Monday, September 7, 2009
I Should Not be Alive Part 2 – Deathtrap
I make a distinct distinction between fate and destiny. We do not shape our fate but we can and do design our destiny. When we do nothing at all and just go with the flow of life, then whatever happens to us is fate but when we act, to the best of our abilities and judgment or sense and sensibilities; and then whatever happens is our destiny. This post is a feeble attempt to sum up my thoughts on one of my closest calls to eternity, which I fail to explain even today that how I lived and my friend did not, though we both had shaped our destiny due to our stubbornness to do one more crazy act just to prove that it could be done. This post might also lead you to appreciate that what is more agonizing and terrifying than death itself is its approach, its proximity and the slow and steady certitude that you are going to die.
Period: Circa 2001, December. Location: somewhere in the Patagonian Mountains within the fuzzy borderland between Chile and Argentina. Actors: Four strapping and carefree rascals from four nations who were completely lost in the glaciated wilderness and with nothing more to do were keen to lose even more. The two protagonists of this post were however a little more reckless and insane than the other two. One being a naval submariner from India and the other being a French extreme ski-alpinist.
Among Max (Chile), Jean (France), Paulo (Brazil) and I we pretty much had the entire world of mountains and all kinds of style summed up. Max was an elite rock and crag specialist, zooming up sheer faces like lizards often without any protection while Jean skied down such dizzy slopes which we would seldom dare to climb. He had already been the body double in two Bond Movies. Paulo and I had climbed on every possible and known mountain range across the globe that rose above 10,000 ft. When we patched up the Patagonian trip and all four of us rendezvoused at Calafate in Argentina, we had a very simple agenda. To climb the 10 highest peaks in the entire Patagonian Range of mountains that rose like jagged teeth along the non-linear boundary between Argentina and Chile.
We raced across North and South Patagonia like devils on fire since it is a huge uncharted range of mountains and wilderness and we needed to cover massive ground in a relatively short time. We climbed San Valentin, San Lorenzo, Mariano Moreno, Cerro Bertrand, etc and almost summitted Cerro Torre in a single push (which if we had succeeded, would have made our ascent one of the finest of the decade), skirting Fitz Roy from a safe distance since it had already been climbed by us save Jean. After a mad rushing period of four exciting weeks, when we found ourselves in the watering holes of Puerto Natales in Chile we had every reason to celebrate and feel cheerful. Which we were, except for Jean, who gulped his beer in short swigs and gurgled it like mouthwash. I knew Jean well; when he did this it meant only one thing: his mind was racing and he wasn’t happy. He was a modern day hippy with long golden hair, which he rarely washed pleating them instead in multiple beaded strands. He shook his head vigorously making the beads strike with each other sounding almost like a drummer in a hurry. He was certainly the fittest among us. ‘What are you guys happy about?’ Jean chided. ‘All we do for the last month is up and down, up and down,’ he raised his hands in mimicry, spilling a considerable amount of beer on the neighboring table occupied by a pair of scantily clad senoritas. ‘Pardon, senora,’ Jean said sheepishly. The girls only smiled sweetly at him, eyeing his bare torso with some amount of interest.
Paulo had masterminded our expedition, and this accusation from Jean stirred his pride. ‘What do you want? That’s what we had planned and you agreed.’ Max was the coolest one, ‘What are you thinking, mon ami?’ ‘Ski the length of Brüggen Glacier.’ Jean drained his glass finally. ‘Brüggen Glacier?’ I asked, ‘Are you mad? No one skis there, it is a veritable deathtrap, there are millions of crevasses and it is bloody long, moreover there’s no downhill skiing there, you will have to do Nordic cross-country!’ I suggested. Jean was three times European ski champion and I was certain that he was a master in every style of skiing. ‘I will ski on Brüggen, only then I celebrate.’ Jean thumped the glass down on the table with a finality none of us dared to challenge. Paulo flatly refused to ski on Brüggen, he offered to follow us on foot instead and declared in no uncertain terms that those who skied would soon find that it was impossible to do so anyways. Max could barely strap himself into a ski so he too opted out, which left Jean and I. I doubted even with a snow mobile I would be able to keep pace with Jean on ski. But perhaps what made me agree is that there was no one else to pair up with Jean and I simply couldn’t let him go alone, he was too dear a friend. And I also followed my simple philosophy that no matter how crazy, impossible or undoable an enterprise looked, I was willing to try or attempt it at least once. Within the span of four beer bottles and two plates of tossed tuna we had decided our destiny. Two would come to no harm, one would escape death by the skin of his teeth and one would undertake the last adventure of his life.
