If I Fall Asleep Now, I’ll Die

This text is taken from Magazine #6 – «Get Lost» edited and written by Hilde Sandvik, editor and founder of Broen.xyz

Radio journalist Hans-Gunnar Skarstein
was on his way to Voss one October
day almost 16 years ago. It was his last
opportunity to hunt before winter, just
him with his shotgun, and no dog. He
stopped and bought a plastic map case
and a new compass in the centre of Voss.
He didn’t want to stray into the wrong
hunting grounds by mistake. He made
his way to Torfinnsheimen cabin, beside
Torfinnsvatnet lake on the west side of the
Gråsidefjellet mountains, and spent the
night there.

The weather forecast was for a little wind and hail showers, which is
fine for both hiking and hunting. However, he should perhaps have
given more thought to the fact that it was October, but he had all the
equipment he needed. He had even borrowed his wife Jorunn’s mobile
phone: an Ericsson with an eternal battery life. It always worked. On
Thursday morning, he called her and said ‘I’m about to head up into
the mountains – I’ll be back home on Saturday’.

He ate stew from the cabin’s food store before setting off. Not keen to
use nature as a toilet, he made sure to go one last time before he left
the cabin, and wrote in the cabin guest book that he was going to head
north along Torfinnsvatnet lake. That route was so slippery and hard
going, however, that he turned and headed back down.

When he set off that October day, the cabin guest book entry stated
that he was going to walk the usual route up towards Timeglaset, while
he had actually decided to walk to Hjellegrend.

He had an American field ration in his rucksack, which has a
mechanism whereby you break a small heater device in the packet to
heat the food. Otherwise all he had was a packet of biscuits, a bag of
chocolate powder and a Jerven tarp – a tarpaulin produced in Odda,
which is now used in the seats of all Western fighter aircraft.

He walked steadily upwards. Up on the ridge – the shoulder of the
mountain – he looked down at the lake. There, he saw a ptarmigan
fly up from the snow. It took flight and hovered beside him. Beautiful
against the grey sky. Maybe he should have given more though to that
foreboding grey sky, but he only saw the beautiful white bird hovering
beside him. And now he knew that there were birds up there. The wind
was in his back, pushing him along. However, it had started to sleet.

He describes the situation:

‘I followed the red T marks, and knew that I had to cross two rivers.
They’re not deep, but involve wading two or three metres. I got to the
first one, and took off my hunting boots and put on the rubber boots
I had brought in my rucksack, but I couldn’t get them on over my
socks. So I laid the socks on the ground along with my black gloves.
I’d forgotten about the wind. A sudden gust swept my socks and gloves
into the river. I never found my gloves again. I was able to fish out
my green socks. I swung them around like propellers to get as much
water out of them as I could, and put them in my rucksack, but I still
had another river to cross. I had nothing on under my boots. Things
weren’t going well.’

Didn’t you consider going back?

‘I had made up my mind to walk to Hjellegrend, and if I turned back,
the wind would be in my face – and now it had really started snowing. I
sat behind a big rock, and asked myself: “Am I in trouble now?” I don’t
have gloves any more. I had the two socks, which I tried to put on my
hands, but that was hardly luxury. Wet wool doesn’t provide much
warmth. My toes were getting cold, which was not ok given that I was
only wearing rubber boots. I sat down and thought if there’s anybody
at the cabin at Torfinnsheimen now, they’ll probably hear if I fire
three shots, followed by another three shots and another three shots,
signalling that I need help. Which I did…’

Hans-Gunnar Skarstein falls silent. For a long time. His voice is shaky
when he picks up the story:

‘I didn’t want to use up all my ammunition. So I got to the second
river, crossed it and tried to find the path along the cairns. But I
couldn’t see them anymore, and it had begun snowing very hard.’

He suddenly found himself looking down into a gorge, which opened
up beneath him.

‘If I had taken one more step, I would have fallen. I went back up the
mountainside, but the path was gone. I decided to wrap my feet in the
Jerven tarp, which is incredibly warm. My feet weren’t wet, just cold.
I found one glove, which I put on the barrel of the gun and set it in the
snow. And then I put the tarp over myself and let the snow cover me,
it’s such a great tarp – it makes you feel safe. While I lay there and felt
the snow settle around me, I knew that I couldn’t fall asleep. I couldn’t
relax.’

He had some idea of where he was, thanks to the GPS. What he didn’t
know was that very close to where he was now being ‘snowed in’, a
monument had been erected in memory of some young people who
had frozen to death there in the 1950s. They had been out hunting.
The snow is wrapping itself around him. He moves constantly to make
more room around him, but the light blanket of snow that initially
covered him is getting heavier and heavier. At one point, he thinks he
is about to panic. His heart is beating wildly. His cheeks and lips are
becoming numb, which is a horrible feeling. He thinks fear has got the
better of him – it’s dark, he’s lying under the snow in the tarp.

Photo: Tale Hendnes

There was no opening?

‘That was the whole point. I was suffocating. I was breathing in my
own carbon dioxide. I opened the zip. It was a beautiful sight – it’s not
completely dark in a snow cave, the light has a greenish, mysterious
quality. But I realised I had to get some air. First I tried to make a hole
in the snow cave with my hands – I was getting a bit desperate. I struck
the snow and then saw brown patches of blood starting to appear on
the snow. The plastic map case and the compass that I had bought in
Voss hung around my neck, and I started digging with them, but it was
heavy going. A hard layer of ice had formed around me. I struck and I
dug – first with my hands. There was very little air, and I was getting
scared. Then I rolled up the plastic and drove it into the snow. At last,
some snow fell down through the hole letting air in, and I realised that
I had made it. However, one and a half metres of snow had fallen.’

