Military history

11. THE ASCENT OF REVDAL

THAT EVENING, the sailing-boat which Marius used crossed over the fjord again, laden with the gear for the attempt to climb the mountain: the sledge, still in pieces, a sixty-foot rope, an old canvas sleeping-bag and two fresh blankets for Jan, two rucksacks full of spare clothing and food and a bottle of brandy, and the four pairs of skis of the men who were making the attempt.

The ascent of Revdal was the first of two feats of mountaineering during Jan’s rescue which are possibly unique. It often happens after climbing accidents in peace time that an injured man has to be carried or lowered a long way down a mountain; but there must rarely, if ever, have been any occasion before or since to carry an injured man up a mountain for three thousand feet in severe conditions of ice and snow. At the time, spurred on by the knowledge that Jan’s life depended on it, the four men who attempted it never dreamed of failure; but ever afterwards, when they looked up in cold blood at the mountain wall of Revdal, they wondered how they could possibly have done it.

When they got to the far shore of the fjord that evening, they walked up to the hut in some anxiety at what they would find inside, afraid of the effect which another three days of isolation might have had on Jan. But they found him more cheerful than he had been the time before. Physically, he was weaker, and those of the party who had not seen him since they had left him there twelve days earlier were shocked at the change in his appearance, for he had lost a lot of weight and his eyes and cheeks were sunken. But he was much clearer in his head than he had been when Marius saw him, and he had even regained the vestige of a sense of humour. He told them his feet were no worse. The toes, of course, could not get any worse, but the gangrene had not spread any farther, so far as he could tell. He said it was still just as painful; but they could see from his behaviour that he could stand up to the pain now that he knew he was not abandoned. All in all, he was a patient whom no hospital staff would have allowed out of bed for a moment, and looking down at him lying there in his filth, all four men wondered whether it could be right to take him out into the snow and subject him to the treatment they intended. All of them thought it would very likely kill him. But they knew for certain that it was his only chance.

While two of them put the sledge together, the others wrapped him securely in two blankets, and then pushed and pulled him into the sleeping-bag. When the sledge was ready, they lifted him out of the bunk where he had lain for nearly a fortnight, and put him on the sledge and lashed him securely down with ropes, so that not much more than his eyes was showing and he could not move at all. They maneuvered the sledge through the door and put it down in the snow outside. While they adjusted their individual loads of skis and ski-sticks, and ropes and rucksacks, Jan had a moment to glance for the last time, without any regret, at the hovel where he had expected to die. Then they took up the short hauling ropes they had tied to the sledge, and turned it towards the mountain. It was a little after midnight; but there was still the afterglow of the sun in the northern sky above the mouth of the fjord, and even beneath the mountain wall it was not very dark. There were roughly fifteen degrees of frost.

The first part of the climb straight up from the hut at Revdal is covered by the forest of birch scrub. It is not steep enough to be called more than a scramble in mountaineering terms, but in deep snow it is the most frustrating kind of scramble, even for a climber not carrying any burden. None of the miniature trees have trunks much thicker than an arm, but they have been growing and dying there unattended since primeval times, and the ground beneath them is covered with a thick matted tangle of rotten fallen logs which gives no foothold. The trees grow very close together, and they are interlaced with half-fallen branches bowed down or broken by the weight of snow. Some trees have died and are still standing, propped up by the others crowded round them, and these break and crumble away if someone incautiously uses them for a handhold. When the deep springy mesh of fallen trees, lying piled on one another, is hidden by a smooth deceptive covering of snow, the forest is a place where a climber must go with care. It would be impossible to fall for more than a foot or two, but it would be very easy to break a leg in falling.

Getting Jan up through the forest was mostly a matter of brute strength and endless patience; but strength and patience, of course, were two of the qualities Marius had thought about when he chose his three companions. Alvin Larsen was slight and thin, and only about twenty-one years old, but he had just come back from the tough school of the Lofoten fishing and was in perfect training. Amandus Lillevoll was a little older, a small wiry man with a great reserve of strength, and an exceptional skier. Olaf Lanes was the only big man of them all. He had shoulders like an ox, and he hardly ever spoke unless he had to: the epitome of the strong silent man. As for patience, all four of them had the unending dogged patience which is typical of Arctic people.