South Patagonian ice shelf, with an area of roughly 16,000 Km2 is the largest continuous ice shelf in the world outside the Polar Regions. It still has large tracts of uncharted and unknown land. Its first crossing happened as recently as 1998. It is the least explored and known mountain region in the world. At a length of 64 km, Brüggen is the longest glacier in the Southern Hemisphere outside the Polar Region. From the air it resembled the upper torso of a gigantic dragon with horns with its fire-spewing mouth rearing to the west into an estuary and smaller glaciers. There were no recorded or known traverses of this glacier for the simple reason that it was riddled with open and hidden crevasses and most of those crevasses were several hundred meters deep. To walk or ski across such a glacier did not amount to adventure by any definition; as it was sheer stupidity and suicidal. Till today I can’t explain save for the explanation I offered afore that why did Jean insist on skiing across the glacier and why or how did I agree to go with him.
Compared to Jean, my cross country skiing skills were perhaps non-existent, yet by normal standards I was a decent skier and Jean promised to go slow. At the beginning of our journey we decided to stick close to the eastern edge of the glacier where the curvatures were less severe therefore with shorter and shallower crevasses. We carried sacks full of food for the next three days. Max and Paulo followed us on foot from a safe distance. The glacier ran down towards the snout in a moderate gradient that gave us an advantage though not of an alpine slope. To describe the next two days in totality is beyond the scope of this post and it is not central to the story anyways. What is important to note is that soon we lost sight of our two friends on foot, since they had to be extra careful with the crevasses while we could zip across most of the narrow ones on our skis following a straighter line than them.
As the glacier shortened ahead of us and we neared the end, my spirit soared. We were skiing through some of the most magnificent and unseen vistas of nature and mountain wilderness. But for my crazy companion racing ahead I would have been deprived of these. There was some meaning to this madness after all I had to agree. Brüggen was a surging glacier and we often felt it move right underneath with crevasses suddenly appearing out of nowhere, which made our journey not only harrowing and hair-raising but also dynamic and there were never a moment of respite or boredom. We hopped, skipped and slid around and past death, cheating her icy cold fingers at every turn and every slope. Jean laughed like possessed and I smiled like a man drugged. We both were happy and euphoric beyond measure. On the third day when we had a mere mile to the end of the glacier, the ice shelf became so broken that we were forced to take off our skis and strap them on our backpack. Though beyond visual and audible range, Max and Paulo confirmed on radio that they were only few hours behind. They must have walked at a fiery pace, almost running after us. Was it for our safety or scare of being left behind that prompted them to speed up so; Jean joked.
Despite the long daylight hours, the sun was now sinking and our shadows lengthened behind. The air turned chilly and a shiver ran down my spine. Jean walked around 30 ft ahead while I followed him at a steady pace. On foot I could walk as fast as him. The ice penitents and the broken glacier floor made our progress slow and laborious. Route finding was essential. We had to tap the ice with our ice axe to gauge its quality and depth. There must be thousands of hungry crevasses right beneath waiting to devour us in one single moment of carelessness. Without our skis we were more vulnerable. I willed the sun to stay up a little longer. It wasn’t a place where one could place one’s life entirely at the mercy of the yellow beam of the headlamp.
