In August 1970 a team led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes spent three weeks in Norway on an expedition sponsored by the Scientific Exploration Society and the Sunday Times. The expedition team included three scientists and two surveyors plus a military surveyor and ten service personnel.
The Green Howards’ Captain Roger Chapman MBE was one of them. He wrote about the expedition for The Green Howards Gazette over three editions the following year…
Part 1: Free Fall onto the Glacier
“But why do you want to visit the Jostedal Glacier?” A simple question, but it is not so easy to give a simple answer. These days, once cannot use Mallory’s famous adage: “Because it’s there”. This just would not do. It demands a much more explicit, balanced and well considered reply, although one’s sentiments may be the same.
“You know”, continued the Norwegian reporter, before an answer could be framed, “the Jostedal Glacier is the largest in Europe for it stretches across the Norwegian mountains from Loen in the north to Songefjord in the south, covering an area of some 470 kilometers. It is the most famous of all the glaciers in Norway, yet not many Norwegians have ever been on top of it. For a start, it is far too remote. Often there is a heavy mist covering the ice-field hiding the many crevasses on top which are a ready and dangerous trap for any inexperienced climber. As you can gather, it is not altogether an attractive spot for us Norwegians, so why do you Englishmen want to explore it?”.
Behind a large table in a conference room sat seven men. In the centre, smoking a cheroot, was a tall, sunburnt, gaunt Finnish doctor called Henrik Forss. He was the only non-British member of the British Jostedal Glacier Expedition which had just arrived by boat at Bergen. At this moment he was acting as an interpreter to a host of Norwegian reporters.
“Our expedition is essentially a scientific one. We hope, in the time available, to complete three aims. First we want to free-fall parachute on to the Jostedal Glacier. By doing so, we hope to prove the feasibility of dropping scientists and all their equipment by parachute into inaccessible areas of the world such as the Arctic and Antarctic where scientists cannot penetrate without making long overland treks. Secondly, we intend to carry out a full scientific survey in glaciology, cartography and zoology on and around the Fabergstolbere glacier-tongue, which flows from the Jostedalsbreen. The results of this work are for Dr. Gunnar Ostrem of Oslo University, our own Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and the Natural History Department of the British Museum. Finally we want to cross the glacier along the same route as the Vikings drove their cattle from one side of the glacier to the other, to sell them in the cattle market at Loen. In those days the glacier was not as large as it is today. As the whole profile of the glacier has changed since Viking times we will have to make a descent of the famous Briksdal Icefall and Briksdalen river.”
The reporters scribbled busily. When they looked up, Ran Fiennes, the leader of the Expedition continued. “I believe that one of the greatest problems is going to be the parachuting For a start, we must have perfect weather – something which is rare on the Jostedalsbreen – because we are going to drop by free-fall techniques at the very north of the glacier. Unfortunately, the dropping zone is very small; only 200 square metres to be exact. To the north there are jagged rocks and to the south a large crevasse field.”
“If it is so difficult, why do you not carry up your equipment on your backs, or even use a helicopter?” asked an elderly gentleman in broken English.
“We have a great deal of equipment with our sledges, skis, tends, radios and food, let alone all the scientific equipment. It would take a team of porters weeks to climb up to the 9000ft. with all the equipment and food we require. As for a helicopter, this is possible, but a helicopter would have to rise to 11,000ft. to land where we want it and at that height, in such refined atmosphere, a helicopter would not be able to carry much kit and would have to make the journey many times. Anyway, a helicopter costs between £60 and £80 an hour to hire and we most certainly have not got that sort of money to burn.”
The reporters smiled, nodded their heads and continued to scribble in their notebooks. The conference continued. The Norwegians expressed surprise at the amount of detailed planning and training that goes into the preparation for a four-week expedition. They had a glimpse at the 15-page scientific programme and time-table of events, which gave the daily details of each of the seven men’s actions throughout the month-long expedition. The questions continued, covering an incredible range of interest from the type of food we would eat to the method we would employ in descending he icefall; from crevasse rescue techniques to the problems of frostbite and snow-blindness. Each questions as answered in a laconic, no nonsense manner which appeared to impress the Norwegians. Possibly they were pleased to see visitors to their country who loved mountains, fjords, snow and ice; who loved travel and excitement with an equal intensity as themselves; who also appeared to accept a philosophy of man’s role in Nature. Possibly they had a sympathy with that we hoped to achieve, for in no way were the questions cynical or provocative.
“I would like to ask one more question”. It was a woman wearing dark rimmed glasses speaking, whom we gathered was a reporter for the local Bergens Dagsbladet, “how do you come to choose the men to join you on an expedition of this nature?”.
“Everyone must be able to contribute something towards the scientific programme, whether it be survey, zoology, or glaciology, as well as being able to free-fall parachute, langlauf ski, climb and know a little bit about handling boats in white water. Admittedly, a few of us have had to practice quite a lot of these techniques during the past three months. Above all, the most important thing on any expedition is that everyone gets on well with each other. Fortunately, we all do. Perhaps the reason for this is because we all have similar interests and consider that the excitement and experience one can gain from expeditions makes life worth living. In fact, I have to admit that for us it’s fun.”
The reporters looked at each other knowingly and began to fold up their notebooks. Since the war, the British have a reputation in Norway of being slightly mad if not somewhat eccentric. The British Jostedal Glacier Expedition was obviously going to confirm this impression.
The Parachute Jump
We lined up on the lawn in front of the largest hotel in Loen, adjusting our parachute equipment and tightening the straps on our helmets in preparation for the final check by Lieut. Don Hughes. Don Hughes is the officer in charge of the Army Free-Fall Parachute Centre at Netheravon, and it was he who put us through our final training in England. As he checked our straps a couple of Cessna Seaplanes flew low over Loen fjord directly in front of us, cut back their engines, then landed on the water like two ungainly swans. They turn to taxi towards us across the glass-like waters of the fjord to berth at a small wooden jetty on our right. The six of us, who were to jump were dressed in bright orange anoraks, langlauf ski breeches and long stockings underneath our parachute equipment. Around or necks we all carried a 100ft. coil of rope. As the Cessnas pulled into the jetty we could see the cramped interior of the fuselage from where we were to make our exit over the glacier. It was rather a shock. None of us had ever jumped from a Cessna before as all our training jumps had been from a de Havilland “Rapide” at Netheravon. Only three parachutists can huddle inside a Cessna, and when the time comes to jump it is necessary to leap straight out of the door in order to miss the two floats underneath. Don obviously appreciated the look of concern upon our faced and suggested that we should have a trial jump on dry land whilst the Cessna was attached to the jetty.