Within the steep forest, they quickly discovered the technique which served them best. Two of them would hold the sledge, belayed to a tree to stop it from running backwards, while the others climbed on ahead with the rope, forcing their way through the frozen undergrowth. When the upper pair found a possible stance, they took a turn of the rope round a tree and hauled the sledge up towards them, the lower pair steering it, stopping it when it threatened to turn over, pushing as best they could, and lifting it bodily when it buried itself in drifts. Their progress was very slow. There was seldom a clear enough space to haul the sledge more than about a dozen feet at a time, and each change of stance meant a new belay and a new coiling and uncoiling of the icy rope. The leaders, treading a trail through the virgin snow, often fell through into holes in the rotten wood beneath, and it was difficult to climb out of these hidden traps. Before they had gained more than a few hundred feet, they began to be afraid that they had started something which it would be impossible to finish; not so much because they thought their own stubbornness and strength would be unequal to the job, but because they were more and more afraid that Jan would not survive it. It was going to be a long time before they got to the top; and they had found a new problem which had no answer, and which nobody had foreseen: the simple problem of whether to haul him feet first or head first. When they took him feet first, of course his head was always much lower than his feet, and sometimes in the steep drifts he was hanging almost vertically head downwards. He could not stand this for very long, certainly not for hour after hour; but when they turned him round and took him up head first, the blood ran into his feet and burst out in new hæmorrhages, and his face showed them the pain he was trying to suffer in silence. But as the climb went on, he was more and more often unconscious when they looked at him. This was a mercy, but it made them all the more sure he would not last very long. This urgency, together with the blind faith which he seemed to have in them, made them press on with the strength of desperation. Every few feet of the forest brought them up against a new obstacle which had to be surmounted. They struggled with each one till they overcame it, and then turned to the next without daring to pause, hoping that Jan would last till they got to the top, and that then the Mandal men would be able to whisk him straight over to Sweden.

When they cleared the forest at last, at a height of about a thousand feet, they had to rest. They slewed the sledge round broadside to the hill and dug in one runner so that it stood level, and collapsed in the snow beside it. Jan was awake, and they gave him a nip of brandy, and sucked some ice themselves, and looked down at the way they had come. The climb had already taken nearly three hours, and it was day. The dawn light shone on the peaks above Furuflaten across the water, and Jaeggevarre glowed above them all on the western skyline. The fjord below was still, and there was no sign of life on it. In the shadow of the hill, the air was very cold.

Immediately above the treeline was a sheer face of rock, but to their right it was broken by a steep cleft with the frozen bed of a stream in the bottom of it. Each time they had crossed the fjord they had gazed up at the face as they approached it, and the cleft had seemed the most likely route to the summit. From closer at hand, it still looked possible. To get to the bottom of it they would have to traverse a steep snow slope about two hundred feet high and perhaps a hundred yards across. The slope was clean and smooth at the top, where they would have to cross it, but at the bottom it vanished in the forest. It had a firm crust on it, and there seemed to be no particular danger about it. When they had got their breath they gathered themselves together to attempt it.

This was the first time they had tried to traverse with the sledge; and crossing the slope turned out to be like a nightmare, like walking a tightrope in a dream. Three of them stood below the sledge and one above it. To keep it level and stop it rolling sideways down the hill, the three men below it had to carry the outer runner, letting the inner one slide in the snow. Very slowly they edged out across the slope, kicking steps and moving one man at a time till the whole slope yawned dizzily below them. It was impossible then to stop or go back. The sledge, resting on a single ski, moved all too easily. While they could keep it perfectly level, all was well, but they could feel that if they let it tilt the least bit either way, either down by the head or down by the foot, it would take charge and break away from them, and then in a split second the whole thing would be over. Kicking steps in a snow slope always demands a fair degree of balance because there is nothing whatever to hold on to. It is impossible to resist a sudden unexpected force. If the sledge had begun to slide they could have saved themselves by falling on their faces and digging their hands and toes into the snow; but they could not have stopped the sledge, and when it crashed into the trees two hundred feet below it would have been travelling at a speed which it was horrifying to imagine. Perhaps it was just as well that Jan, lying on it on his back and lashed immovably in position, could only look up at the sky and the rock face above him, and not at the chasm down below. Before they reached the other side of that slope, the men were sweating and trembling with the effort and tension. At the foot of the cleft, where the gradient eased, they stopped again thankfully and anchored the sledge with ski-sticks driven into the snow, so that they could relax till their strength came back. From there, Jan could see the cleft soaring above them.