As the sun sank lower, so did my spirit. It might have been a good idea to pitch our tent for the night, only if we could find a flat patch of ice, of which there was none. Though my body was warm my exterior had started freezing up. On a normal day by this hour we would be inside our tents, cooking pasta and soup. ‘Jean,’ I hailed, ‘should we stop and let them catch up?’ ‘No ways,’ Jean said without turning back, ‘they must have got a tent up by now. They are too far from the end and they can’t make it in the dark. But we are very close and let’s just get the hell out of here and camp on the moraine.’ Jean concluded. I had to agree with his logic. Moreover, we simply had no place to pitch a tent.
Miraculously a little later we turned into a half-tunnel, semi circular patch of flat ice with open roof. It seemed to lead us out of the glacier onto the lateral moraine. Jean literally raced and I followed him. In our haste we both abandoned caution for a brief fraction of a second. I could barely see the outline of my friend in the semi-darkness. Suddenly the earth parted and I fell through empty air.
Einstein had revealed time dilation concept in his theory of relativity, which merely stated that when we approached the speed of light, time actually slowed down. Though I have never approached the speed of light, even in my thoughts, I have been in situations that changed way too rapidly for the mind to follow and on all these occasions I have found that time indeed slowed down.
On that fateful evening in late December of 2001, trapped within one of the most hostile and wildest spots on the face of Earth as I watched helplessly my friend plunge to his death into the icy dungeons of a bottomless crevasse, everything stretched out as if I watched it in slow motion. I saw but my mind did not register.
With our combined weight landing on a thin veneer of ice covering a huge crevasse, it simply collapsed and we tumbled into the darkness. As I fell, I watched the arc of Jean’s headlamp bounce around the glistening blue ice-wall and kept hearing his piercing scream reverberating through the channel well after his body had disappeared from sight. My eyes followed his falling form mechanically. It dropped like stone, as a body should under such circumstances accelerating at 9.8 m/sec2 due to gravity. We both fell at the same instance but shortly he surpassed me and I looked down at him with my thoughts completely frozen. Only a jarring bone crushing grip that shot up from the middle of my battered torso, which I barely registered, told me that I was still alive and capable of registering pain. I tried to find footing to my crampons but after few seconds of failed attempt realized that I dangled in empty air like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Empty and cold air lay under me and complete darkness beyond as it was above.
Few frozen minutes later things started making sense. I swung my headlamp down and found no bottom only bottomless void of total darkness that seemed to mock and lure me into its core where moments ago my friend had disappeared. I looked up and imagined the sliver of dark sky around 40 ft above. As my body started freezing and growing numb from shock and hypothermia my mind started clearing up. Jean and I had fallen into a deep and long crevasse. He was barely 25 – 30 ft ahead of me and where he had fallen the crevasse was opening out like an inverted V, while where I had fallen, by some one-in-a-billion chance, a narrow convex bulge)( had formed. I had got jammed right in the center of it, with my limbs dangling free above and below. Had I fallen a millisecond earlier or later I would have missed the bulge completely.
My midriff, chest and lungs were getting crushed slowly as my body weight pulled me down and squeezed me into the bulge with every agonizing minute. I was completely helpless. My legs were far from the ice wall as were my hands and I had no use of my crampons or the ice axe. I could barely breathe and my heart had nearly stopped. My body heat was further melting the ice around my waist and I was slowly and surely sliding down. It was only a matter of time that the bulge would open out wide enough for me to slide through and join my friend down below somewhere; broken, smashed and surely dead. I could barely breathe or speak or make any gesture at all.
Death now hovered right around me. I knew for certain that there was no one up above looking for me and no rescue would come my way. Max and Paulo must be in their tents asleep. Even if they decided to look for us after a while when they did not raise us on the radio it would be impossible for them to find us in this icy maze. By now night had fallen and I could hear the blizzard roaring on top as it swept ice particles down all over me like fine shower.
I don’t think that I have ever been caught in a more helpless and hopeless situation in my entire life. I started losing my mind and my senses. My eyes refused to focus or stay open. My lower limbs were totally frozen as blood was cut off. I had slid down by several inches. In fact death seemed more logical and welcome. I always knew that my time would come like this only and wanted no other end for self, but I wished that I would die sooner than later. The throttling agony racked my brain like chainsaw hacking away my limbs one piece at a time. There was no escape from the pain or the realization that I was certainly going to die. There was no fear or longing except the unbearable pain and the desire for it to end soonest. I did not think of anyone or anything at all other than the overpowering urge to die. I am sure that if I had the strength and could locate my Swiss knife, then on that night I would have either slit my throat or plunged it deep into my heart. I hovered in suspended animation with the supreme realization that though it was my destiny (due to my actions) that brought me here it would be my fate (due to my inaction) that would finally kill me.
