Words by Arnie Wilson | Illustration by Tim Whitlock
I started working on my bucket list early. Skiing every day of the year seemed like an inspirational adventure to get things started. But it wasn’t really my idea. I have Vogue Magazine to thank for that. Back in 1990 they asked me to write a ski feature based on the idea that it was possible to ski somewhere on the planet every month. This got me thinking. If it were possible to ski every month, then why not every day?
Back then, although I had skied in some of the summer months in Australasia and in a rather limited way on a few Alpine glaciers, the all-important Andes had so far eluded me. What clinched the idea was the enthusiasm of my then French girlfriend, Lucy Dicker. We were living in London’s Olympia, and she was the general manager of a tour operation selling ski holidays to the French Alps.
In fact that’s how we’d first met. Lucy felt she’d always missed out on adventure – as a little girl she’d set her sights on becoming an astronaut or at the very least a circus acrobat. Skiing round the world would be the ideal substitute. And so she gave up her job and the two of us started contacting hundreds of ski resorts and potential sponsors to try to make our dream trip happen.
“We would ski 3,678 miles…the equivalent of skiing down Everest 140 times"
By Christmas 1993 we were “go" for what had now become The Financial Times Round The World Ski Expedition. I’d been the FT’s freelance ski correspondent for 12 years and told them I was going to embark on this mission whether they wanted to be involved or not. Luckily my boss, Max Wilkinson – editor of the paper’s Weekend section – was all for it, although he did specify that we’d have to ski at least 10 miles a day, and not just ski a run, have lunch and move on.
While they wouldn’t sponsor us direct, the paper agreed to give me a regular Saturday column right the way through 1994 (summer included of course) and payments for this would help defray the cost. Our main sponsors were the Colorado resorts of Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone (then marketed together as “Ski The Summit").
Other sponsors included Air New Zealand and American Airlines (for what turned out to be 33 flights), Avis (26 rental cars) and Snow+Rock (for all our equipment, including various ski suits and at least four pairs of skis each, most of which I still have in my garage!). During our adventure we would travel a total of 115,000 miles – including 3678 miles on skis (so only just clocking up the required 10 miles a day). This was the equivalent of skiing down Everest 140 times.
Our epic journey started in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (still my favourite resort to this day) on January 1, 1994. Only 364 days to go! We were petrified of putting a foot wrong in case we suffered the embarrassment of breaking something in the very first week of our travels. As we moved through Wyoming, Idaho, California, Nevada and Oregon, we tried just to ski the easy runs, but gradually we threw caution to the wind and started venturing into more challenging terrain.
Perhaps we were inspired to be less wimpish by a chance encounter with Clint Eastwood at Sun Valley, Idaho, who was fascinated by our plans for Chile and Argentina. Three weeks later, at Apex resort in British Columbia, we were invited to ski quite a severe “chute" (couloir) called “Make My Day". We closed our eyes and thought of Mr Eastwood (who would later pay me the immense compliment of writing the forward to the book I wrote about our trip). From then on, we skied the steep and deep whenever we felt brave enough.
We made a note of all kinds of statistics in a huge black diary – even the number of times we’d each fallen over - and by a fluke after 365 days, I’d fallen 178 times to Lucy’s 180. The only injury I suffered was a broken finger when the door to our Russian Lada truck (nicknamed General Lopez, after its home village) slammed shut during a sudden gust of wind as we were visiting the Villarrica Volcano in Chile.
“Had we failed to negotiate the floods and steer around the abandoned cars our mission would have failed"
As we moved north-east from Wyoming, through the Canadian Rockies and the American mid-west, en route for the Alps, we gradually discovered that constantly alternating between flights and yet another Avis rental car was exhausting, so we decided to stay on the ground and just drive. This had the unplanned-for result of visiting states that one would not immediately think of as places where you could ski. If you thought Wisconsin was an unlikely ski paradise, you should try Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama – yes, you read that correctly – Alabama; as well as North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland!
Many years later, having skied so many US states in 1994, I decided to gradually tick off any states with skiing that Lucy and I hadn’t visited in 1994, and by 2012 I got round to skiing the last of 38 states with ski lifts: Arizona.
Our travels actually pretty much took us round the world twice. From North America, in March, we moved on to resorts in Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and France before (in May) heading to the Indian Himalayas, Japan and then (via Mammoth Mountain, California – a regular hub between continents) back to glacier skiing in the Alps. In mid-June, it was back to Mammoth and very briefly (in transit via Florida – not much skiing there!) we finally reached Chile and Argentina.
After nine weeks in the Andes and 17 ski areas, which turned out to be our favourite part of the trip, we moved on to Australia and New Zealand for another nine weeks. We skied anywhere and everywhere that was open, including seven somewhat primitive but hugely enjoyable traditional “club fields", before returning to the Rockies for the final two months.
