Military history

13. BURIED ALIVE

NOBODY CAN give an exact account of what happened to Jan during all the weeks he spent lying alone on the plateau. By the time he had leisure to look back on it, his memory was confused. He had the same difficulty that one has in trying to bring back to mind the events and one’s feelings during a serious illness; and in fact, of course, he was seriously ill all the time. Some incidents and impressions were perfectly clear to him, but as he remembered them they had no context; they were isolated, like distant memories of childhood, and he had only a hazy idea of what had led up to them, or what followed after. But most of the episodes he remembered were confirmed in one way or another by the people who visited him up there from time to time. In general, oddly enough, he had no impression of being bored. Once when somebody asked him how he had passed the time, he said he had never been so busy in his life. And one thing, at least, which is perfectly certain is the length of time this extraordinary ordeal lasted. He lay in the sleeping-bag in the snow for no less than 27 consecutive days, from the night of 25th of April, when Marius took him up to the plateau, till the night of the 22nd of May, when they were to carry him down again in despair.

That first week, in the snow grave, was the worst in some respects, partly because he was not so used to that way of living as he became towards the end, and partly because he was forced to believe, for the second time, that his friends had abandoned him, or lost him, or all been killed themselves. He did not think he would ever get out of the grave again.

At first, he had been so relieved to be allowed to lie still that he said good-bye to Marius and the other three men without any fear of another spell of solitude. He settled down in the sleeping-bag on the sledge, with the wall of snow on one side of him and the rock on the other, and the small segment of sky up above, and he thought he would go to sleep. But only too soon this mood of contentment was driven away by the cold. It was much too cold to sleep. During the climb the sleeping-bag and the blankets had got wet, and in the hole in the snow the moisture froze them stiff. They were to remain either wet or frozen for the whole of the time he was there, and he discovered one thing at once which was to plague him through all those weeks: he could never sleep, because the cold always woke him and he had to keep moving inside the blankets to ward off another attack of frostbite. At the best, he could only fall into an uneasy doze.

Apart from the cold, the sledge made a very uncomfortable bed. It had been a mistake to make the top out of narrow slats with spaces in between them. There were only two layers of blanket and one of canvas, besides his clothes, between him and the wooden slats; and because he had to keep moving he soon got sores all over his back and sides which made the discomfort infinitely worse.

During the first two days and night, before it began to snow, he kept imagining that among the occasional whispering sounds of the plateau he heard the hiss of skis. Sometimes he shouted to the people he thought were there. But this was not the kind of hallucination he had had after the avalanche. On the plateau, his brain was quite clear. Perhaps the sounds were made by little snowballs rolling down the snow-covered scree at the foot of the bluff above him.

As soon as it started to snow, on the second night he lay in the hole, he knew that his chance of being found was very small, at least till the snow stopped falling; and there was an extra worry added to this, because at about the same time he finished the few bits of food they had left him, and he was beginning to get very hungry.

By that time his movements and the heat of his body had made a cavity in the snow, and the sledge had sunk deeper than it had been. The fresh snowfall soon covered his body. He could brush it off his face and his head, but in the narrow hole he could not throw it off the rest of him. Slowly it sifted over his trunk and legs till they were encased in a kind of tunnel, bridged over by a thickening layer of snow which he could not move. For some hours he kept a hole clear to the surface above his head, so that he could still see the open air above him. But the snow grew deeper and deeper till he could not reach up to the surface any more even with his arm stretched out above him. Then the snow closed over the opening, and buried him alive.

He was buried for either four or five days. What kept him alive is a mystery. It was not hope, because he had none, and it was not any of the physical conditions which are usually supposed to be essential to human life. Perhaps it is nearest to the truth to put his survival down to stubborn distaste for dying in such gruesome circumstances.

He lay on his back in a little vault in the snow. At the sides and above his body there were a few inches of space, and above his head there was over a foot, but there was not enough room for him to draw up his knees or reach down to touch his feet. A dim light filtered down from above, like the light below the surface of the sea. He had no trouble in breathing, because the snow above him was fresh and porous, but he lay all the time in fear that the roof would fall in and pin his arms down and cover his mouth and choke him.

He could imagine quite well the change that had taken place on the surface of the plateau in such a heavy snowfall, and he knew that even if the Mandal men did come to look for him, it was very unlikely that they would find him before the summer thaw exposed his body. Of course, he knew he could not live till then, because in the first stages of the thaw the snow would become compacted and impervious and he would be very, very slowly suffocated.

The only vestige of physical comfort he had in all this time was the dregs of the bottle of brandy. There was not very much in it when he was left there, but as he was weak and starving, less than a mouthful of it was enough to make him slightly drunk. He made it last out for some time after the food was gone. When everything became intolerable, he had the bottle to think about. He would put off taking a sip for hours, so that he could enjoy the anticipation of the warmth going down his throat; and when at last he grasped the precious bottle, and wrestled weakly with the cork, and struggled in the confines of the grave to tilt it to his mouth, the spoonful of raw spirit dulled his pains and made the next hour or two slip past more easily. At times he was even struck by the humour of lying buried in one’s grave and swigging a bottle of brandy. But of course the moment came when there was only one more spoonful in the bottle. This he kept as if it were his only link with life, and it was still there when Marius relieved him.

There was one benefit of being buried. Certainly it prevented the Mandal men from finding him and thereby was nearly the end of him; but to compensate for this, it protected him from everything that happened on the surface. If he had been exposed, the blizzard after the snowfall would have killed him; but in his grave he was no more aware of the howling wind than he was of the shouts of the Mandal party. The blizzard blew over him, but down in the vault in the snow it was always perfectly silent and perfectly calm, and the temperature was always steady, a few degrees below zero.