Though my body and soul and if I still had any mind left then all of them had given up the struggle to stay alive only praying and wishing for death, there was this another disembodied part of my being that was telling me to stay awake and be ready to act when help arrived. Through the faint pallor of the headlamp as it struck the shining ice wall opposite I saw myself glued to the ice and looking at me with curiosity as if I was an insect under microscope. I even smiled at me, much to my vexation. My apparition remained silent though I asked him questions, only nodding its head languidly. I was so riveted with the sight that my eyes stayed open despite their inability to focus or to discern forms at all. I have no idea that neurologically how many parts can the mind and brain be split into, but on that day there seemed to be a lot of them. One of them told me that I was hallucinating, another confirmed that I was dying, while the other reaffirmed that my situation was completely, thoroughly irreversible. I was hearing sounds, whispers, noises, someone calling my name, someone brushing my face, and I ignored all. I refused to lose my sanity till the end and die with the knowledge that I was dead. And then I heard it.
Above all the ramblings and fumbling of my feeble mind a sharp pitch of a whistle came hurtling down from above and pierced my numbing rationale like arrow. Perhaps for such situations training was necessary. When our mind and body reacts without the need to think, it acts in reflex without even realizing what it was to which it reacted. It was the unmistakable sound of a St John rescue whistle and I knew who carried it. I looked up into the beam of a headlamp. Few more whistle blows followed and then few gibberish of human tongue of which I made nothing at all. I opened my mouth but to no avail. My lungs had by now completely crushed and I was sure my ribs had cracked due to the constriction. I slid another inch down and wondered how soon my friends above would watch me disappear. Abruptly something whipped past my helmet. Though my eyes did not see and my brain did not think, I knew a rope had just been dropped and at the end of it would be Paulo.
Someone came down and hooked the rope to my harness and then chopped the ice that had saved me and imprisoned me till then. As soon as the ice chunks fell off, I spun uncontrollably in empty air, hanging like a ragged doll and a puppet without a puppeteer. My friends took nearly half an hour to pull me up. Even without my uttering a word they knew that they would not see Jean ever again. They took off my sack and carried me through the night finally reaching the tent. The moment I felt the warmth I passed out. I have no recollection of what happened thereafter.
Though I learned later that Max and Paulo nursed me back to life all through the night and literally carried me on their backs the next day to the nearest rescue post from where a helicopter ferried us to the nearest hospital. With me finally safe and secure, Paulo and Max took leave. My return flight was from Santiago and Max lived in Valparaiso so I promised to call him up once I reached Santiago whereas I may never meet Paulo again. I hugged both of them for being my angels.
When I boarded the flight a week later for Santiago and we rose into the dying sun, I looked out of the window at the receding glaciers below, where my friend and guide Jean lay in complete obscurity. No one will ever know what he went through or how he died. No one would find his body and he would never get a Catholic burial. He would not become a legend or a story; his grave would forever remain unknown and uncharted. Once again I had no explanation for being alive while a dear friend had to be left behind. I felt lost, I felt sad and I felt sorry… I have no idea why. But my throat closed up and I kept my eyes glued to the window till we broke through the clouds and the glaciers receded out of sight forever.
I did not ask and they did not tell that how come Paulo and Max on that night had not pitched their tent and came looking for us and even more amazingly how did they find that one crevasse among thousands into which Jean and I had fallen. Such an occurrence was not even a one-in-a-billion probability; it was impossible. Had God or destiny guided them that night, I will never know, but what I would always know is that if my time wasn’t up then there was nothing on earth that could kill me and if it was then nothing on earth could save me. Hence I had nothing to fear except the fear of being scared.