James Bond, skier

 

Of course Bond skis. Half Swiss by birth, he is a citizen of the world, the go-to can-do man.  Which is your favourite Bond skiing sequence?  The Spy Who Loved Me perhaps, when James slaloms through crevasses and skis off a cliff before deploying the Union Jack parachute (cue wild cheering in the stalls).  Or the one where Bond skis the bobsleigh run at Cortina?

Sorry about the cold shower, but there is only one authentic skiing episode involving Bond: his escape by moonlight on Christmas Eve from the Gloria Club, Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s mountain eyrie in the Swiss Alps, while On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.     You may live twice, but Bond only skis once. All the rest is Broccoli.

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Fleming wrote OHMSS in Jamaica while Dr No was being filmed nearby, which may explain the inclusion of Ursula Andress in the list of the Gloria Club’s glamorous members.  Fleming places the Club in the Languard Alps above Pontresina, so Ursula, the Duke of Marlborough and other A-listers who have decamped from St Moritz have not had to travel far.  Of those who count, only the Aga Khan and the Duke of Kent have yet to join.

In my edition the Club proclaims its altitude to be 3605m, which seems a bit high for a residential clubhouse and public mountain restaurant with nursery slope and a bobsleigh run. It is true that Bond develops a nasty headache which localises itself behind one eyeball and may be the effect of altitude.  But at 3605m I think there might be more widespread symptoms among SPECTRE’s corps of Balkan heavies and the heavenly harem.

Since the location is elsewhere described as ‘about 10,000 feet’ (3048m), I wonder if 3605 is a misprint for 3005?  Or could Fleming be signalling Blofeld’s duplicity?  When it comes to altitude, many ski resorts are guilty of rounding up.  Courchevel 1850, for example.

Ever the good agent, Bond checks his exits in advance and, having clocked the skis in the workshop and stolen an anti-friction pad for breaking and entering purposes – credit cards not yet being available – he inspects the ski runs: a black (closed for avalanche danger), a yellow and a red piste, all marked with coloured flags.

Strange: aren’t yellow runs usually unmarked on the mountain?  Perhaps it is hardly fair to expect Bond to be totally up to date about piste marking conventions, since he has not skied since before the War, when he learned at the Hannes Schneider school in St Anton under a teacher called Fuchs.   He got ‘pretty good’ at St Anton and won his golden K, but ‘style was rudimentary then’.   As any Kandahar Ski Club member will tell you, Gold K is the badge of a decent skier, but not a star.  Bond decides to memorise the red run, which he presumes will be the easiest to ski.  A wise choice, in view of his rusty skill set.

 

"Can I be in your next story, Mr Fleming?"

“Can I be in your next story, Mr Fleming?”

After such a long absence from the piste, he is worried: “his legs would be trembling before he had been going five minutes and his knees and ankles and wrists would be giving out.”  The wrists are a surprise: does Bond have a weakness in that department?     

Bond watches the hotshots (referring to them as ‘kannonen’ – a word popular among skiers in the 1920s, although usually spelt Kanonen) take the terrific first schuss straight with their lance-like sticks tucked jauntily under their arm pits. The ‘average amateur’ brakes three or four times on this steep slope (which sounds a bit extreme for a red run, tbh). Bond decides that he will brake twice and picks his spots – there, and there. So that places him: a better than average skier, but not a Kanone.

After a sweeping left turn around the shoulder of the mountain, the run divides and disappears from view.  It zig zags under the lift cable a bit before some ‘wood-running’ and an easy last schuss over rolling meadows to a station and beyond it the road from Pontresina, two miles above Samedan, which Fleming mis-spells (Samaden) throughout.

Tempting though it may be to link the Gloria ski area with Lagalb or Diavolezza or even Muottas Muragl, which has a hotel at the top and a base station beside road and railway in roughly the right place on the Pontresina road, this is surely misguided. Fleming shapes the Gloria ski slope to suit his narrative.

The piste zig zags below the cable so that Bond can be attacked from above, the glade skiing gives Fleming the chance to rework his own experience of trying to outski an avalanche at Kitzbühel, with the sound of crashing timber in his ear. The finish at the railway station gives the chase its gory dénouement.