It was our intention to make two flights, with three jumpers in one Cessna whilst the Press used the second Cessna for filming.
It was essential to get a film and a photograph to pay for our expenses.
We calculated that it would take about half-an-hour for the aircraft to reach 11,000ft., drop the three parachutists and then return to pick up the second group.
In the second stick, Bob Powell was to jump first, I would follow wearing a smoke grenade attached to my right boot, and behind me would come Geoff Holder, the most experienced parachutist of us all. He was wearing a movie camera attached to his parachute. It was hoped that he would be able to pick up the plume of blue smoke coming from my grenade, then track close to Bob and myself in order to film us in free flight over the glacier.
Half-an-hour later, the second stick took off. From our cramped, crouched positions we could peer through the open door of the Cessna. The view was breathtaking. This cool beauty of Norway has a strange appeal to most Englishmen. Perhaps it is the attraction of the wilderness and the untameable grandeur of the countryside which is in such direct contrast to the confined, ordered, yet gentle landscape of England. Perhaps it is the overwhelming silence which contains such depth of meaning. Below us we could see the deep green fjord, reflecting the gentle colours of the evening sky. Around the edges of this expanse of water, amongst the pines, we could pinpoint the bright painted homesteads occasionally relieving the dense green of the trees. Before us, the dark soaring mountains rose up to the glittering blue and white Jostedal Icefield, which flowed in a great plateau across the mountain range.
We were jumping a day earlier than planned because the Norwegian Meteorological Office had warned us of an approaching storm which could well blanket the glacier in thick mist for the next few days. We had, therefore, decided to forego any accurate reconnaissance in order to jump whilst the weather was fine. In fact, as we boarded the Cessna on the second lift we could see the advancing storm streaks across the sky heralding a dark pile of rain turning and wheeling in fantastic contortions of cloud shapes in the west, and we could feel the winds begin to stiffen. Now, it had become a race against time. Could we climb it fast enough in our little seaplane to get above the glacier before the storm hit us? We sensed the look of urgency on Don’s face as he kept glancing back towards the storm and forwards towards our small dropping zone. Ten minutes later the edge of the mountain plateau passed close below our right wing. We were still climbing. Don suddenly looked towards us and pointed his fingers in the direction of the plateau, urging us to look. Down below we could see a group of small black dots on the white surface of the ice, in the centre of a trampled ski circle, which had been stamped out by a Norwegian guide who had climbed up to the dropping zone earlier that morning. The first party had, on landing ,lit smoke flares on one side of the circle and we could see from the angle of the smoke that the wind had already picked up.
Don beckoned us to our feet. We adopted a crouched position with our backs wedged against the roof of the aircraft. There was one minute to go. Very quickly my mind flashed through the correct, procedure; “Remember, pull the grenade first, leap out, then start counting. One thousand and one, one thousand and two…and when you reach one thousand and fourteen pull that damned ripcord quick!”
Don, our despatcher, had his face half thrust out of the door, his cheeks flattened and stretched across the bone, his hair swept back across his scalp. Suddenly he withdrew his head, tapped Bob on the shoulder, and have him the thumbs up sign. Bob started pivoting towards the door. The pilot could not or did not know that he should cut the engine. As a result, the noise of the slipstream rushing into the fuselage was fantastic. As Bob Powell wormed toward the door the slipstream suddenly seemed to catch him and suck him out through the open door with alarming speed.
Now, there is no time to even recognize that the heart is beating with a little more than its accustomed vigour. No time to sense fear. There is too much effort just getting to the door, pulling the cord attached to the smoke grenade, allowing the slip stream to do its work as one flings the body into an arched spreadeagle position.
The mind now works in glorious slow motion. It is detached and has become objective to one’s physical actions, working with wonderful clarity. Silence. The sudden rush of cold wind against the face, all is so exhilarating. Freedom. There is no sensation of dropping. It feel exactly as if one if floating with a snorkel and mask in a warm sea looking serenely at silver fished darting through the coral. The mind splits. One half works with mechanical efficiency county up to 15 with a slow, sonorous detachment, the other half is sparkling with the novelty of the experience… “Look, just look down there” the crystal clarity of the moasaic of greens, browns and blue speckled by the last rays of the early evening sun. The vast expanse of grey ice stretches to the south as far as the eye can see, striated by thin black lines of crevasses. “What are those black dots down there? It must be the others.” How small, insignificant and far away they seem, they must be watching up right now. It is all so beautiful; dreamlike, with endless fjords stretching down below; serene, with fir trees in vast green belts reaching up the dark soaring mountains beyond. “What is that? Over there on my right?” A flash of orange attracts my attention. It is Bob Powell who has just pulled his ripcord allowing his orange and white canopy to snake out beyond him then develop in a mushroom of colour. The clarity of this colour brings me back to reality. Now the metallic mind takes over from the dreamer… “A thousand and fourteen, a thousand…NOW, pull that ripcord.” A cold efficient voice orders my body to react, and react quickly. There is a crack, a jerk, stars, then a kaleidoscope of colour; brown mountains, white snow, blue sky, and orange sunset. All colours rush past my eyes Then I look up to see a large brown white and orange canopy fully developed against the cloudy blue sky. An effervescent sensation of relief. The release of adrenalin in the bloodstream leaves my heart and mind singing.
Suddenly, I am enveloped in blue choking smoke. I had forgotten completely about that damned smoke grenade. A quick pull on my left control-toggle turns the parachute round and round allowing the smoke to spiral away. The grenade splutters out.
The wind has spring up quite strongly now, for I can feel it on my face blowing up from the valley below. Both Geoff and Bob have already turned their gaily colour parachutes and are driving them direct and hard for the target. It appears to be a long long way away. I can hear Bob shouting something as he swoops past me well beyond and below, but his words are whipped away by the wind before I can catch them. As I look down between my feet I realise why he was shouting. Down there, far below, is a sickening drop where the edge of the white snow gives way to dark jagged pinnacle rocks which drop crazily down in a great curve towards civilization some 9,000ft. below. My heart misses a beat, I too turn and drive hard to the target. Bob appears to be all right for he is now manoeuvring and hovering directly above the small target zone. Geoff and I are less lucky, for however hard we drive at the target we cannot quite reach it. Eventually we come to rest in deep snow rather close to the edge of the glacier. The landing in the soft snow is gentle and almost in slow motion as we wick deep into a flurry of blown snowflakes. We have little time for eulogies, for a strong gust of wind starts to inflate our canopies and drags us across the snow leaving deep snow trails behind us. At last we struggle to our feet in the cloying snow, double around our blossoming parachutes, and spill the wind.