To make sure we skied every single day – even on days when we had early or long flights - we got into the habit of skiing first thing in the morning (or even during the night) to make sure we skied every 24 hours, just in case we had a puncture or worse before we’d managed to ski.
In April, we found ourselves in the precipitous French ski area of La Grave - a name which still jerks at my heartstrings because of what happened there a year later, three months after our great adventure had ended. But that’s another story. On this earlier occasion, a local guide had suggested that I should ski a fearsome run called the Pan de Rideau (The Curtain’s Edge).
Luckily Lucy did not ski it with us. Brave a skier as she was, her technique wasn’t quite up to it. As it turned out, even I was terrified. With Lucy waiting anxiously way below us, unable to see the drama taking place high above her, I had mentally frozen on a terribly steep traverse we needed to cross to get to the run itself.
Later I told FT readers: “I was stranded like a disorientated mountain goat on the edge of a snowy chasm. Spring avalanches thundered off the sun-baked shoulders of the mighty Meije (mountain). The terrifying traverse…was above two or three precipitous couloirs… hundreds of feet below. I knew that one slip would result in certain death…"
"I pictured myself tumbling hopelessly…bouncing off one cliff after another, until I reached a frozen grave thousands of feet below…This was coming face to face with the inner demons which haunt all skiers who mix skiing with mountaineering."
Finally, the guide decided to rope me up and I made it across to the start of the run itself – which turned out to be one of the most ecstatic descents I have ever made. Lucy was anxiously waiting for us lower down. Much lower down. When I asked him how often he took clients down the Pan de Rideau, he replied: “You were the first." Lucy and I looked at each other. Little did we realise that a year later I was going to have a second day of terror in La Grave. Far worse than the first.
In Manali, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where we had to ski all week (rather recklessly, with no ski lifts to help us) into ravines and frozen waterfalls from the avalanche-prone Rhotang Pass, we watched scores of people from Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata cavorting in snow they’d never seen or touched before. Grandmothers, parents, grandchildren, all in rented wellington boots, imitation fur coats or saris, were climbing up snowy banks and slithering down again, pretending to toboggan or even ski.
In Chile, we skied the lower slopes of various volcanos: Las Araucarias ski area (on the Llaima volcano), Chillan, Lonquimay, Villarrica, and Antillanca. These were invariably beautiful, awe-inspiring, windy and not very easy to ski on. At least none erupted in our presence, although Llaima had hit the headlines only weeks before our visit after a spectacular eruption. And only very recently, in 2015, Villarrica has erupted fiercely twice.
But it was Llaima that turned out to be the nadir of our trip when we were faced with a 54km drive along flooded, unpaved roads to its foothills late at night in torrential rain in a hastily acquired truck. It was Saturday July 23. Every local taxi company had refused to take us there because of the floods. We had no transport of our own – our borrowed Russian truck had broken down in Argentina, necessitating a 500km tow by four different breakdown vehicles back to Chile for repairs. And we hadn’t skied that day!
But after more than 200 days of non-stop skiing, we weren’t about to give up. We took it in turns to ski a miserly mile or so each, while whoever was not skiing lit up the rough mountain track with the hired truck headlights. We’d have to make up the missing nine miles of our compulsory daily average another time. This was our closest call.
Had we failed to negotiate the floods and steer past abandoned cars our mission would have failed. There was no other mountain within range. I told Lucy that if necessary, I’d have swum the floodwaters to the volcano slopes with my skis perched on my shoulder. “You sound like, Tintin" she had giggled. But I meant it.
Our last day was spilt between the three US ski resorts that had sponsored us. A tour bus took us from one resort to the other, accompanied by various friends, supporters and colleagues. Rather embarrassingly, we all wore Arnie and Lucy masks (a marketing department idea…). In Copper Mountain we skied with virtually the resort’s entire ski patrol.
In Breckenridge, to our further embarrassment, we were crowned “King and Queen of skiing". And in Keystone, as we skied our last runs – Flying Dutchmen, then River Run - we were served toasted teacakes (very British) and serenaded by Jim Salestrom plus guitar, who had entertained at the White House.
And that was it. We’d made it.
Postscript: Tragically, Lucy was killed in a skiing accident while skiing with me and friends in La Grave, France the following April – in one of the very couloirs I’d looked down to from the traverse into the Pan de Rideau. It was a cruel twist of fate after we had both tried to help each other avoid injury for so long during our great adventure. I wrote about it in “Tears in the Snow" which was later published in paperback as “Ski the World". With that foreword I mentioned earlier by Clint Eastwood.
Almost two years after the accident, it was my great good fortune to meet Vivianne, a Swedish girl who rescued me from the very dark place I was still inhabiting. We were married in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2000.