It doesn’t take much mental effort to recall that sensation of falling through mid-air, accelerating and waiting for something, anything, to arrest my seemingly unending downward progress. The leader doesn’t fall is ice climbing’s number one rule, a rule I rather spectacularly broke. I still get that lurch in my stomach from thinking of that feeling, from the retrospective fear that it could’ve been so much worse, not to mention the dent that’s been left in my climbing ego.
I’d first taken the sharp end of the rope on ice two years previously. As well as my first ice lead it was also my first outdoor lead, like being baptised with fire and thrown in at the deep end to put out the flames. Despite a sleepless night vomiting before journeying out, and Matt falling through thin ice over a river and having an unintentional swim, the climbing was spectacular and safe.
Our first multi-pitch this year was Rjukanfossen, a classic in the huge amphitheatre of the Upper Gorge that feels like the belly of Rjukan. Leading the first pitch, after 40 metres of sustained but manageable climbing, I found a sloping stance the size of a doormat and leant back into my screws (always a nervy proposition). The top of the next pitch saw us huddled into a shallow cave underneath a large chockstone. The ice out left was not in condition and nearly impossible to protect, so Matt exhibited some fine mixed-climbing skill in navigating around the boulder and topping out at the trees.
Driving back, we spied the top pitch of Saboteurfossen, a strip of ice spectacular enough to have made it onto the front cover of our guidebook. Following the success of our first day, the plan for our second day was hatched.
It is said that a lot of memories are partly fabricated and embellished after the event in order to contextualise what has happened. But I recall feeling especially nervous that morning on the approach to Saboteurfossen, giving superstitious credence to things I wouldn’t normally: an awkward scramble over a boulder that shouldn’t have troubled me, the echoing crow breaking the silence of the gorge, the thought of I’m getting married in two months, should I be doing this stuff anymore?
Roped up and climbing, these thoughts drifted away, with my mind and body entirely in the present and immediate future. Nonetheless, the first pitch seemed like more of a fight than the previous day, and this one was technically easier. I struggled with screw placement in good ice and subjected my calf muscles to extreme strain. Bolted belays made things easier, and I soon got into the swing of things.
The third pitch was a delight. In contrast to the thick ice at the broad base, this was a series of vertical, thin ribbons with opportunities for bridging onto the rock enclosing each side of the fall. It wasn’t easy but was immense fun. I got to the bottom of the final pitch, placed two large screws and utilised an Abalakov thread (a loop of cord threaded through two connected holes in the ice) placed by previous climbers as a back-up.
The final pitch towers over you. It feels as if the trees are hanging over the edge, watching you climb. It starts with an easy crawl into a corner, and then out of this relative safety onto the thinning, fluted ice. I placed a screw at the bottom of the steeper section when in a comfortable stance, not wanting to hang around on vertical ice, desperately trying to find protection with rapidly fatiguing muscles. This was the first screw after the belay, so it needed to be a good one. I clipped in a screamer, a runner that intentionally rips under strain to reduce impact force on the screw, then started up the steep stuff.
The tentacular nature of the ice made it difficult to stick the single point on my crampons, but I gently worked my way up, making use of some steps created by recent ascents. The ice was thinner than I would’ve liked, the rock plainly visible under much of it. I was content to climb on it, but not to trust a screw into it. The ice thickened over a small ledge a few metres up so I made this my goal, running-out the climb. I wriggled my axes to the top of the ledge and gave them each a good whack into the snow covering what I thought was good ice. As I trusted weight to these placements, a good 8 metres above my last screw, everything went.
All I could see was a flurry of powder. All I could feel was the lurch in my stomach rising into my chest as everything became weightless. All I could think was why am I not stopping? So used to the reassuring tug of the rope after falling only a few metres on sport routes, here, it felt like an eternity before anything stopped me. What stopped me first wasn’t the rope, but a ledge.
I slammed onto my back with my head jolting backwards, pointing towards the valley floor 100 metres below. My progress wasn’t slowed and I carried on at the same rate, again being airborne for long enough to have perfectly coherent thoughts, thoughts that I was going to rip us both off the waterfall and that this was it. Somewhere below Matt’s stance, I crashed onto another sloping ledge and quickly started sliding. Then, finally, and when I had almost accepted it wasn’t going to happen, I felt the tug I’d been waiting for.
I was pointing headfirst down the waterfall. I couldn’t right myself. The shock and pain took hold and all I could do was shout, a reaction that served no purpose but was as uncontrollable as the fall itself. As I did I felt a gurgle in my throat and chest, I turned and spat thick, gelatinous blood into the snow.
Eventually, with much effort, I turned and got on my hands and knees, continuing to mottle the snow. I stayed hunched like this for some time, in disbelief at what had just happened and at the fact that we were still alive.
Mercifully I was conscious and lucid throughout, my helmet hadn’t taken a single hit. With my head, legs and arms seemingly intact, we decided on a swift abseil down. We waited for a team below us to come up to our belay (this would prove massively helpful for retrieving our gear left in the wall) who told us they’d heard the shouting and seen the snow, thinking I was going for a huge dynamic move and vocalising my extreme efforts. This was literally adding insult to injury. Now that the feeling of impending death had subsided, the mortification of being the fool who fell on ice started to bite.
My body, my pride and my willingness to climb were all battered and bruised. I scrabbled for positives. I miraculously hadn’t broken anything. The system worked: the screamer ripped and the screw stayed in. After all, these pieces of equipment are designed to protect against such a situation. Despite this, I’d ruined our trip and felt horribly guilty as we drove back to Oslo, cutting it short by three days.
Back in London, lying on my side with fluid pooling and stabbing into me, my wife persuaded me to go to A&E. Bruises heal, pain subsides. A week later, I was physically, mostly back to normal. The brain works differently. I won’t know what, if any, scars are there until I’m back on the ice.