When they looked up at it, it seemed to be steeper than they had expected. The walls of it were sheer, and it was about thirty feet wide. The snow in the bed of it showed all the signs of being about to avalanche; but it was safe enough on that western slope just after dawn. The cleft curved gently to the left, so that from the bottom they could not see very far up it; but having seen it from the fjord they knew it had no pitch in it too steep for the snow to lie on, and that it led almost all the way to the easier slopes on the upper half of the mountain. It was certainly going to be difficult and it might be impossible, but now that they had come so far there was no alternative.

After a very short rest, two of them began to lead out the sixty-foot rope. They went up side by side, kicking two parallel sets of steps for the second pair to use. Within the cleft, they were able to use the full length of the rope for the first time, and the leaders did not pause till the whole of it was stretched up the snow above the sledge. Then they dug themselves as deep a stance as they could and braced themselves in it and took the strain of the weight of the sledge while the others down below them freed it from its anchors. So the first pitch of a long and heavy haul began.

In some ways, going straight up the slope was not so hard as trying to go across it. The balance of the sledge was not important: it hung at the end of the rope like a pendulum. But the physical effort was greater and more sustained. At each stance the two leaders hauled the sledge up towards them while the two men below followed it up the steps, pushing as best they could. At the end of each sixty feet it was anchored afresh; but the ski-sticks could not be trusted to hold it alone, and even the effort of holding it was so exhausting that they could not afford to pause.

Beyond the bend, the cleft swept smoothly up to a skyline appallingly far above, and there was nothing in it which offered a chance of a rest: no boulder or chockstone, and no break in the vertical walls on either side.

Somewhere in the upper reaches of the cleft, Jan came as near a sudden death as he had been anywhere on his journey. All four of the climbers by then were in that extremely unpleasant dilemma which is experienced sooner or later by every mountaineer, when one knows one has outreached one’s strength, and it is too late to go down by the way one has come, so that one must either win through to the top, or fall. It was at this stage, when they knew they could never manage to lower the sledge to the bottom, that what they had dreaded happened. Somebody slipped, somebody else was off balance: in a fraction of a second the sledge shot backwards. But Amandus happened to be below it. It hit him hard in the chest and ran over him, and somehow he and the sledge became entangled together and his body acted as a brake and stopped it, and within the second the others had it under control again. The climb went on, and Jan did not know what had happened because he was unconscious. For the rest of the climb and long afterwards Amandus suffered from pain in his chest, and in retrospect it seems likely that some of his ribs were broken.

They got to the skyline; but it was not the top. The cleft ended, and ahead of them they saw a frozen waterfall. The ice hung down it in smooth translucent curtains. But at the bottom of it, more welcome than anything else in the world could have been, there was a boulder projecting through the snow, and with a final effort they heaved the sledge on top of it and wedged it there, and were able at last to rest.

They sat down in a group round the sledge, and looked up at the next pitch. It seemed as if it might be the last difficulty, but it looked the worst of all. The boulder was in the middle of a little cirque or bowl of rock and ice which enclosed it all round, except for the narrow gap where their own tracks plunged down out of sight into the cleft. This gap framed a distant view of the fjord waters, now gleaming far below, and the sunlit peaks beyond them. Almost all of the rim of the bowl was as steep and inaccessible as the waterfall itself. But just to the right of the waterfall there was one possible way of escape, up a narrow slope which had an ice cornice at the top. The acute angle of this slope suggested that the whole of it was ice, like the fall, and not snow; but it was the only way out of the bowl which was even worth attempting.

As it turned out, this was the only part of the climb which was really rather easier than it looked. Hard ice would have stopped the party altogether, because none of them had ice-axes, and all they could use to cut steps was the toes of their boots and the tips of their ski-sticks. But when the leaders got on to the slope, they found it was made of hard ice crystals which could be dug away without very much trouble and compacted firmly under their weight. They went up it methodically, side by side as before, hacking out two sets of steps. The slope was too long for the sixty-foot rope, and they had to stop when they had taken out all they could, and did themselves in again to haul the sledge up after them. This was the only dangerous moment. Again, the place was safe enough for the climbers themselves. If they had slipped out of their steps, they would certainly have gone down to the bottom of the bowl without being able to save themselves, but it would not have done very much harm. For Jan, trussed up on the sledge, it was a very different matter. If they had let him go, he would have gone down much faster, head first on his back, and certainly broken his neck at the bottom. But they took the risk and got away with it again. The second pair anchored the sledge about thirty feet below the cornice. The leaders set off once more, and standing below the cornice in their final steps, they hacked at it with their sticks till they brought a length of it crashing down. They hauled themselves through the gap which they had made, and got to their feet and looked around them. They were standing at last on the icy windswept edge of the plateau. Ahead, the slopes were gentle and the snow was firm.