With the silk copy clutched in a bundle in our arms we step out to join the rest of the party, exulting in our safe arrival. All six of us are now down on top of the Jostedal Glacier. The expedition can now begin.
Part 2: Scientific Survey and a Salutary Lesson
Scientific Work on the Jostedals Glacier
Modern Norwegian glaciers are not relics of the last major ice age, as might be thought, but probably are less than 5,000 years old. They do, however, lie on the topography moulded by those great glacial advances of the Quatenary Ice Age.
It is only in the twentieth century that a more of less continual record glacial accumulation and ablation has been compiled. Before then, the evidence was of a circumstantial and historical nature. For example, in Roman times when the temperature was much warmer than it is today, the glaciers retreated considerably. This melt of ablation continued throughout the Viking period thus allowing the Vikings in the eight and ninth centuries to drive their cattle from one side of the Jostedal Glacier to the other. In the middle ages the Ice began to advance or accumulate as the weather got colder. During the latter half of the eighteenth century the ice reached its maximum, destroying many farm and homesteads in this advance. Since this time a gradual retreat has taken place with periods of considerable climatic oscillation. Admittedly, no two glaciers are alike, for they record as a result of scientific work in the twentieth century, varying distances of advance and retreat.
Glaciers are of great importance to the Norwegians as both reservoirs of water for drinking and reserves of water power for electricity. Thus the Norges vassdrag og Electrisitetsvsen have parties of technicians stationed on the largest glaciers throughout the year recording the amount of water released by melting in the warm summer months and the amount of snow or hoar frost accumulated in the winter. This is a difficult and often irksome task. The Norwegian glaciers, of which there are 1700, cover great stretches of mountain ranges. The Jostedals Glacier, for example, is 470 square km in size. It lies on the slightly domed uplifted land mass of the Jostedals mountain range, forming a vast ice plateau between 300 and 600m thick, but, because of the continual melting and freezing, erosion and pressure, much of the surface of the glacier striated with thin crevasse cracks plunging some 500 to 100 m deep.
The Norwegians planned to ease the burden of their scientific work by making photogrammetry maps of all the large glaciers. In 1964 they made a series of base maps from air photographs which are compared with all subsequent minor maps. This comparison shows at a glance the movement of Norwegian glaciers with comparative accuracy. One of the tasks of the British Jostedals Glacier Expedition was to make a minor 1:20,000 map of one of the snouts of this glacier. This snout, called the Fabergstolbreen extrudes off the east side of the plateau into a deep glacial valley. The ice tongues, as they are often called, is 5km long. At the same time as this cartographic survey was to be made, our glaciologist, Norris Riley, who had just returned from 2 years with the British and Antarctic Survey in Halley Bay, was to collect ice core samples by a series of ice drillings along the length of the ice tongue. Our zoologist, Brendon O’Brien, was to make a collection of collembula (microscopic wingless insects), along the periglacial area.
This was our scientific task, but we only had three weeks to complete it.
Making maps on or around a glacier is not quite as simple as its sounds. In England we had spent hours poring over air photographs of the area and seeking advice from many experts, before planning how to tackle the problem. At the same time we fully realized that any plan which we made in England had to be flexible enough to change once we got out on to the glacier and saw the terrain for ourselves. All the same, we produced and printed a fairly elaborate task table.
After landing with all our equipment by parachute on top of the glacier, we had to move by ski and sledge to the Fabergstolbreen and set up a tented ice camp at the head of the ice tongue. From there we had to erect many minor controls (bamboo tripods with Daglow flags on top) at the tip of the head of the tongue as well as various positions around it. Once this had been done small survey parties with the theodolites, tripods and other survey kit, had to move from the ice camp to find too trig points which had been erected on two of the highest mountains around the snout by the Norwegian survey department some 50 years ago. Once at these positions we were to take about 6 rounds of the odolite shootings at all the major and minor controls around the glacial snout, with the intention of creating a triangulation network.
It was whilst visiting these trig points that 5 members of our expedition were taught a severe and salutary lesson.
Learning the hard way
The weather was windy but the sky clear when we set off to our respective trig points at the crack of dawn. Peter Booth, the geologist and I were to go to Red (the code name for one of the trig points about 5kms, as the crow flies from our ice camp). Geoff Holder, the Surveyor, and Ran Fiennes were to go to Blue, whilst Henrik Forss our Doctor, Bob Powell and Patrick Brook were to go to Green. Green was not a trig point but a minor control which we had to move so it could be seen quite clearly from both Blue and Red trig points. We estimated that the trips would take between four and six hours each and for this reason we departed so early. Peter and I had a long and difficult climb over rocks, as well as to cross a deep 600ft. gorge by abseil technique, to reach Red; whilst Henrik Forss was to lead his small group across a difficult 4km, crevasse field. Ran and Geoff had descended into the valley the day before and had camped there overnight so that they could depart for Blue with all their heavy survey kit and reach their destination at the same time as we reached ours.
By 1400 hours we were all in our respective positions. Once there, we erected the bamboo tripod over the trig point which indicated the position with bright orange dayglow flags, and erected our theodolites underneath. Once this was done we took out our binoculars to attempt to locate the other two parties. IT was not difficult to see Blue skylined nearly 6 kms away from our position, but however hard we tried we could not locate Green. As a result we contacted them by radio and explained our problem.
“Hello Red, this is Green. You must be blind, we have erected our marker on a back bearing of 4,000 mils from your position at Red. We are also about 200 metres below the edge of the ice. We can see you quite clearly, over” radioed Patrick from Green.
“Here, you have a go with these binos, Peter, I am damned if I can see them” I said, passing over the binoculars.
The mist was beginning to creep slowly but perceptibly from the valley floor below and black storm clouds were amassing well to the south beyond the far mountain peaks. We took it in turns to stare vainly through the binoculars, getting colder and colder as the wind whipped up from the ice below and whistled around the mount of our protective rocks.