So he lay while the days and nights passed over. He had no inclination by then to indulge himself with daydreams, or to philosophise as he had in the hut at Revdal. His mind was occupied with the minute details of physical existence: to keep moving, to be on the watch for frostbite, to try the impossible task of keeping his body in some state of sanitation; to stop the snow roof from falling down, to prevent the bottle of brandy from falling over. Each of these tasks became an absorbing activity which occupied him for hours on end, and each one of them was an important part of his conscious effort not to die. He added to them, typically, the task of cleaning the revolver which he still wore in its holster. When any of the tasks were accomplished for the moment, he felt he had warded off death for a few more minutes. He sometimes visualised death as a physical being who prowled about him. He parried the lunges this creature made at him, and he was proud of himself when he thrust off another of its attacks. It did not occur to him then that he might have welcomed death’s more compassionate advances.

When Marius broke through the snow above him he was dozing, and he heard his voice in a dream, as he often had before. In the dream he was annoyed that the voice said he was dead. It seemed too bad of Marius to suggest that he had lost the battle with death, when he had been trying so hard to win it, so he denied it hotly. Then he opened his eyes and it was real: and Marius looked so surprised that he laughed and, half-conscious, he said out loud the Norwegian proverb which had been running in his head. “You can’t kill an old fox, you know. You can’t kill an old fox.”

This voice from the dead did in fact almost paralyse Marius for a moment while he reorganised his thoughts. A surge of relief made his heart beat faster; but immediately after it came the fore-knowledge of the problems which had come to life again with Jan. Jan himself was beyond being surprised by then by anything that happened: it did not strike him as particularly strange, though it was pleasant, to see a hooded and yet unmistakably feminine and attractive face looking down at him by the side of Marius. Marius and Agnethe scraped away more snow till Marius could climb down into the hole and clear a space round Jan so that he had a little more freedom to move about. He had brought food with him, more as an offering to fate than with any hope of using it. He fed Jan with bread and bits of fish, while he was explaining how the Mandal men had tried to find him. He had also brought more brandy and some tobacco. Jan could not eat much, but he had a craving for a cigarette, and Marius rolled him one and crouched over him to shelter him while he lit it.

Puffing at this cigarette, while the snow drifted into the hole and the wind shrieked overhead in the grey half-darkness, Jan began to feel almost himself again. It was the belief that he was forgotten that always brought him down to his lowest depths. Now his own hardships faded, and he noticed that Agnethe was in terrible distress. By then, in fact, she was so cold that she could hardly speak. As soon as Jan realised what she was suffering, and all on his behalf, he insisted that they should leave him and get down to the fjord again while they were still able to do it.

Marius himself knew he could not do any good by staying. The only useful thing he could do was to go down and make perfectly certain, as quickly as possible, of getting a large enough party up from one side of the mountain or the other to move Jan away from where he was. The message from Mandal had said they would make the climb again as soon as the weather allowed it. Marius told Jan of this, and to help them to find him if they did come he made a flag by tying a piece of cloth to a ski-stick which he stuck in the snow by the side of the hole. So, after staying with Jan for only half an hour, they left him again with this forlorn signal flapping wildly in the storm above him.

As ever, Marius’s unrelenting conscience asked him whether he had done all that was humanly possible, and this time he had to admit to himself that he had not. There was still the slight chance that the Mandal men might be on their way up at that very minute. It was true that the weather had not improved at all, but he felt that he ought to be there, just in case they had chosen to come that night, to make sure that they found the flag. He could not afford to waste time by waiting. The only way to make sure of it quickly was to go on towards Mandal and see if they were coming. Accordingly, instead of turning back down the wind and downhill towards Revdal and home, he and Agnethe faced up into the wind again and climbed on towards the watershed.

In those awful conditions, this was a very brave thing to do, and like many brave and admirable deeds it was also fool-hardy. Agnethe agreed with it willingly when Marius proposed it, but she very nearly died as a result. They reached the watershed, fighting against the wind for every step. Up there, they lost their way, but were saved by a sudden momentary clearance. They pressed on and got right across to the rim of the couloir at the head of Kjerringdal. Here there is a small isolated rock from which one can see in clear weather right down to the bottom on Mandal. Marius clung to the lee of this rock and peered down into the depths below. This was the point at which the Mandal men would come up out of Kjerringdal on to the plateau. But that night, although it was light by then, he could only see a few yards down the valley through the scudding snow. There was nobody in sight. While he was searching over the edge, Agnethe collapsed by the side of the rock behind him. When he saw her and turned back to her in alarm, he found she was unconscious.

Both their lives depended then on whether he could revive her, because of course he would never have left her. He set about it in the most drastic way. He shook her limp body, and hit her and slapped her face. He believed, he said afterwards, that apart from anything else this would make her angry, and that anger would improve her circulation. Whether this was the way it worked or not, it did bring her back to consciousness, and as soon as she gave any sign of life he dragged her to her feet and started off, half-carrying her, determined whatever happened to keep her on the move.

Luckily, going down-wind was infinitely easier than going against it, and once they had got back the first mile across the watershed the rest of the way was downhill. Luckily also, although the climb and the cold had used up the last of Agnethe’s physical strength, she had an unlimited strength of will. Many people who are exhausted by exposure lose even the will to help those who try to rescue them. If Agnethe had resisted the rough treatment Marius gave her as he hauled her and bullied her along, or if she had ever succumbed to the insidious temptation to give up, neither of them would ever have been seen alive again. But there was a tough arctic quality in the girl which kept her going, and between them they won through to the head of Revdal and staggered down to the shore where Amandus was keeping the boat.

The climb did her no permanent physical harm, but the memory of the sight of Jan lying in the hole was to haunt her for years. It had been such a terrible sight that she thought when she saw him that he had nothing left to live for and would have been better dead.

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