Alpine Training - An Epic - Part Three
Written by Ross Cooper



I'd stopped. I must of fallen, must be in shock. No pain.

'What about Chris?'

I fought loose of the snow, my head was downhill of the rest of my body, with me on my back, and feet high in the air like a capsized tortoise. I flicked the ice from under my eyelids. They stung badly, my glasses gone. Thumb and finger on my nose, I snorted the snow out. I rolled over, and felt a violent impact in my head. I was hanging just feet from the edge of a huge crag, at least 70ft to the next slope below.
Eyes wide, heart racing again from the panic, I swung around on the ice and stood with surprising ease to move up. My adze-axe was still with me, so I drove the pick deep into the ice slab and prepared for a committing pull upwards, and away from the huge drop. I moved up almost a full 5ft with one step. Then I realised that the rope was still above me, and very tight.

Well done old man! you held it!' I didn't know quite how he'd managed to, but I'd stopped. 'But then, how did he pull me up that 5 feet?' I followed the taught line up through the line of the snow slide, over a boulder and out of sight. The thought suddenly entered my head.

Chris must be hanging on the rope somewhere else. There was no way he could've held the fall like that! Other than if he's gone off another edge. A faint echo lofted down towards me, it sounded like 'slack', I stood again, and moved up another 10ft, the weight came off from around my waist and I flopped down into the snow, exhausted. My shades were there, I pocketed them,
looking back down the slope. My hammer was still there, and the crampons. I resigned to getting them later.

Chris was just coming into view, very slowly picking his way down the groove, in my slide line. I'd already made some good progress with the snow hole. There hadn't been any logical thought process, no considerations. I'd just
resigned to the fact that we needed to shelter the night, and get down in the morning. The cold water trickle that had started some time before down my neck was now a more substantial flow of melted snow and ice inside my clothing; though I still wasn't cold. I'd tried to make the snow shovel from my ice axe and deadman, but finding the deadman gone, along with the other stuff I'd made do with the adze. It was such slow work. Lying uphill on my side, I was trying to carve out a shape similar to a coffin on it's side - a fitting grave I thought.
The snow wasn't very deep. Only four feet until I hit rock, and running water. I swore, and packed snow back to cover the water up.

Chris joined me, and we exchanged worried smiles. We couldn't believe we were both unhurt, both being out of each other's sight when we'd fell. I'd lost it and pulled Chris off too. Only the amazing event of us passing either side of a chunk of rock had stopped the fall, a fall almost certainly to our deaths. I continued to dig, Chris moved down the slope, and managed to get
my other axe. Then he came back up and started moving the snow out from behind me. I found the concentration calmed me, talk about pulling together in a crisis! Chris didn't question me about the hole, he just helped.

After about an hour of digging we both crawled into the hole, we were both sat similar to the posture in a dentist's chair, but tipped forward instead of back. Unable to straighten cold wet legs, and sat on out packs we both looked a sight. Chris already looking very cold, started to munch on some chocolate as the light faded into the night.

The usual testimony of people having to wait out a long night before action in a war, or a husband waiting for his wife's labour to finish has often been documented. Also the interest I'd particularly had in the effect of cold on human performance, but I never could of related to them until that night, never.

I was cramped, the hole wasn't big enough. But at least we weren't out in the open I thought. I kept saying prayers, almost chanting them in my head, eyes held tightly closed, hands clenched in tight fists to try and force the cold out of my body. Energy ebbed. I kept wiggling my toes, I was worried for frostbite, but I could still feel them; that was good. Chris offered me some food, I passed the offer. My mind would wander, all the concentration on keeping warm. I couldn't stop the shivers, biting and grinding teeth, with my jaw clenched I could feel the muscles tense throughout my face. The fear of movement itself, that by moving it would release the warmth from my body. 'Must get the stove lit, must light the stove...' It was dark now, Chris fumbled his head
torch and it fell among our feet. We sat in silence, three or four words an hour; that was all. I couldn't accept that I was going to die, but the effort in keeping warm drove away thoughts of death.

It must of been about midnight when we got the stove set up, but the lighter was wet. Chris put it in his glove and we waited.

I guessed it was about three. I hadn't slept, not for a second. We'd heard heavy thunder overhead, and the hole kept filling from slides down the groove. Chris, by the opening I half envied, having the snow pile in. at least he had something to do - to keep moving, I had no room to move. I tried stretching my legs straight, pushing my head to the roof, but the stiffness stayed. If hell was cold, this would be it. I new it could be a lot worse, but it was already bad enough. Chris lit the stove, it flared for a couple of seconds followed by a small yellow flame. He turned up the throttle too soon, and it blew out. It wouldn't relight. The force of the vapour blowing out the flame from the lighter. We waited for ten minutes and tried again. it lit, and I warned of turning it up too soon.

A rush of spindrift blew into the hole, blocking it tight. I panicked a bit, not quickly, but insisting on making an air hole quickly; I feared carbon monoxide poisoning. The snow had piled in deep, at least half a metre against the opening, and to no avail, Chris managed only a wrist sized hole to the air. I plunged my Ice axe shaft through the roof, it only just reached the air outside. I was relieved, the stove had gone out again; the spindrift.

Count every second, of every minute, of every ten, of every thirty, of every hour, for five hours. That would've been quick. Hell was lightening.

The black had turned into darkest blue. Now I could just make out Chris's silhouette in the cave from the intense black of the night.

A thought came to me in that time, getting down I couldn't see being too big a problem, even if it took all day. We could make it to the hut, but I worried that the hut would be shut. My knowledge of alpine huts was very small, I just prayed we could get up to the telegraphique, and get a car down before our friends in the valley raised the alarm. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for a land and air search and rescue operation.

Time had moved on, we had been listening out for the loud speaker at the telegraphique, to hear when the cable cars will be leaving. I checked my watch, 7:30, and just light in the cave. I thought it time to break out through the roof, and check out
the world above. Hard shoves with the axe pierced a pattern in the shape of a small rectangle, I lifted a foot high, I could still feel my toes - just. I couldn't believe that. I stomped the roof with my foot, kicking the rectangle out and away.

I wasn't prepared for that, white, everywhere outside. It was a full on whiteout blizzard. I dropped back and sat in disbelief. half a metre of powder had fallen that night. The slope was treacherous. I looked to Chris, and only then I realised how cold we both were. His lips, nose cheeks, and eyelids; all blue and purple. I knew he must be hypothermic. His knee injury can't of helped. At least his survival bag had worked for him. My ultra lightweight one, which was see-through proved impossible to get into, failing to find the opening in the dark, or by the light of a torch. It was then that I knew that it was time to go.

I was positive that the cable car wouldn't be running. the wind was very strong, 60mph I guessed. We spent another thirty minutes digging the rope, and my helmet from the old entrance to the snow hole. I needed to pee, so ordered Chris to belay me on the rope, and let me down the slope so I could relieve myself. It was a truly odd feeling coming out from the cave. White hard grit spinning around the air stung my eyes, high above I could make out the service cars that ran across to the Italian side; they moved violently in the wind. I faced away from the wind.

When I'd finished, I quickly did up my salo's again. I was warming, but very slowly. I shouted to Chris, who's head was peering out of the hole looking down to me.