Falling Through Snow
by William Menke
16 May 1998
Grimsfjall cliff, as seen from within the caldera. Photo by R.S. White.
Last Wednesday I fell 900 feet down a snow covered mountainside. We were returning to our seismological field laboratory, in a snug mountaintop hut at Grimsfjall, Iceland, when Bryndis, who was driving our pickup truck, became momentarily confused by the foul weather. I tried to help by looking at the navigation display, saying "GPS indicates weīre moving away from the hut." Bryndis replied, " Itīs OK, Bill, I have the feel for where we are now." But at that moment the pickup started to roll down a very steep white hill, so smooth that it looked just like a wave. I knew then just where we were. We were rolling over the edge of the cliff that bounded one side of the mountain.
I had no sense of the car moving, just white snow roaring past the car, and a sense of twisting, as in a winding cave or tunnel. The snow snatched at my arms, trying to pull them outward, and I countered with all my strength, inward. Three times I would feel an irresistable force pull me and slam me into the ceiling of the pickup. I did not experience any sense of fear or regret, only an awesome determination to struggle against the wildness. Then came silence. We were at the bottom. What was left of the pickup was right-side up in the snow. Wreckage was strewn everywhere.
I exited the pickup through its now glassless front window. I didnīt need to look upward to confirm my initial certainty, but did to see the cliff face looming in front of me.
I checked myself over, trying to understand why my bright yellow rainsuit was covered with equally bright red blood. Most seemed to be coming from fairly shallow cuts on my hands. The suit, and the ski helmet I had been wearing, had protected the rest of me from the abrasive effect of the snow. Bryndis did not look too good, although I was relieved to see that she was at least alive. She was bleeding from a head wound. From its mishappen shape, I knew that her left arm was broken. Worse still, she seemed very disoriented, saying in a childlike voice that was very uncharacteristic of her normal manner: "What car is this? How did I get into this car? My hand hurts". She started to climb out. I urged her to be still for the moment, but then helped her when it was clear that was her intention. Her leg was jammed between the seats in some funny way. As I eased it free, I saw that it didnīt look too good either. I urged her to rest on the snow, and began to look around to find something to help us keep warm.
My state of mind then was very peculiar, almost hyper-rational. Neither then, nor in any time in the ensuing hours before our rescue did I experience any sort of fear or uncertainty. Survival strategies and priorities boomed into being. The world around me was crystal clear. I saw a tent on the snow.
It was of course a mountaineering tent that Bryndis had packed in the pickup as an emergency measure. I set it up close to Bryndis and urged her to slide in, which she did, although she still didnīt seem to understand where she was. Looking around, I saw my torsopack, with its water bottle and GPS reciever. I pulled that into the tent after me. I was not happy with the tent's proximity to the cliff face, because of avalanches, but didnīt dare risk moving Bryndis far.
After an hour or so in the tent, Bryndis head started to clear. Unprotected by any sort of helmet, she had taken some nasty blows. Meanwhile, I used my GPS reciever to fix my location. Only 600 feet horizontally from the hut, but 900 feet below it. I also saw that we were 1.5 miles from the base of the road up to the hut. That was bad, for it meant a 3 mile uphill hike. That was certainly impossible for Bryndis. My neck and shoulder injuries were also becoming apparent - it would have been a very risky trek for me, too. I knew that waiting for rescue was our best - maybe only - option.
Bryndis and I discussed trying to contact the others in our party, but the car radio had been destroyed. Another pickup and a heavy snow tractor had been with us at the mountain top. Or had they fallen off too? If they had, our chance for rescue was slim. Yet at no time did we give up hope. After a few hours, we began to hear occasional airplanes and once - maybe - a distant snow tractor. Though we knew it couldnīt hear us, we sang a song for the sake of solidarity. Bryndis also urged moving the tent, an idea I discouraged because of our poor physical condition and the freezing rain that had begun. We decided not to move, a decision thst almost proved disasterous.
An avalanche did begin. We heard it roar down the cliff face above us, a deep thunder that was felt as much as heard. Blocks of snow started to cover the tent, but then suddenly stopped with us only half covered. We were able to get out and drag the now collapsed tent downhill. Before we did, I found some string and flags, and strung them out to leave some kind of sign that we had survived, and to give the general direction in which we had gone.
We crawled back into the tent, and resolved to wait it out. I could see that even travelling a few hundred yards had seriously weakened us, and that Bryndis was now having some difficulty breathing. I was shivering badly, and had severe pains in the shoulders and neck. We spent 15 minutes teasing closed the tent-flap zipper. We sipped some water from my packs bottle. We lay with our heads on a piece of foam I pried out of a shipping crate for seismic instruments that was amongst the wreakage. We shivered and we waited. Then, unexpectedly, a hand reached down through the tent from above, and grabbed my shoulder. Rescue had come!!
The eight hours we had survived below the mountain was followed by another twelve while the rescuers - an amazing snowmobile-mounted team from the town of Hofn - moved us stage by stage to the Reykjavik hospital. But I let my own focus blow away like a puff of vapor, left our future in their capable hands. (After describing, as best I could, our injuries to them, of course, and asking for a neck brace.) Our fall and long ordeal has had a curious effect on me. At no time have I felt any anger at its happening. I learned that I have absolutely no fear of death, and that I react very well under stressful circumstances. Virtues, perhaps, but too painfully learned to be worth boasting over. People who know that I am a Christian believer as well as a scientist have asked me the role that my faith played in our survival, and whether the prayers of my friends were in some way efficatious, and what, over all, our survival meant. Good questions perhaps, but not ones that I myself would now ask.
During those hours I became faith. There was never a moment when I felt abandoned or cut off. Although I did my utmost to work towards our survival, there was never a moment when I cared whether I would live or die. The experience was vaster than I on an incomprehensible scale. I felt no sorrow, no anguish, there on the snow, nor numbness. Perhaps I felt a fierce joy. I was in some crazy way in harmony with all that was happening. I was not so much seeking a prayer - or an answer to a prayer - as I was the prayer, itself.
And yet the experience does not really mean much to me in retrospect. I donīt see any special message. Terrible things sometimes happen. When they happen, people do what is necessary. Those who survive must pick up the pieces and go on, having been reminded perhaps how precious life is and how much worth living.