Much has changed in a quarter of a century.  Skis are now metal and run faster and truer than the hickory boards on which Bond learned as a teenager.  Sticks are fibre-glass and look awfully sharp.  That sounds ominous for Bond’s future pursuers.

Heels are now clamped down by the binding, and this has revolutionised technique.  The deep ‘Arlberg’ crouch and exaggerated shoulder work favoured by the pre-War skier have been replaced by a more upright posture and the art of wedeln, ‘a gentle waggling of the hips’.

At 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve Bond is ready to leave.  Slipping unnoticed into the ski room he risks wrist fatigue by silencing the ski tech with a karate chop.   A discerning thief, he selects a pair of metal Heads of the stiffer Master’s category designed for racing: he has read somewhere that the Head Standard tends to float at speed.  For agonising minutes Bond fiddles to adjust the Attenhofer Flex forward release cable binding and the Marker lateral release at the toe.  At the time of writing (1962), the cable binding, opened and closed by a spring-loaded clip at the toe, had not yet been replaced by the step-in heel binding, though it soon would be.  If only Bond could have waited a couple of years, he might have got clean away.

Carefully winding the leather safety thongs around his ankles in case he should fall – ‘as he was certain to do’ – he ties a dark red silk bandanna over his nose for warmth and inserts his freezing fingers into the leather gauntlets he has pinched from the girls’ coat rack.  They are joined together by a cord which Bond runs over his shoulders inside his jersey, as many of us do for our children in order to reduce the frequency of lost gloves from once a day to once a week.

Thus eccentrically attired, Bond sets off from the clubhouse, tries to langlauf across the upper plateau but is frustrated by the new-fangled binding which prevents free heel movement.  Through his goggles, the moonlit snowscape looks ‘silvery green as if swimming in sunny water’.   Did the Schneider school not teach him to smear toothpaste on the lens to prevent goggle-fog?        

As the slope steepens he sinks in to the familiar Arlberg crouch, hands by his toes, his feet ‘an ugly 6 inches apart.’  This is no time to worry about style, but like every skier he would prefer to leave a pretty track.  Bond embraces speed, forgets danger and using minimum shoulder turn cuts a big S through the new-fallen powder snow. Down a 45 degree slope he dives and at the bottom, in a moment of sheer exuberance, pulls off a ‘Sprung-Christiania,’ using an up-slope to unweight the skis while swivelling around his left stick – needless stress on the wrist – and throwing skis, right shoulder and hips to the left and landing at a halt.

Strong wrists needed. Hannes Schneider demo's the Sprung-Christiania

Strong wrists needed. Hannes Schneider demo’s the Sprung-Christiania

Not bad.  He wishes his old teacher Fuchs could have seen it, but I wonder if Fuchs might have considered the Sprung-Christiania something of a luxury, in the circumstances.   The fireworks are about to start.

Under attack from the cable car Bond’s knees – ‘the Achilles of all skiers’ – start to ache.  He falls, wrestles with the bindings, then finds himself on the black run by mistake. The avalanche goes off, the whole mountain is in movement beneath his feet as desperately he races the froth of a white tide, trees snapping behind him like crackers at the christmas table. Anticipating disaster, Bond rehearses the avalanche rule – get your hands to your boots and grip your ankles, so as to be able to release your skis and burrow out.

The avalanche throws him over but spits him out, he downs the Enzian schnapps which he has been carrying (in the side pocket, not the hip pocket) for just such a moment.  Happy Christmas!  He skis off, spears a member of the reception committee at the bottom with his lance-like ski stick, lifts his knees and thrusts his hands forward to leap over the railway line just ahead of the snowplough train. His unfortunate pursuer is minced in the fan of the snow-blowing machine and comes out as pink sorbet which splatters Bond’s goggles.  The moonlit snowscape looks less like sunny water, more like steak tartare.

Bond wipes the lens clean before langlaufing down two miles of ice-covered road to a fancy dress party in Samedan (still mis-spelt) where Contessa Tracy comes to his rescue in the white Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spyder.

For all her legendary racing skills at the wheel, and the Lancia’s studded Dunlop winter tyres, Tracy has trouble shaking off a Mercedes with snow chains.  Buck up Trace, we don’t have all the time in the world.

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