“Hello Green, this is Red, it’s no good we still can’t see you, and its essential if we are to take theodolite bearing on to your position. Try lighting a fire and we will see if we can pick up the smoke” I radioed.
I kept glancing down into the valley at the gathering swirling mist. Already Blue was blanketed and soon Green, or the supposed location, would be hidden. A decision had to be made.
“Hello, Blue and Green, this is Red. The weather appears to have beaten us. Leave your theodolites in your location and try and get back to Ice Camp before the mist closes in. Come up on the radio on the hour from now on. Over”. This was so frustrating because it had taken us all about six hours to find and reach our respective trig points – what a terrible waste of time.
No sooner had we dismantled the theodolite and place all the equipment underneath a rock near the trig point, than the clammy mist surrounded us. It just enveloped us without warning, bringing with it sleet and driving rain. Then, and only then, my stupid mistake dawned upon me. We had failed to bring tents and sleeping bags with us. The golden rule in the mountains when a mist descends is to stay where you are, erect a tent and crawl into your sleeping bag under the mist lifts. The weather had been glorious when we departed in the morning which gave us a false sense of security, also the weight of the theodolite, tripod, and all the other survey equipment had been so heavy that we felt it would be unnecessary to overload ourselves unduly by carrying sleeping kit. We intended to return to Ice Cramp before it got dark at half past nine in the evening. There was now nothing for it but to attempt to reach the safety and warmth of Ice Camp. But there was one large snag. Between Red and Ice Cramp, as I mentioned before, there was a large 600ft gorge which would be quite impossible to cross in the mist. There was, however, one ray of hope. A large ice field traversed the gorge to the north east. By making a three legged compass traverse along the ice we would traverse the gorge and reach our ice camp on the far side.
We both took out our compasses which were hanging round our necks, and quickly worked our the bearings for each of the three legs, all of which were approximately 3kms long. Then we calculated the number of paces. The humour of this situation did not escape me, for my enthusiasm in the past for orienteering had often made the word ‘compass-traverse’ an impediment in the speech of many of my army colleagues. I had also bored innumerable officer cadets rigid with my insistence upon accurate compass work for night navigation. On the land this little problem would not be too difficult, but over slippery ice without crampons this 9km traverse may well prove an embarrassment to my navigational reputation! We had no alternative, for had we huddled together under a rick for warmth we would have inevitably suffered the consequences of exposure in the howling wind and rain when temperatures drop to below minus 20 degrees centigrade. To be honest, I was more than worried.
Holding our compasses in front of us, in the classical position, we stumbled across the rocks onto the ice field, counting our double paces. It was only a matter of minutes, in the driving rain, before we were soaking wet below our orange waterproof anoraks. We slithered and slipped, sometimes disappearing up to our thighs in the glacial streams which rushed in a noisy torrent across the surface of the blue ice. It was far from pleasant. Peter found a couple of drowned Lemmings in the centre of the ice field, and jokingly stated that he felt it was significant. I tried not to share his view. We slithered on, sometimes clutching each other to maintain our balance, following the direction of the luminous needles of our compasses.
“One thousand and eight hundred paces”. I now had eighteen matchsticks in my righthand pocket, each of which marked one hundred double paces. “Its time to change to the next bearing, Peter”. We stopped on top of a large ice dome and set our compasses. Then we set off again in line into the swirling mist. It was impossible to tell whether we were going up or down as we could barely see four feet in front of us. Sometimes the route would take us across an ever increasing slope which made us slither on to our sides. Sometimes, to make progress we had to cut our steps in the hard blue ice for fear we would lose our balance and fall slithering in a nightmare slide down into the misty unknown. Just after we set off on the second leg, the mist momentarily cleared revealing the deep gorge to our left. According to my calculations we were on the right bearing but had miscalculated the paces by a good 200 metres. This mistake had to be accounted for, and half an hour later we hit rocks. My spirits soared for I knew that our ice cramp was piched in front of a long line of rocks. These rocks appeared to run in the same direction as the bearing for our third leg. But, according to my earlier calculations we ought to have reached the camp by 20.15 hours. It was now 20.30 hours, so obviously the camp must have been fairly close. We both decided to stick close to the rock and edge our way carefully down the side for at least if we missed the camp and had to stay out overnight, these rocks would give us some protection against the biting wind. We bent our bodies against the wind and plodded down the side of the rocks in silence, still counting our paces. I must admit as minute passed minute, that the thought of not finding the ice camp became more and more of a reality, for we were now more than half an hour overdue and the last glimmers of daylight were fading.
Suddenly, Peter pointed to the front. We quickened our pace. “That’s it, I am sure that’s it”, he shouted excitedly. I could see nothing other than the swirling mist and the occasional dark patches of the rock on the ice.
“Are you sure?” I shouted back above the sound of the wind as I peered into the gloom.
“Yes, I can see the tent” By now we were doubling. We ran the last thirty metres into the camp.
To our surprise we heard a voice from one of the white flattened tents. Naturally we thought it was Henrik and his party who had returned from Green, but in fact it was Ran Fiennes. He had left Geoff Holder earlier in the day at Blue and had returned to our base camp at the foot of the glacial tongue, picked up more assault rations, cookers and radio batteries, then made his way on a formidable forced march up the side of the glacial tongue, alone. He too had got lost in the mist. He had only reached ice camp ten minutes before us, lamenting the stupidity of his decision to climb along and separate from Geoff Holder.
By now Peter and I were so cold and wet that we stripped off all our sodden clothes outside the tent, put on warm sweaters and crawled into one sleeping bag, shivering. We hoped that the heat of our huddled bodies would warm our frozen limbs. Both of us could hardly control our chattering teeth until Ran brought from his pack a small flask of brandy. It tasted good as it seared down our throats and welled up warmly in our stomachs.
“Have you heard anything of Henrik and his party?” I asked, “because we have tried to get through to them on our A.40 and haven’t heard a squeak from them since three o’clock.”
“No, I’ve been trying to get them on the radio too, but I have a feeling that my radio is kaput” Ran replied.
“They can’t possibly have tried to cross that crevasse field not in this mist anyway” said Peter “it would be suicidal. They must have found somewhere to camp for the night. I am sure they would not have made the same stupid mistake as us and gone without tents.”