As soon as the sledge was clear of the cornice, the men put on their skis and the climb took on a totally different aspect. On skis they felt far more at home than on their feet, and more able to cope with any new crisis which might face them. The dilemma of which way up was less painful for Jan was also solved at last, and with his usual resilience he soon began to recover from the rough handling they had given him. The main remaining worry on their minds was simply the matter of time: the climb had taken hours longer than they had expected, and with a thousand feet still to go they were late for the meeting with the Mandal men already. Jan was spared from this worry, as he was from so many others. As he had been unconscious on and off ever since they started, he had no idea how long they had been on the way.

The fear of missing the Mandal men made them press on without another rest. All four of them made themselves fast to the sledge with short ropes tied round their waists, and they started at top speed inland across the plateau. They had no further doubts about the route. To get to the rendezvous they had to go through a shallow dip which leads up to a chain of small lakes on the watershed between Revdal and Mandal. This dip can easily be seen from across the fjord at Furuflaten, and though none of the four men had ever been up there before, the distant view of the place had been familiar to them all their lives. When they were clear of the dangerous corniced edge, they struck off diagonally to the right up the gently rising ground. The surface was ice, covered here and there by ripples of powdery windblown snow.

Within half an hour the dip in the skyline was in sight. They climbed up into it and entered a little valley among low hillocks of snow. When this valley closed in about them, and cut off the view of the fjord and the distant mountains behind them, they began, each in his own way, to sense for the first time the threatening atmosphere of desolation which oppresses every one of the few people who have ever ventured on to the plateau in winter. The size and the barren loneliness of the plateau appals the least sensitive of travellers. From Lyngenfjord it stretches away into Sweden and Finland, far to the eastward towards the border of Soviet Russia, and then on again beyond the narrow lowlands of Petsamo, to the White Sea and the vastness of Siberia. The valley which they entered that early morning is only on the very verge of it, and yet it is unlikely that any human being will set eyes on that place from one decade’s end to the next. Whoever does so, especially when the plateau is under snow, becomes bitterly aware of the hundred of miles of featureless wilderness beyond him, the endless horizons one after another, and every one the same; the unimaginable numbers of silent ice-bound valleys and sterile, gaunt, deserted hills. Mankind has no business there. It is a dead world, where the affairs of the human race are of no account whatever. In war or peace, it is always the same, and also so fiercely inimical to life that one has to think of it, when one is enclosed within it, as an active malignant enemy. One knows that the human body is too frail a thing to defend itself against that kind of enemy, which attacks with hunger and frostbite and storm-blindness. One knows all to well that the plateau can kill a man easily and quickly and impartially, whether he is English or German or Norwegian, or patriot or traitor. Into these dreadful surrounds the little group of men crept silently, dragging the passive, half-conscious body of Jan behind them.

It had not been very easy to decide on a place for the meeting, because hardly any spot on the plateau can be distinguished from any other, and because there was no map which showed anything more than its outline. But from Furuflaten a single steep bluff could be seen in profile on the far horizon, and for want of anywhere better they had told the Mandal men to meet them at the foot of it.

They came on the place almost unexpectedly, as they breasted a little rise in the valley floor. Before them was a level area, a hundred yards or so across, which was probably a lake or a bog in summer. Beyond it the valley rose again to the watershed, which was still out of sight. On the right was the bluff. It was quite unmistakable, the only piece of black, naked vertical rock in sight. On top of it there was at thick snow cornice like the icing on a cake of festive richness, which they had seen with a telescope from the other side. But down below, at its foot, in the valley, nobody was waiting.

They stood there aghast for a moment at this failure of their hopes. Their first thought, of course, when they saw the empty valley, was that in spite of all their efforts they had arrived too late and the Mandal men had gone. But it only needed a minute or two of search to show that there were no ski tracks anywhere in the valley bottom. Nobody had been there at all, certainly since the last storm had abated, and probably for years.

