Pete Barnes was a Kandahar ski club regular whom I met at Murren over many years for the Inferno race in January. He was the fastest of his gang, the least serious of the club’s core racers and the most welcoming to intruders who turned up year after year to ski steadily and pointlessly down the course, risking little and achieving less.
Content to leave cross-country and slalom to more dedicated club members, Barnes would typically arrive in Murren late on the evening before the downhill, relying on an abundance of girlfriends to sort out his skis, paperwork and racing bib in readiness for the morning, and to find him a bed – or bed space. People talked of glamorous film assignments and highly paid helicopter work that enabled Barnes to take long periods off work every winter to ski. Holidays in resorts like Zermatt before the Inferno, heli-skiing (naturally) in places like Canada afterwards, and no holding back.
Inferno starting times are dictated by past performance so our paths would not cross until late in the afternoon when I would stagger over the finishing line and into a bar – the Suppenalp, usually – to find Pete and friends, still in their spider-web racing catsuits, well into their cups of lethal alcoholic ‘tea.’
“How was your time?” he would ask. I would embellish my time slightly in a pathetic bid for racing respectability, but it would still be many minutes slower than Barnes.
“Well done!” he would say; “that’s good!” Coming from another racer, a comment like that might have sounded, and been meant to sound, a little patronising. But as has been mentioned in many news reports and tweets, Pete Barnes was a charmer. Charm is an unfashionable attribute, but he was an effortlessly charming man, and when he said ‘Well done!’, it would have been impossible to take it any other way than straight and generously meant.
The last time I saw him was three years ago. According to the complicated system of race prizes, that was the year Barnes won his Diamond Devil, a coveted and rare badge that suited him well, and rewards loyalty to the Inferno and considerable success over a long period. At the Kandahar prize giving in the evening, a crowded room full of red faced skiers in striped club ties waited for the one prize winner who kept failing to come and collect. Where the hell was Pete Barnes?
The master of ceremonies was about to put the medals to one side when a tall man in ski boots and racing suit made an unsteady entrance and pushed to the front, grinning broadly. Later the same evening, he and others staged their customary aqua-Inferno race in a hotel swimming pool in full regalia – helmet, goggles, catsuit and ski boots – where they were discovered by the management and evicted with extreme prejudice. It was a time honoured post-Inferno ritual of theirs, and they were bound to get caught eventually. Some might say the same of flying helicopters, the least forgiving of aircraft when anything goes wrong.
The Kandahar’s president Cleeves Palmer this evening described his good friend as a throwback to an earlier generation of British skiers, the high-spirited generation of the 1920s and 30s. Pete Barnes certainly believed life was for living and I am pretty confident he extracted the maximum from every minute. The Inferno was a duller event without him over the last couple of years. Heads were shaken in sadness at his absence. “He’s under the thumb,” someone said, but Barnes had merely changed his perspective, from fun to family fun. That makes this sad day all the more so.
His gang of ski friends were in Val d’Isere this week, acclimatising to thin air and high prices before moving on to Murren for the Inferno. They were hoping Pete might turn up to join them, and all who knew him must wish that he had.