“Even if they have, Henrik is with them and I’m sure he won’t allow them to do anything stupid” I replied, for I knew Henrik Forss, our Finnish doctor, of old to be very cautious and sensible on the side of a mountain. In fact, the two less experienced members of the expedition could not be in better hands.
“Anyhow, let’s try and get them on your radio for the 10 o’clock call” suggested Ran. I put my arm our through the small circular aperture of the tent entrance into the freezing darkness, fumbled in my rucksack and pulled out our A.40 radio which we had used to speak to Green earlier in the afternoon.
“Hello Green, this is ice cramp. Radio check. Over.” There was no reply to our repeated signals.
“It’s almost certain that they’ve camped up for the night, so let’s get some sleep” Ran said rolling over in his sleeping bag with finality.
As I lay shivering in my sleeping bag, staring at the rattling shaking sides of the tent, and listening to the howling wind as it fought to pluck our secure tent from the icefield, I could not sleep for worry. I attempted to transfer my thought into the mind of my old Finnish friend. What would Henrik have done? Was he now trying to cross the dangerous crevasse field in the dark grey mist? We he leading Bob and Patrick by rope, precariously following the flickering luminosity of his compass needle – threading a safe route between the yawning chasms of the crevasses? I tried to imagine his thoughts. With two inexperienced men on the rope, one slip in the mist would be disastrous. Whoever was on the end of the rope would not be able to react quick enough and move his frozen limbs to drive his ice-axe deep into the ice and thus check the fall of the others. And if they did fall, they would not have a chance in hell of climbing out of those seventy feet deep crevasses with their sides so sheet, wet and insecure. What was he doing? They must now have been walking for nearly eight hours if they set off on my last radio call. My imagination flickered with the candlelight inside the tent. It flared with the reality of past experience, sometime illuminating one thought only to splutter, darken, then flare up and reveal another. The shadows on the side of the flapping tent became figures with recognizable faces; bodies bent forward, striving. What were they doing? Perhaps they were huddled in a warm tent, sipping hot soup, laughing and joking. Or were they – as every sense in my body warned me – doubled against the wind and sleet, mechanically stamping one cramponed boot in front of another hard into the crunching ice, deliberately moving with calculated, conscious and determined efforts of the will, across the treacherous ice sheet? All would be dark out there, all black except for one white safety rope occasionally jerking and tugging forward into the mist, the cold and nothingness.
“Roger, can you hear something?” It was Peter nudging me, his head cocked to one side with his mouth wide open. “I thought I heard something”. It was now 23.15 hours. I listened, straining, but all I could hear was the tend flapping and the wind howling into a crescendo like a wild dog. Then I heard it. No more than a break in the rhythm of the wind. It was a voice, helloing.
“God, it’s them. Get a torch quick. I’ll get a whistle”. There it was again. A thin voice, momentarily calling like a lost soul.
By now we were all sitting erect in our sleeping bags. Ran had taken the torch and thrust it through the entrance of the tend waving it wildly. We were all shouting hysterically: “We’re here! We’re here!” We listened against, expectant, poised. Again the voice hallowed, faintly like a flitting memory in the labrynth of the mind. It was recognizable yet indistinct. My mind groped to find a place for the sound of the voice now re-echoing in my memory. Then I got it.
“It’s Henrik. I can recognize that voice anywhere,” I shouted above then noise of the wind. Then I started to blow on my whistle; a piercing shrill note, high against the cacophony of sound outside.
“Hell, is there any of that brandy left, they must be frozen” Ran started fumbling around his pack. Peter also started searching for a thermos flask full of stew, which we had saved for them. By now, I had managed to worm my way out of the sleeping bag and had thrust my body through the circular aperture of the tent. The cold was biting. Eventually I got my balance and stuck my head over the top of the tent with half by body still in the warmth of the interior, then peered towards the distant icefield. I could sed nothing in the swirling sleet and darkness. The wind against my face gave me a blinding headache, and tears came into my eyes as I tried to keep them open against the driving sleetish snow. I took the torch from Ran and waved it high. Then I saw them. Out of the mist a figure appeared, dark and groping with one arm raised as if protecting himself against some fiendish onslaught. There, a little behind him – attached to a long rope – another figure appeared, then another.
It had taken them nearly nine hours to cross from control point Green over the 4km icefield. They, like us, had stupidly failed to take a tent or sleeping bag with them, and had cursed themselves for their negligence. Apparently they had had a discussion when the mist came up whether to stay where they were, make for base camp 3,000 feet below or attempt the crossing of the 4km crevasse field. They chose the latter hoping to make for the comfort of the tents before dark. Immediately they ran into trouble attempting to cross the Bergschurund onto the Neve ice they had used pitons on the rock but they had bent like rubber. So they doubled back on their paces and come, a long and devious way on the to the original route. They had no food except one packet of dextrasol energy tabled which they found rummaging in Henrik’s medical pack. These were munched with relish as their forced their frozen limbs to march on along the laborious zig-zag route across the crevasse field.
On arrival, Bob and Patrick were so cold they could hardly undo their ice crampons from the boots. Yet they still kept their humour as they shivered uncontrollably. Bursts of hysterical laughter accompanied the painful process of removing wet sodden clothes to expose their steaming goosepimpled pale skin to the elements.
I never cease to be amazed at the adaptability of the human body. As long as the mind or will accepts the inevitability of paint, the body will ensure. Often one wonders why man sometimes exposes himself to such physical extremes; why he should continue the quest for self-knowledge in such paradoxical contrasts. Each man has his own answer, whether it be escapism, the cult of danger, or even masochism or doubt. Possibly, and more than likely, it is a desire to experience a finer sense of balance in this strange equilibrium of life.
Here were two men who only two weeks previously had been enjoying the normal nine to five existence of the big city. Now they were on an exposed icefield. Why had they accepted and were still prepared to accept such painful experiences as this? So unpleasant was it, they had to laugh to escape from reality. The more phlegmatic Finn, however, needed no recourse to humour. He found solace in half a bottle of whisky which he drank without stopping.
Nine days after the parachute descent we completed our scientific survey work. We closed our survey recording books – full of complicated bearings, distances, and angles which faithfully recorded our tacheometric survey and subtense traverse – slipped them into a polythene wrapper not to be opened again until we returned to England. These calculations were computed later to produce a 3 colour map of the Fabergstolbreen Glacier Tongue, which clearly showed that the glacier had retreated 170 metres since 1964. Brendan O’Brien, the zoologist working on the periglacial area, had already collected a vast number of collembula (micro anthropods which form part of a group of wingless insects) – a total of 1,771 specimens as we later discovered, of at least 32 species, comprising 38 samples of 9 different bio-types including one completely new species to Norway – which he stored in their plant habitat in large polythene bags.
