The fifteen most terrifying seconds of my life
31 January 2011
Swimming more than walking, Kristoffer was making steady progress in the fresh snow. The unclimbed ice wall was only a few meters away now. As the rope came taut, I put the camera away and started coming up, sinking a meter with each step. It was very hard work and I was entirely focused on the effort when I suddenly heard Kristoffer shout "COMING DOWN!". There was urgency in his voice, but my first thought was that it didn't make much sense. There couldn't be ice coming down yet, and the angle of the slope was too low for anything to do real damage anyway. I looked up and everything seemed normal. Then I saw it. The whole slope was moving, coming straight toward me.
This trip was a gamble on weather and conditions from the start. Over the past two days, we had driven 12 hours from Denmark to the heart of Norway, not far from Bergen. We only had one potential climbing day before having to drive back home if we wanted to be at work on Monday morning. Kristoffer had his eyes on some of the lines first climbed by Will Gadd and Andreas Spak last winter, and in particular the aptly named Sketchy Fossen, probably one of the steepest and longest ice falls in the world, with over 400 meters of vertical ice. This would be way too hard for me to have a chance of leading, but I was happy to belay Kristoffer on what would be the second ascent.
On climbing day, things had gone wrong from the very beginning. Despite a cheerful forecast, heavy snow had fallen all night, depositing at least 20 fresh centimeters on the roads. We started the approach well before sunrise, and our minimal scouting the previous day made us miss the correct turn by a mere hundred meters, forcing us to an exhausting climb of a buttress on the wrong side of the gully. We realized our mistake later and had to negotiate a series of tricky abseils to get back on track, only to discover that while the upper part of Sketchy Fossen looked good, the bottom wasn't quite frozen and the first two pitches had collapsed recently. It was clearly impossible to climb. After the initial disappointment, we settled on another ice fall at the back of the canyon which looked in better nick. On the way over there, we also discovered a hidden gully on the left and decided to climb it right away, since it would likely be a first ascent.
The approach gully was very wide, probably 100 meters across, an angle varying between 30 and 40 degrees and with at least two meters of snow cover. Halfway up, a gigantic avalanche came down Sketchy Fossen. Being a couple hundred meters away from the base, we were out of harm's way but still felt the wind with amazing strength when tons of snow hit the ground. If the icefall had been in better conditions, we would have been straight under it. I don't even want to think about what that would have meant. Stupidly, we kept walking toward the cliffs and their promises of steep, clean vertical ice.
There was no time to run and nowhere to go, the whole slope was going. I remembered tales of small Scottish slides where people had managed to stay standing and, hoping I could do the same, I braced for impact, less than a second away. As the wave hit me, I was instantly knocked over with tremendous strength and before I could realize what had happened, I was going at a terrible speed, head first, on my back. I then made my biggest mistake yet and opened my mouth (to scream or breathe, I have no idea) and it instantly filled with snow, pushing its way down my throat and blocking my airway. I was suffocating already.
Somehow, I had imagined being caught in an avalanche like being on a very fast toboggan slide, but the reality was a lot scarier. It was pure chaos, a maelstrom if there ever was one. None of my senses were working. I was in darkness most of the time, with the occasional bright light telling me I was getting close to the surface, only to be pulled back down an instant later. All I could hear was the deafening roar of the tons of snow coming down the slope. Shaken hopelessly, the only direction I could be certain of was where downhill was, though I had a vague idea I was still sliding head first. All I could taste was the combination of the snow filling my mouth with my terrible fear.
As soon as the slide had started, I got convinced I was about to die. It didn't mean much, though, it was too abstract in a universe which had been reduced to tons of snow tumbling down a mountainside. What I could understand, though, was that I couldn't breathe at all, and that I was likely to end up buried alive. This was the purest, most abject terror I could ever have imagined, and it focused on a single thing. It went on like a mantra in my head: "Let me end up near the surface, please let me end up near the surface". This was all I could think about. The animal fear of these few minutes I believed I would have to spend in a snow coffin, slowly asphyxiating, knowing my predicament to be hopeless, was the most terrible part of the whole experience.
I vaguely tried swimming, as I remember being advised to, but the ropes had wrapped themselves tight around my whole body, forbidding any movement. From the moment the slope had started sliding, I had lost all control over my fate, now at the mercy of forces infinitely more powerful than me. Nothing I could do would make any difference over the outcome, it all depended on the depth of the avalanche, the exact angle, the stability of the snowpack and a thousand other parameters. And yet, flapping desperately my arms and trying to dislodge the snow from my throat, I was keenly aware that, in a very primordial way, I was fighting with all my strength to survive.
Writing this, two days later, I keep remembering details I had been careful to not think about in the immediate aftermath. First to come back was the very beginning, when the strength of the slide made me realize that this wasn't just yet another incident in an unlucky day, it was big trouble, the kind people don't walk away from. And then that other moment, after a second or two, when I realized the slide was picking up speed instead of slowing down, and I thought that this was it. I was going to die today.
The latest memory to come back is the soundtrack. Not of the avalanche, but of myself. Unable to breathe, I kept trying to scream, to expel those foreign objects from my body, and I can now hear my muffled, pathetic and desperate cries.
The slide lasted ten to fifteen seconds in total, though adrenaline helping, it felt like hours. It was strangely similar to a long lead fall, where you have enough time to keep asking yourself "shit, why haven't I stopped yet?". Then, as suddenly as it had started, it came to a halt as the angle kicked back a little. Miraculously, my face was right near the surface and I managed to get my upper body out. I immediately coughed out all the snow that was blocking my lungs. I took a deep breath in and screamed twice. It wasn't fear or relief, but the animal in me expressing his frustration of having been deprived of the basic need to breath for so long.
I heard a laugh a couple of meters to my right. Kristoffer was also sitting on top of the snowpack, as uninjured as myself. The laugh turned to swearing, however, when he realized that having let go of his ice tools during the slide, they were both buried below tons of snow. The final assessment left me with a sore elbow and Kristoffer with a big bruise on his thigh, along with lost Nomics and three ice screws, an incredibly lucky outcome given what we had just been through.
We later estimated the slide had gone at least 200 meters before stopping. It was between half a meter and a meter deep, and at least 50 meters across. We also agreed that all the signs pointed to high avalanche danger and that we had been really stupid to go there in the first place. The real issue wasn't that we miscalculated the risk, it was that we did not calculate it, a combination of many factors (tiredness from the approach, disappointment at the condition of our initial objective, the long drive, the fact we only had a single day to climb, the deceptive "non-seriousness" of a fjord compared to big mountain environment, and probably some others), and it could have cost us very dearly had we not been so lucky.
Today I am sure of only one thing. Mountains kill, even small ones, especially when you least expect it. Today, I am not invincible anymore.