cable railway car, or funicular, full of rowdy German-speaking Swiss and headed back up the mountain. One thousand five hundred feet in the air, the funicular suddenly stopped. At first none of the locals noticed—they were busy laughing and talking.

Then there was dead silence. The car was stuck.

Never comfortable with heights, Jim got so sick he had to lie on the floor of the swinging car. When the mechanical problems were finally fixed, things got worse. A severe storm blew in and suddenly the three found themselves with four college students racing against the weather and the darkness for their lives. the time they arrived at the last Puma lift, great white flakes of snow were pelting their faces faster than they could brush them away. The attendant was gone; the lift closed.

With the wind howling so loudly that he had to bellow to be heard, Jim found them a shortcut—a snow bridge that he had noticed the day before while skiing—that lead to the Italian side. But although he managed to climb up it, his father couldn’t.

“I can’t do it son,” John said desperately, crumpling in the snow. “I can’t catch my breath.”

“Hang on Dad, I’m going to help you,” Jim yelled and made his body into a living bridge to help his father to the top of the mountain and over the other side where the weather was clear.

My father-in-law saved his father’s life that day. He suffered severe frostbite in his right foot because of it and had to get his tendons cut in order to be able to walk. He still has a limp. Although he remains an avid skier, he has never taken another trip overseas.

The knife he bought his 21-year-old son Jimmy is one of my husband’s most prized possessions. Every time he uses it, he remembers how his father almost lost his life.

Join and three other local writers for a reading at Bloomsbury Books on Thursday May 25th at 7:30 p.m.