So the scientific phase, without which no expedition can adequately leave Britain, was over. The next phase of the Expedition – the Crossing of the Glacier by ski and sledge and the descent of the famous Briksdalsbree Icefall – was about to begin.
Part 3: Across the Glacier and down the Icefall
In the field of exploration, this decade started with a certain Dr Simmonds stating: “The age of geographic exploration has now finished, as man has now explored the four corners of the earth, but the age of scientific exploration has just begun. We are entering the most exciting fifth phase of exploration: the phase of scientific exploration”.
What does this mean? Does it mean that there is no room for the adventurer; the escapist; for those who wish to experience the extremes of contrast; for those that find a certain element of danger is essential for a certain quality of life – the total experience, if you wish? Does it mean that there is no room for those who simply are restless and see in excitement and travel an outlet for the symptoms of a deep uncertainly about themselves and their purpose? I certainly hope not. Obviously exploration is going to fall more into the hands of trained scientists, because they will get the financial support with which to do it, but there is still room for those who wish to do things for the sheer hell of it, and for those who wish to experience the deep satisfaction of exploration, even if someone has been there before and the pleasure and pride of any achievement in the face of Nature.
Possibly, on our expedition we wanted to get the best of both worlds. We had to do the scientific part to raise money to actually get to the Jostedals Glacier and, if you wish, vindicate ourselves in this materialistic world which wants positive results from any action.
Even so, although the scientific part did offer the satisfaction of the result we all wanted to do more than that. We wanted to cross the glacier by ski and descend its famous Briksdal Ice Fall.
Across the Glacier
We arose at 05.00 hrs. to find that the mist had lifted, but it was still a cloudy and bitter day. The two guides who had ski’d across the glacier the day before to meet us, were still loath to accompany us all the way to the Briksdalbree, but they did agree to ski ahead of our party to guide us through the crevasse fields by leaving their ski tracks for us to follow. They planned to leave an ice-axe stuck in the snow alongside the track where they would turn off the mountain. At this spot they told us that they would leave an arrow scraped in the snow point the last 6kms towards the Briksdalbree Icefall.
At 06.00 hrs, we bade farewell to David and Jan our guides, who loped off on their skis towards the distant horizon leaving two broad ski tracks in their wake.
“We must hurry before the mist comes down again, otherwise we may lose their ski tracks”, said Ran, putting the finishing touches to the pulks which we had packed. These 10 ft. long pulks or sledges were piled high with all our equipment including our parachutes which we set on top. We trapped up all the equipment, then slipped on our skis ready for the move. Even with three man to a pulk they still require an immense amount of effort just to get them moving. So we heaved on our rucksacks, took one ski stick each, buckled one member of the team into each of the harnesses of the two pulks, then with a combined and concentrated effort, pulled and pushed the sledges into action, following the broad ski tracks left by our guides.
At 07.00 hrs the mist again descended and obliterated the tracks. We just lowered our heads and kept on pulling. The strain was tremendous. Blood vessels swelled in our necks, perspiration rolled down our faces, and our breath came in short pants. We plodded on changing positions in the harness every half hour. It took until 16.00 hrs with almost non-stop pulling before the leading pulk reached the ice axe, which stood out as a dark unnatural shadow in the mist. The ski tracks took a sharp right turn at the ice axe, then disappeared from view into the mist as they made their way off the mountain towards Kwemme. Alongside the ice axe we found a distinct sign carved in the surface of the snow: BRIKSDALBREE ———–
It was here that we said goodbye to Henrik Forss. Our doctor was not going to continue with us and descent the ice fall, but was going down the same route as the guides, then wait with Norris Riley, our glaciologist, at the bottom of the Briksdal Icefall. If we ran into trouble on the descent it was planned that they would try to climb up with rescue equipment and bring down any injured person.
The five of us drank our first warm drink of the day, buckled on the harness of the pulk again, and moved off in the direction indicated by the sign, on a compass bearing. The mist was now really thick. Previously we had calculated that it would take t least two hours with our pulks to navigate these six kms, so we simply planned to ski on a bearing of 4400 mils. until 18.00 hrs, then stop for the night wherever we were. With one member of the party leading the way with the compass, we skied on through the mist. At 17.00 hrs we hit a large crevasse field running almost parallel to our proposed route. This made navigating very difficult, because often we had to zig zag along the side of crevasses, staring into their deep gaping mouths whilst searching for safe ice bridges to continue on our way. The conditions gradually deteriorated as gale winds swept the side of the glacier sending sharp slithers of ice into our faces, but soon we found that the slope of the ice made our progress must easier. At 18.00 hrs we stopped as planned, and in the midst of the gale struggled to erect our two tents. The union jack, which we had patriotically carried all the way on the rear pulk, had been ripped shreds in the lashing wind. Yet Ran dug the flagpole deep into some firm ice and thus marked the site of our second ice camp. The flag looked defiant as its loose ends flapped noisily against the onslaught of the wind. We all gathered round the crazily bent pole, whose battered but bravely fluttering flag seemed to symbolize our feelings at that moment. Numbed fingers wrapped up the spare equipment and stowed it into the sledges before erecting the white frozen tents. We pushed sleeping bags through the entrance of the tents, then stamped our frozen feet around the sides of each tent to secure them in their position on the side of the ice glacier. We surveyed the desolate scene through slit eyes under white frozen eyebrows before plunging through the round long apertures of the entrances to our tents and into the warm but darkened interiors.
There is nothing, just nothing, like the comfort of warm fleece sleeping bag after a cold tiring day on a glacier. The wind howls outside and the temperature drops below zero; the tend flaps and billows making most infernal din, but there is safety and warmth in a sleeping bag protected against the rude intrusion of the natural element outside. It is difficult to find a comparison to that close companionship forged between two friends huddled over a small gas cooker, warming stew in a pot inside one of these tents. Broad grins split tanned faces, and eye twinkle beneath woolly hats which sparkle with droplets of melted snow. A taste of brandy between chapped lips, offered from a friends own flask; a cigarette passed backwards and forwards from mouth to mouth with the gentility of handling a rare gem. There is euphoria in the atmosphere. Outside it is so wet, cold, severe and remote, but inside with the warm light of a flickering candle, with a mug of steaming strew cradled between two hands, with the whole body cocooned in the soft down of a sleeping bag, there is contentment and peace. All is well with the world.
