Experiment #4: Free Falling

So this was a totally unintentional self-experiment and definitely one I never want to repeat again. While in Svalbard on the return from a hike summiting an 1100 m peak, a UNIS student and I ran off a cliff and fell about 45 feet (15 meters). We are so amazingly lucky to be completely unharmed and not dead right now. 

We weren't doing particularly crazy things either. We had a group of five students, and a German student (Holger) and I were a bit ahead of the rest of the group going down. We were close to the snowmobiles and thought we could see a clear path to them, so he was sledding and I was running down the mountainside (easier than taking small steps with the gradient).

The only warning I had was the step before I fell, the snow was a bit deeper and looked more compressed. I had thought it was weird, but I didn't think it could be a cliff, etc. because we had come up a path nearby. Well, in the next step, suddenly I was falling with snow all around me and it was immediately clear something was wrong. I screamed, and all I saw was white. There is no feeling quite like an extended, unplanned free fall... it's trained into us as children that any sort of free fall usually results in pain (i.e. from a tree, off a chair, etc.) so it's like you're bracing yourself for this horrible conclusion that you know is coming.

You're supposed to have your best memories flash before you in these moments, but instead something in my brain clicked and I just counted. I knew if I got to 5, I was a dead person (9.8 m/s^2 acceleration rate is terrifying). At 3, I landed feet first in about 2 meters of snow. I can't remember what it felt like, but the events followed as such:

The first thought was "!!!! I'm alive!!!!!"

You can see where I ran off pretty clearly, but the total whiteness makes it hard to distinguish anything else

Second thought/action "I need to tell the others!" At this point, I didn't know Holger had fallen too, so I jumped up (legs worked!) and yelled something like "STOP ITS A CLIFF". Katie, who was the closest behind us heard and stopped. From her perspective, she had seen us disappear but thought it was a step gradient. She knew something was wrong when a few seconds later she saw Holger's sled continuing down the hill without him on it. When she heard me, she stopped, but she had no idea if we were alive or seriously injured at that point. Fortunately, they heard us though and were able to find out path we had originally walked up and take that down. Once again, if they had followed us, it could have triggered an avalanche which would have been disastrous for us.

At this point, I realized Holger was about 60 feet (20 meters) away from me, even further down the hill completely covered in snow. Holger was carrying the rifle (keep away the polar bears!) and fell facedown, so the fall was in many ways doubly traumatic for him. He was also completely OK, but like me, he had no idea what had just happened. From there we recovered our mental facilities, and we walked parallel to the cliff and rejoined our group after about 10 minutes.

I can't even begin to tell you all how totally lucky we were to be alive let alone not seriously injured. We had no way of knowing if there would be rocks or ice at the bottom of the cliff, and if we had been walking instead of moving quickly, we might have taken enough snow with us to bring on an avalanche. We had avalanche beacons, but there is only so much you can do. It also could have just as well been a 100 foot (30 m) fall. We had no way of knowing what was coming... it was all white and it really looked like a straight path down. Instead, we landed totally unharmed and in no pain - only shock.

We all were ... almost jubilant the rest of the way down - happily chatting and laughing about it. However, sometime on the scooter ride home, the magnitude of what happened hit me. I really almost died and pure luck is the only reason I'm sitting here writing this blog post right now.

I also have no great moral to this story. I'm not going to stop hiking because of things like this, but you can only protect yourself so much. Don't travel alone, try and stay on a charted path, travel in the middle of a group, carry your avalanche beacon.

So conclusion: Avoid cliffs. At all costs.


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