They all jumped to the conclusion then that something had gone wrong with their instructions about the meeting-place, and that the Mandal men were waiting somewhere else. They had a hurried discussion, grouped round the sledge in the valley below the bluff. It seemed extremely queer that the others should have missed the landmark, which had turned out to be even more conspicuous than they expected. A forlorn hope struck them that the men might be somewhere quite close at hand, hidden perhaps in one of the shallow deceptive hollows in the valley. Someone suggested they should raise a shout. They were strangely reluctant to do so. It seemed rash to break the deathly silence of the plateau. They had been so secretive for so long that they all felt the same absurd fear: that if they shouted, they might be heard by someone who should not be trusted. Yet of course they knew it was inconceivable that anyone could be within earshot except people on the same business as themselves. After a moment’s superstitious hesitation, they all shouted in unison. But the sound fell dead, muffled by the blanket of the snow; and nobody answered.

After this, each of them set off in a different direction to search for the Mandal men, leaving Jan lying where he was. To hunt for a party of men on the plateau was not such a hopeless project as it might seem. It was not a matter of finding the men themselves, but of looking for their tracks. If the men had been standing still, it would have been perfectly futile, but a party on the move would leave tracks which could be seen from hundreds of yards away; and in fact a search parallel to the Mandal valley could not miss them if they were there at all.

While Jan was left lying there alone, lashed to the sledge and staring at the sky, he had time to get over whatever disappointment he may have felt at the failure of the meeting, and to make up his mind to the worst that could possibly happen. As he had taken no part in the arrangements, perhaps he was not so surprised as the others that something had gone so obviously wrong. He felt it had been too much to hope for all along that there would really be men waiting for him up there, ready to take him at once to Sweden. He had never seriously pictured himself safely across the border within the next day or two. Besides, after the agony he had suffered while he was being pulled up the mountain, to be allowed to lie still was such an acute relief that nothing else seemed to matter. To lie still and rest, and perhaps to doze a little, was all he really wanted. He even felt rather glad that there was going to be some delay, and that he had not got to set off again at once. And one thing was perfectly clear to him; whatever happened, even to save his life, he simply could not face being taken down again.

When they came back, one by one, he could see from the face of each of them before he spoke that there was no sign of the Mandal party. Amandus was the last one to return. He had been right up across the watershed, and down to the head of the tributary valley running up out of Mandal, which was the route they expected the Mandal men to take. There were no tracks leading out of it. To make doubly sure, he had skirted right round the head of it and gone out on to a sheer bastion of rock which divides the side valley from Mandal itself. From there, leaning out over a vertical drop of nearly three thousand feet, he had looked down the whole length of valley. There was no sign of life among them.

Jan knew that the four men had stayed with him already far longer than was safe. They had to get home, quickly, or their absence was perfectly certain to be discovered, and that would be the end of them, and of him as well. Marius and the others, for their part, also knew what Jan had already made up his mind to tell them; that it was out of the question to take him down again. It would take an impossibly long time; they had not enough strength left to do it; and finally, they were quite certain, as he himself was, that he would not get to the bottom alive.

Thus the decision to abandon him on the plateau did not need very much discussion. There was nothing else whatever to be done. It was a bitter decision for them all, especially for Marius, who blamed himself because the meeting had been a failure. He promised Jan he would get a message through to Mandal the moment he got home, and do everything he could to make sure that the Mandal men would come up and find him the next night. But he made this promise with a heavy heart, because he did not really believe that under the open sky Jan would last through to another day. He thought all the efforts he had made were going to end in failure, and that his hopes of redeeming his own inactive part in Norway’s war were never to be fulfilled.

They searched for a place to put Jan where he would have a little shelter, and they found a boulder where the wind had scooped out a hole in the snow. The hole was four feet deep, and exactly the size of a grave. They took off their skis, and lowered him down into it, sledge and all, and then untied the lashings which held him down. They gave him what little food they had, and the remains of the bottle of brandy.

After the last of them had climbed out of the hole, they stood grouped round it, looking down at the haggard, bearded, emaciated face which grinned up at them. Jan said he would be all right, and thanked them as best he could. They hated what they were doing, and illogically hated themselves for doing it. But neither Jan nor Marius nor any of the others felt like being histrionic about it. One by one they said good-bye, and turned away to put on their skis again. Amandus, as it happened, was the last of them to go, and he always remembered the last words that were spoken, because they were so absurd.

“There’s nothing else we can give you?” he asked Jan.

“No thanks,” Jan said. “I’ve got everything. Except hot and cold water.”

They began the descent, feeling sure they had left him to die.

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