At 05.00 hrs next morning I pushed by unshaven, oiled face through the circular entrance of the tend to find that the mist had cleared and it was possible to look straight down the side of a glacier and see two large jutting pinnacles of rock marking the sides of the head of the Briksdalbree Icefall. Beyond these was the pinkish skyline of dawn and – seemingly miles below – the green valley of Briksdal with its red and yellow microscopic signs of civilisation. It did not take more than a minute to confirm, with my map and compass, that more by luck than judgement we were in exactly the right position to start the descent.
After a frugal meal of half an oatmeal block each, we struck camp, loaded the pulks and began the descent. Soon we were in difficulties. It was possible to ourselves upright on the steep ice slopes of the glacier by digging in our crampons, but the pulks kept rolling over onto their sides and careering off our of control. We thought it safe to unstrap the harness and play out a 100 ft role behind each pulk, then tie an anchor man to arrest any uncontrollable movement. Then the other two men took the bamboo harness of the pulk, one at each side, and continued the slow descent, weaving their way around the crevasses.
We lost our two pulks almost at the same time. Suddenly our pulk picked up speed as we were traversing a 45 degree angle slope and flung the two of us who were on the harness to one side. It veered off downhill, picking up speed. Bob Powell, who was our anchor man, was pulled straight off his feet and dragged along behind the pulk frantically trying to strike his ice ace into the slope to arrest the movement. Suddenly the pulk disappeared. Bob was pulled out of control even faster, sometimes on his side but mostly on his stomach towards the edge of a large crevasse. Then he stopped. He rammed his ice axe into the slope, panting. We rant to help him as fast as we dare, picked him up, and then the three of us plodded carefully in our crampons to the edge of the crevasse. As we looked down between the two cool deep blue ice walls, some 70ft below we saw our pulk jammed at a crazy angle. Howard hard we tried we could not extricate it. Silently, Bob slowly untied the rope around his waist, threw it towards the crevasse allowing it to snake out of sight forever deep down below.
“There goes by bloody tent and half a bottle of …whisky”. But that was not all that we had lost, for when the other party told us that they had lost their pulk in a similar manner, we realised that we had lost parachutes, tents, skis boots, food and countless other necessities. Fortunately all of us who were dragging the pulks were wearing our rucksacks with our personal kits, sleeping bags and ropes inside. Perhaps, more fortunately, I was carrying the Racal Radio on top of my pack so at least we would not be out of touch with Base Camp who were setting up a position below the Briksdal Icefall. We had a last grum look at our jammed pulks, heaved our shoulders, and continued towards the lip of the icefall.
Out great fear on the Brisdalbree was, surprisingly, the sun. The Briskdalbreen are three giant steps of ice with each step consisting of a drop of 700 to 900 feet, with a short plateau between of some 400ft wide. When the sun shines brightly on to the hanging ice, it makes the vertical structure insecure. As a result, great chunks of ice fall like masonry from the side of a burning house and collapse, setting in motion enormous avalanches down each side of the icefall. The Briksdalbreen is one of the most famous natural phenomena and beauty spots in Norway. Tourists come from all over the world to climb along a narrow track through the valley to reach the glacial lake at the tip of the icefall. From there they stare straight up at the towering mass of ice. When the sun is high, they can hear the regular CRACK then ROAD as ice chunks come tumbling, leaping, ricocheting down, then finally sliding off the side of the glacier.
Not many tourists realise, however, that they are looking at only one third of the ice fall, for that can only see the first 900ft of the 2,500 ft of ice.
Our aim was to keep in the centre of the fall, well away from the avalanches at the side, then abseil down the ice face on our coloured ropes. Unfortunately, because of the multiple wide crevasses it was not as easy as we anticipated. We had hoped to the complete descent in one day, but by 15.00 hrs we were only half way down the second ice fall and had no chance of reaching the bottom of at least another day. So, we radioed to Base Camp at the 3 o’clock call.
“Hello, Base Camp, this is Ice Party. It is much more difficult than we anticipated. We are having to zig zag continually across and along enormous crevasses, and abseil over quite large ice cliffs. The amount of kit we are carrying is making our progress very slow indeed. Unfortunately, there is no chance of us getting down tonight, so we are planning to reach the last plateau at 900ft and find a ledge so that we can ‘kip up’ there for the night. There have been a lot of ice falls but we have kept to the centre most of the time out of danger’s way. You should be able to see the whole of our descent tomorrow with binoculars. Close down now until 21.00 hrs and we’ll let you know how comfortable we are on the perishing ice ledge. Close down now. Over.”
“Base Camp, roger, over”
“Ice Party, close down now, out”
By 18.00 hrs we reached the plateau which we slowly plodded over with our crampons biting into the hard ice. We had travelled the whole way in two parties, each securely roped up. One party of two searched for the best route, zig-zagging through the crevasses, whilst the larger party of three was able to make the most direct route.
Looking back, we could see the enormous second step of the ice fall towering above us, sheet, noble, yet precarious as the blue pinnacles jutted up like giant teeth into the sky.
“We’ll stop here for the night” said Ran who had done most of the leading down the ice fall, as he pointed to an ice ledge alongside the rock on the right hand side of the fall. “Near those rocks looks a fairly safe place.” So we spent on night on an ice ridge on the Briksdalbreen with our sleeping bags huddled together for warmth. Amusingly, Patrick broke the news to us by saying “What a bloody awful way to spend one’s twenty ninth birthday” as he leaned over and produced a pack of cards from his rucksack. Unfortunately, as I had taken it upon myself to act as cook for the ice descent party, I was unable to rustle up any suitable birthday feast apart from a spent candle stuck upon an army biscuit, plain. This we munched indigestibly as Patrick proceeded to win vast amounts of matchsticks in our poker school, and I kept a record of the fortunate gained and lost on the ice ledge, on a piece of lavatory paper.
