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In my one clear image of Tim from our Alpine trip, he is silhouetted by the moon, doing jumping jacks in the snow, as he tries desperately to fend off the biting cold of a night outdoors on a mountainside. I find myself going back regularly to try to pick out more details.
I was working at a hotel in Geneva during the summer of 1998. Or was it 1997? My memory has never been good with details. Tim was always the keeper of dates and facts.
In any case, during one of those summers, when we were in our 20s, Tim took a couple months off and was embarking on the classic young Canadian’s tour of Europe.
Vague plans had been hatched that we would meet at some point, somewhere, and do something. Despite the lines of communication not being what they are today, this somehow got whittled down to a specific Wednesday (or was it Thursday?), lining up with a long weekend.
True to form, Tim showed up at 1 in the morning. There was a knock on my staff-dormitory door, and I opened it to see an unhappy-looking security guard and, lurking behind him, the shaggy form of a travelling Tim. His curly brown hair looked a bit more unkempt than usual, his round face a little more gaunt, and his usual goofy grin looked slightly apologetic.
“Do you know this guy?”
Good question. But, being too tired to make a joke of it, I just nodded and welcomed Tim into my shabby room.
Though I had spent most of my childhood summers visiting Switzerland with my family, and though this was my second summer working there, it was the first time I had met a friend from back home while overseas. There was something surreal about the merging of two worlds. Here was this key player from my suburban Ontario childhood years standing at my door in a country that had been reserved for the family portion of my life.
We probably just exchanged some awkward banter before I pointed him to the corner of floor that I had generously cleared out to be his bed.
The next day, we got down to business and started planning the weekend. We were a one-hour bus ride from Chamonix, home of extreme skiing and location of a ski movie that had grabbed our imagination in the 1980s. It seemed obvious that we should head that way to pay our respects.
We left late in the afternoon with the rather dubious idea of saving money by sleeping under the stars. We would catch one of the chairlifts up from the valley, wander around under the fading light and find a place to crash like a couple of cowboys.
Neither of us had any camping equipment, so we just packed some bread and cheese, filled up water bottles and borrowed a couple of hotel towels to serve as beds.
You can probably file all that under “dumb-ass moments of youth.”
When we arrived in Chamonix, the chairlifts were closed. Since we couldn’t head up to altitude, we wandered the village and, as dusk fell, headed into a forested park on the outskirts. We found ourselves a clearing and laid down our towels. Tim pointed out that all we were missing were some horses to tie up to the trees.
Settling down under the stars, we were quite pleased with our ruggedness. We felt like proper men.
Then it got cold. Then it got colder. Soon, sleep was impossible through the shaking of our bodies and the chattering of our teeth. We went through our backpacks and put on every item of clothing we had. This did not amount to much. Sleep came in fits. I woke up once to see Tim doing his jumping jacks in the moonlight. This from someone who had walked through snow fields in moccasins and claimed to have been a polar bear in a previous life.
We were both just waiting for the sun, but not yet willing to admit that we needed to move on.
There was something about Tim that brought out the stubbornness in me. Probably because he himself could be so stubborn and, as hard as it would have been to admit back then, I had always admired his individualistic traits. I remembered a time when we both stood under cold rain in a parking lot while our friends yelled at us to get in the car. Neither of us wanted to be the first to budge. Eventually our friends left and, when they came back, I climbed in. Tim, ever so coolly, climbed in after.
This time, it was a draw. At the first signs of light, we both called the night over and rolled up our towels. Heading back into town, we found a warm breakfast, and as the heat finally started to penetrate, we decided we should probably find a hostel for our next two nights. Signs of maturity.
Details of the rest of the weekend are a bit blurred. I know we took the cable car up to the Aiguille de Midi. I know that we hiked all around the surrounding hills. And I know that on one of the hikes I slipped and scraped my wrist. I know this because, despite its not feeling like much at the time, the scrape left a scar. Fifteen years later, the scar is faded and usually escapes notice. But it’s still there.
Tim and I parted ways in Chamonix on Sunday. I took a bus back to Geneva. I think he was heading to Italy.
It has been five years now since Tim died of a brain tumour, and I’ve had to rely on my own muddy version of events. I wish he were still around to fill in the details.
Denis Berthoud lives in Montreal.
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