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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.