At 05.00 hrs after rather a cold and uncomfortable night on the ledge, we were on our way. It was essential for us to get into the centre of the glacier before the sun came up and the ice began to thaw. Falling ice is rather alarming. There is a sound like a rifle shot, then a roar like thunder. As you look up you can see a great chunk of ice as large as a house rolling over and over, as if in slow motion, coming down towards you. It then bounces, sending a cascade of a thousand slivers of ice flying in all directions. Then, like a shunting train, it pushes and rolls further chunks of ice, which go hurtling by you with a whoosh. There appears to be no rhyme or reason from where and when the next fall should come. We spoke in whispers once the sun was up, which helped to create a certain tension amongst our small party as we threaded our way numbly between towering blue pinnacles and across boulder strewn ice.
One minute Patrick was there on a rope, between Geoff and Bob, the next minute he was gone. There was no cry, no warning, he just disappeared. The rope tautened as ice axes drove in to hold him. Then a low rumble of ice below us and a cry from Bob to warn Ran and myself who were ahead trying to find a suitable route. As we looked back, we could see Geoff working his way back along the rope towards the collapsed ice bridge. As he looked over the edge he could see Patrick wedged in the crevasse with a large chunk of ice on top of him. Geoff whispered to Bob to hold him on his rope whilst he lowered himself down the crevasse and levered the ice off Patrick’s body. He then clambered out and started pulling like map on Patrick’s end of the rope. By now all of us were there to pull as the sun rose high above us and the ice began to drip. Two hands came over the edge, a white helmet followed by Patrick’s rather puzzled face.
“Thanks a million” he shouted out “I don’t know what I’d do without you two faithful servants”.
“Sshh…” we all hissed, holding our index fingers to our lips and looking up towards the ice pinnacles above. So we continued.
Down below we could see the glacial lake quite clearly, with a large crowd of tourists on the beach to the northern side. Many, we gathered later, were following our progress through binoculars, and most voicing opinions about the ‘mad British’. Abseiling down the ice cliff face was difficult. When we threw a coil of coloured rope over the edge, it was almost impossible to tell if it was snagged or not, or whether it had snaked down an unfathomable crevasse. With this problem, the members of the Base Party were invaluable.
“Ice Party this is Base Camp. The rope is snagged, pull it up again and throw it further to your right. Over the pinnacle, you have a 50ft abseil and then a long traverse across broken ice for about 200metres, over.”
It was now about midday. The icefalls were roaring quite regularly and one felt a certain apprehension in the air. It was during this 200 metre traverse that the next accident occurred. On this occasion I was acting as “Tail end Charlie” and was abseiling down a long red rope. Geoff Holder was just in front of me and waited for me to catch him up before he himself traversed across a large broken ice field. Before he departed he suggested that it would be quicker to traverse by applying a technique called the flying angel. I sat down to get my breath back as he scurried across the broken blue ice blocks with arms straddling the red rope. He was almost at the end of the rope when I followed him using the same technique. Then it happened, the whole of the ice sheet directly in my path cracked, roared, then slithered away down to my right. “Christ…I hope Geoff’s all right”. I could see down to my right great blocks of ice bouncing and bounding into the air as the whole avalanche slide continued down towards the lake. Gently I continued along an entirely new route, only to round the corner as I reached the end of the rope to find Geoff who had a great grin of relief upon his face. “Am I pleased to see you, I thought you’d gone.”
“Same here” was my only retort.
Alas, only three hundred feet from the bottom of the ice fall we had a serious accident. Geoff by now was leading on a rope followed by Patrick and then myself. Geoff was belaying down a very steep slope of wet ice and his bent his knees, dug in his crampons slowly cut his way down. He made himself secure at the bottom, and then prepared with me to belay Patrick down. Patrick was almost down when suddenly he stumbled on one of his crampons. The weight of his pack came over his head and down he slithered. I tried to check the fall, but was too late before I heard an agonizing cream. Patrick’s sharp ice crampons had penetrated deep into Geoff’s right leg. As soon as I heard this fearsome scream I doubled down the slope as fast as I dare, biting my crampons deep into the ice to hold my body on the 45 degree slope. When I arrived, I saw Geoff clutching his leg above his torn trousers, his hands grasped in a tight tourniquet above his knee. His face was twisted with pain. Patrick was kneeling, busily applying ice to the punctured calf which was pumping blood. The language which filled the air would have made an Irish navvy blush and was certainly a couple of shade bluer than the ice. I whipped off my pack, dug inside for the first aid kit and within minutes had a dressing around the gory hole. Geoff was white faced with shock and loss of blood, and it was fairly obvious that reaction might set in fairly soon, so I got onto the radio and informed Henrik our doctor of the accident. He suggested that we should get off the glacier by the quickest method so that he could have a look at the wound. Ran came back when he heard the scream and I told him of Henrik’s advice.
“Ice party, this is Base Camp. The quickest route off the glacier, according to the Norwegian guide here is to make for the muddy ice slope to the left of your position. But Ran, be careful. There is an ice fall across this muddy ice sheet almost every five minutes. Over.”
We struggled over the muddy ice sheet. As we moved we could see the large cascades of ice hurtling by just as Henrik had warned us. We could see one obvious route to a large ice bridge which flowed over the gaping bergschrund onto the rock, and from this rock it was no further than 50 metres to the end of the glacier.
We waited on the side of the muddy slope until the next ice fall went by, then ran. How we ran, our crampons crunching into the muddy ice sheet, our packs bumping up and down, and our ice aces scraping behind us. I could not help chortling to myself at this undisciplined, undignified, rapid exit from our tortuously slow descent of the Briksdalbree. It was rather like a Father’s One Hundred Yard Sprint at a School Sports Day. How we ran, glancing occasionally to our left, whilst bundling Geoff along as best we could and praying for the ice pinnacles above us to hold. Five minutes later we were sitting on the rock, panting and giggling like school children.
The five of us walked to the edge of the rock, slipped off our packs and crampons, and looked down into the glacial lake 100ft below. We waved to the Base Party on the far bank who were putting out a boat to come over and pick us up.
“Well we’ve done it, but never again”
Then, to cap it all, Bob insisted that we should do a Can-Can on the narrow ledge above the lake, to celebrate our safe arrival.
So, as the sun went down over the top of the Briksdalbree and the evening wind began to ripple the clear glacial waters below, five members of the British Jostedals Glacier Expedition danced “Knees Up Mother Brown” on a small narrow rock ledge.
Madness? Possible, otherwise they would never have been there in the first place.