Wednesday, July 6, 2016

“I noted the situation was serious”

Investigating the literature of near-death experiences in the mountains

“Up and About”, Doug Scott’s recently published autobiography, shows that the Himalayan veteran still wields a deft pen. Within the first pages, there’s also more than a hint at why so few of Scott’s peers got to write their own life stories:

"This reminded me of when I was avalanched on Mazeno Peak in Pakistan. Rattling down a 500-metre gully, with time suspended, I found myself observing everything I experienced, as though from a bubble. There was no fear, just a series of impressions: tumbling down over rock and ice cliffs, wondering at how resilient the human body is and that I was still alive, turning this way and that, my whole weight bouncing off my right ankle. There was no pain, but I noted the situation was serious. I was then in space, clearing a step, sliding with the snow but unaware of the speed of my descent; I had time to register it was like being up with Leo Dickinson in his hot air balloon, not aware of the wind because we were moving at the same speed. I bumped gradually to a halt, partially buried on the glacier below but able to clear the snow away from my face, release the waist belt on my rucksack and breathe more easily."

"Aufstieg I" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

Unlike many a hard-climbing contemporary – Dougal Haston, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker are just a few names that come to mind – Doug Scott has survived to tell his tale. With the passage quoted above, he therefore becomes the latest contributor to a select genre – the corpus, if that is the right word, of mountaineering near-death experiences.

“Time suspended … no fear, just a series of impressions … no pain”: the essential elements of Scott’s experience on Mazeno Peak are widely confirmed in this literature. Take, for example, the accident that befell Albert Heim (1849–1937) on the Säntis, a mountain in eastern Switzerland, in 1871. Then a doctoral candidate in geology, Heim was leading a party down a steep snowfield when he lost his footing and slid over a cliff. During a fall of more than sixty feet, he felt no pain – that came later – yet all his thoughts remained coherent and very clear. And time slowed to a crawl: “What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time”.

Albert Heim
Heim had ample leisure for practical decision-making on his way down. He chose to keep hold of his alpenstock, as it might still be of use, and he thought of taking off his glasses, in case they shattered. He also decided to call out to his companions immediately, should he survive the fall, so that they wouldn’t unduly hurry their own descent down the dangerous cliff. But that was by no means all:

"My next thought was that I would not be able to give my inaugural university lecture that had been announced for five days later. I considered how the news of my death would arrive for my loved ones and I consoled them in my thoughts. Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful without grief, without anxiety, and without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife; conflict had been transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine calm swept through my soul. I became ever more surrounded by a splendid blue heaven with delicate roseate and violet cloudlets. I swept into it painlessly and softly and I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snow field lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous. Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over."

After the impact, Heim lay unconscious for half an hour. His companions had to carry him down to the nearest alp huts. Yet, five days later, he gave his inaugural lecture on schedule, and apparently to good effect.

Two years later, at an extraordinarily young age, Heim was appointed professor of geology at the Zurich Polytechnic (now the Federal Institute of Technology). His approach to science would be far from blinkered. Besides elucidating the structure of the Alps, he found time to investigate topics as diverse as water-divining and sky colours. And, in due course, he returned to the subject of consciousness during near-fatal mountain accidents.

"Absturz IV" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

The question Heim asked was, quite simply: in a mountaineering fall, or similar accident, what did the victim experience in the last seconds of his life? After collecting the experiences of other accident survivors, he presented his findings to the Swiss Alpine Club’s Uto Section in Zurich on February 26, 1892. The paper was subsequently published in the club’s yearbook as “Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz”. An English translation, “The experience of dying from falls”, appeared in a 1972 edition of Omega, a journal that is somewhat lugubriously dedicated to “the psychological study of dying, death, bereavement, suicide and other lethal behaviors”.

Heim's conclusion was remarkable: in practically all individuals who faced death through accidental falls, a similar mental state developed:

“There was no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain; but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance, and a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundred-fold velocity or intensity. The relationships of events and their probable outcomes were overviewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning-quickness in accord with accurate judgment of his situation. In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual's entire past; and finally the person falling often heard beautiful music and fell in a superbly blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets. Then consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact, and the impact was, at the most, heard but never painfully felt. Apparently hearing is the last of the senses to be extinguished.”

