Military history

7. SNOWBLIND

THE NEXT summer, sombody passed that way and found the broken pieces of Jan’s skis, among the massive blocks of melting snow which were all that was left of the avalanche. They were at the foot of the icefall of the unnamed glacier under the east face of Jaeggevarre. One can guess what he had done. He had started his final climb up the valley wall, but had traversed on to the icefall without knowing it. When one can see a little distance, the snow on ice looks different from the snow on rock; but if one can only see a yard or two one cannot tell what is underneath. The snow on the steep ice at that time of year would have been very unstable, ready to fall by itself within a week or two, and Jan’s weight and the thrust of his skis were enough to start it. The scar of the avalanche stretched from top to bottom of the icefall. Jan himself must have fallen at least three hundred feet.

To start an avalanche is apt to be fatal, but it did not kill Jan. Luck was extraordinarily kind to him again. Of course nobody knows how long he lay there unconscious; but when he came to, his head was out of the snow, so that he could breathe, and most of his body was buried, which had possibly saved him from freezing to death; and none of his bones were broken. To be alive was far more than he had any right to expect, and so the other results of his fall can hardly be counted as bad luck. One of his skis was lost and the other was broken in two places; and the small rucksack with all his food had disappeared; and he had hit his head and could not remember where he was trying to go. He dug himself out of the snow and stood up, and unfastened the broken bit of ski and dropped it there, and wandered away on foot, utterly lost, with no plan and no notion of where he was going; in fact, without any coherent thoughts at all, because he had concussion of the brain.

After the avalanche, Jan had no sense of time, and hardly any awareness of the reality of what happened. He never stopped walking, but as his body froze slowly and ice formed in the veins of his feet and hands and crept inch by inch up his legs and arms, his mind became occupied more and more by dreams and hallucinations. But the length of this ordeal is known: he was four days and four nights in the mountains from the time when he passed through Lyngseidet. The storm lasted for nearly three days, and then the snow stopped and the clouds lifted and the mountains were clear; but Jan knew nothing of that, because by then the glare of the snow had scorched the retina of his eyes and he was blind.

One has to imagine him, both in the dark and the daylight, and both in the mists of the storm and the clear air which followed it, stumbling on unable to see at all. He never stopped because he was obsessed with the idea that if he lay down he would go to sleep and die; but all the time he was in snow between knee-deep and waist-deep, and towards the end of the time he fell down so often full length on his face in the snow that he might be said to have crawled and not to have walked.

His movements were totally aimless. This is known because his tracks were found here and there, later on in the spring. For the most part, he probably stayed in the valley of Lyngdalen, but at least once he went over a thousand feet up the side of it, and down again in the same place. He was deflected by the smallest of obstacles. There were boulders sticking up out of the snow, and when he ran into them head-on he turned and went away; not round the boulder and on in the same direction, but away at an angle, on a totally different course. There were birch bushes also, in the bottom of the valley, and among them he wandered hither and thither for days, crossing his own tracks again and again and blundering into the bushes themselves so that he got tangled in them and scratched his face and hands and tore his clothes. Once he walked round and round a small bush for so long that he trod a hard deep path in the snow, which was still to be seen in the summer: one can only suppose that he thought he was following somebody else’s footsteps.

But he himself knew almost nothing of this. Because he was blind, he believed that the mist and falling snow went on all the time, and he could not reckon the nights and days which were passing. All that he knew of reality was pain in his legs and arms and eyes, and cold and hunger, and the endless, hampering, suffocating wall of snow in front of him through which he must force his way.

On one of the mountains he came to, there were hundreds of people, marching with bare feet which were frozen and they were afraid of breaking them, because they were quite brittle.

He knew it was a dream, and he wrenched himself awake because he was terrified of falling asleep, but when Per Blindheim began to talk to him it was more real than reality, and he swung round joyfully and called “Per, Per,” into the darkness because he could not see where he was. But Per did not answer him, he went on talking to Eskeland. They were talking together somewhere, and a lot of the others were with them too, but they were not listening to him. He shouted louder, “Per! Eskeland!” and began to run after them, afraid that they would miss him in the night. And then they were close, and he was thankful to be with them all again. But they were talking together among themselves, quite cheerfully as they always did, and they never spoke to him. He called them again and again to tell them he could not see, but he could not make them hear him. They did not know he was there. And it came back to him that all of them were dead. Yet they had been talking together before he lost them, and he was the one who could not make himself heard. He began to believe that the dream was reality, and that he was the one who was dead. Stories of death came back into his mind. It seemed likely that he had died.

But in the same thought which made it seem so likely, he knew it was fantasy and he was still determined not to die, and to this end he must keep going, on and on, until something happened: something. He could not remember what it was that he had hoped would happen.

As he was going through the woods, he came to a trapdoor in the snow, and he tried to open it by the iron ring. But he was feeling very weak, and it was too heavy for him. It was a pity, because of the warm fire inside it, but he had to give it up. But whenever he turned his back on it to go away, somebody slipped out of the forest and opened it and got inside and shut it again before he had time to stop him. It was unfair that they kept him shut out in the cold and darkness while they all enjoyed the lights and gaiety inside. They always waited till he turned away, and then they were too quick for him. They must have been watching him and waiting for their chance.

It was the same when he found the mountain with windows in it, except that that time he never saw them go in. But they all climbed up to the door at the top so easily. Nobody would help him, and he tried and tried but always slipped down again to the bottom so that he was the only one left who could not do it. But perhaps it was nobody’s fault; perhaps the explanation was that they could not see him. That would be logical if he was dead. But he shouted I am still alive and alone out here in the snow, it’s all a mistake. The windows went away and the mountain turned into a little mound of snow, and he was scrabbling feebly at its sides.

It was the same too when he came to the log cabin. Stupidly, he was not looking where he was going, and he hurt himself again when he blundered into it. But as soon as he put out his hands and felt the rough logs he knew what it was although they never told him, and he started to feel his way along the wall, round the corner, hoping they would not see him before he found the door. It seemed a long way to the door, but he found it, and felt for the latch. But that time it opened, and he fell inside.

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