Whymper on the Matterhorn: alpinism's first NDE?
Most of the case histories examined by Heim were drawn from Switzerland or nearby. Mentioned but not quoted are two British exponents of alpinism’s “golden age”. These are the physicist John Tyndall, who was avalanched on Piz Morteratsch in 1864, and Edward Whymper, who fell 200 feet down an ice-gully while exploring the Matterhorn’s south side two years earlier. In describing this latter accident, Whymper produced what may be the Magna Carta of mountaineering near-death literature – although, in keeping with the buttoned-up conventions of the Victorian era, he demoted the experience to a mere footnote within his best-known book:

“As it seldom happens that one survives such a fall, it may be interesting to record what my sensations were during its occurrence. I was perfectly conscious of what was happening, and felt each blow; but, like a patient under chloroform, experienced no pain. Each blow was, naturally, more severe than that which preceded it, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, if the next is harder still, that will be the end!” Like persons who have been rescued from drowning, I remember that the recollection of a multitude of things rushed through my head, many of them trivialities or absurdities, which had been forgotten long before; and, more remarkable, this bounding through space did not feel disagreeable. But I think that in no very great distance more, consciousness as well as sensation would have been lost, and upon that I base my belief, improbable as it seems, that death by a fall from a great height is as painless an end as can be experienced.”

In a sense, Heim had no need to call Whymper to the witness stand. For the Englishman’s experience tallies almost exactly with the patterns later identified by the Swiss scholar. The absence of pain, the “multitude of things” rushing through the victim’s mind and Whymper’s conclusion all accord with Heim’s analysis. Only the radical compression of time mentioned by Heim and perhaps his “blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets” are missing from Whymper’s account.

Speaking of those roseate cloudlets, is it possible that Albert Heim was guilty of overselling death by falling? He presented his findings to a section of the Swiss Alpine Club that had been founded less than a decade before. By encouraging more people to participate, the activities of mass-membership clubs such as the SAC unavoidably raised the mountain accident rate, even as they strove, in many ways successfully, to improve safety standards. In concluding his paper, Heim mentions that his observations had been a comfort to a mother who had lost two sons in falls. So it would have been only natural for Heim to emphasise the consolatory aspects of his findings.
"Absturz III" by Ferdinand Hodler, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern

Or it may be that different people experience things in different ways. After all, Heim himself said only that his findings applied to “95 percent of victims”. That leaves some room for variation.

Frank Smythe
Half a century after Heim published his paper, a young English mountaineer by the name of Frank Smythe scaled a difficult overhang in the Dolomites. Perhaps carried away by the euphoria of the moment, he then failed to set up a safe belay before allowing his companion to start climbing. Thus, when a hold broke away under the second climber, Smythe was dragged off his stance. As he fell into the void, he assumed that he was “as good as dead”. Yet he found himself insensible to bumps and blows, “as though all life’s forces were in the process of undergoing some fundamental evolutionary change, the change called death…”

So far, Smythe’s account cleaves closely to Heim’s findings – almost as if underlining how well these have stood the test of time. What follows, though, departs in some details from the Swiss scholar's playbook, or even goes beyond it:

“For how long I experienced this crescendo of power I cannot say. Time no longer existed as time ... Then, suddenly, this feeling was superseded by a feeling of complete detachment, indifference to what happened to my body ... Had the tenant already departed in anticipation of the wreck that was to follow? Was it merely a mental effect due to a sudden and intense nervous strain? It is not within my province to discuss that which only death can prove; yet to me this experience was a convincing one; it convinced me that consciousness survives beyond the grave.”

In hindsight, Smythe was better qualified than most to describe a near-death experience in the mountains. Surviving this youthful mishap almost unscathed, he went on to become equally prolific as an alpinist, writer and photographer. Among other feats, he put up two hard new routes on the south side of Mt Blanc, made the first ascent of a Himalayan peak that was then the highest mountain ever climbed, and took part in three of the pre-war attempts on Everest.

On one of these expeditions, climbing at his physical and psychological limits close to the summit, Smythe saw hovering above him two bulbous objects with “what looked like squat, underdeveloped wings, whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. They distinctly pulsated... as though they possessed some horrible quality of life."

"Absturz I" (detail) by Ferdinand Hoder, Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern
This was not the only occasion when Smythe met with mysteries that are not revealed to ordinary mortals. His biography notes an episode of automatic writing and, during a visit to a Scottish glen, a vision of ghostly figures which convinced him that he had been “vouchsafed a backward glimpse into a blood-stained page of Highland history”.

If Frank Smythe brought a greater-than-average sensibility to the experience of falling, it should be no surprise that he got more out of it than others have done. In this respect, the literature of near-death experiences resembles any other branch of travel writing – that what you see and hear depends a great deal on what you take with you on the journey.


Doug Scott, Up and About: the hard road to Everest, Vertebrate Press, 2015.

Albert Heim, “Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz”, Yearbook of the Swiss Alpine Club, 1892, translated as “The experience of dying from falls” and introduced by Russell Noyes and Roy Kletti, Omega, vol 3, no 1, February 1972.

Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps in the years 1860-69.

Tony Smythe, My father, Frank: Unresting spirit of Everest, biography of Frank Smythe, 2013.

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