So if you hadn’t made it through the snow?

‘Well, then they would have found me in the spring. Just as you start
breathing in the fresh air, you realise how cold you are. A few flakes of
snow through the opening on your skin makes you damp and you start
shaking.’

I’m sure just an hour under the snow would feel like an eternity –
how did you bear it?

‘I knew that nothing would happen before Saturday. Jorunn’s mobile
phone had no signal. It got dark and then light and I knew I had to keep
making room for myself. I tried to keep pushing the snow out to make
room, and I broke a rib doing so. I dug the snow out from around me
with the compass, and made snowballs that I threw out of the hole in
the roof. I’ve thought to myself afterwards, what a strange sight that
must have been from the outside – a small hole in the snow with little
snowballs coming out of it.

I spent a lot of time doing that and I tried to keep my fingers warm. I
put them in my mouth and in my underwear. That was my project, as
well as trying to drink a little. I hadn’t brought any water to drink. So
all I had was the snow I melted in my hands.’

What forces were unleashed?

‘I was scared stiff of falling asleep, literally. I sang all the children’s
songs we sang to our daughter Sara, who was just an year old at the
time: “Baa Baa Black Sheep” etc. And of all things, the old Norwegian
ballad ”Mor, hvor du er kjærlig”. And one by Cornelius Vreeswijk,
which, roughly translated into English, goes as follows: ”The dew falls
and the sun rises. But this you will not hear. You’re lying bare-skinned
with your lips against my ear.”

He shouts for help out of the hole in the roof from time to time – and
now he has given himself a task. He wants to expand the hole – he
wants to get up and move on. Above him, the bottleneck gets steadily
bigger. Thursday has become Friday, and the hole is finally big enough
for him to stand up. But the second he leaves the windproof Jerven
tarp, he feels how icy cold it is. He can’t stand on his feet. His fingers
are frostbitten, and his hands look terrible. They haven’t been dry
once in 48 hours. He collapses again into the tarp. On Saturday, his
wife phones the local police station and asks what she should do, that
she had expected to hear from him. When the local policeman hears
that Hans-Gunnar has a Jerven tarp, he says they can wait until
Sunday.

Back in the snow, Hans-Gunnar sits with the snow forming an
armchair and the tarp against his back. Such a large area on your back
is exposed when you’re wet. Making you helpless. He has made a little
shelf beside him, where he has put the little food he has; a few biscuits
and some chocolate powder. He ate the field ration a long time ago.
He cannot sleep and nor must he use up all his energy. When he feels
hunger pangs, he breaks off a bit of a biscuit and mixes some chocolate
powder and melted snow in his hand. When he feels himself falling
asleep, he punches the broken rib to release adrenaline and forces
himself to keep his eyes open.

On Sunday, he sees the large Sea King helicopter on the horizon.

‘They flew right over me,’ says the hunter. And then is quiet again for a
long time.

Did you realise that they were looking for you?

‘I shouted: “That’s my helicopter!” They flew over me once – but
snow was falling thick and fast. I had no control. Everything was just
shaking. I watched the helicopter fly over me along the route I had
intended to take. And then it was gone, but then I heard it coming
closer again – up over the edge.’

Quiet.

‘I tried to stand up. When you see a landscape like that from above,
it’s just black and white. I tried to wave my arms and wave the barrel
of the gun. Finally, they spotted me. Then I saw a big woollen mitten
waving back at me from the window of the helicopter. They tried to
land close by, but there was too much snow.’

When help is so close – is that when you consider giving up?

Hans-Gunnar Skarstein doesn’t answer at first. He wants to tell me
something else.

‘Let’s go back a little to the early hours of Sunday. I was lying under
the open sky, and it was so beautiful. The snow felt warm when I
touched it. And then I realised that was not a good sign. I tried to do
various strange exercises to get warm again. Tried to be smart. But I
understood all too well that when you touch snow and it feels warm,
then something is badly wrong. It’s incredibly dangerous, and you
must not fall asleep at any cost. The stars were out and I suddenly saw
that the stars started dancing around in a ring. I thought it was a laser
show, that there was a fair going on somewhere. And then it all became
a huge angel. A gigantic angel.’

Photo: Tale Hendnes

What did it look like?

‘It had wings, just like an angel should, with a long tunic, but without
facial features. The whole sky was full of this angel. I thought now I’ve
seen a free show – that it wasn’t meant for me.’

Have you ever believed in angels?

‘I have withdrawn my membership of the state church. I did it because
I thought Christianity was so intolerant, so restrictive, so judgemental
and narrow-minded. We had a pastor who was a very poor ambassador
for the church. He also taught religion at my school, and I withdrew
my membership to annoy him. But sometimes you do seek help from
above when you want things to work out.’

Did you pray to God when you were lying on the mountain?

‘Yes, I guess I did. I had to see Sara again, I had to get home… “Dear
whoever, if you’re there…’’ But I’ve never asked for proof of a higher
power, so this was not something I had ‘ordered’. And nor did I
associate it with anything there and then.

And then Saturday became Sunday. And I shouted at the helicopter.
And they attempted to land – and I was being lashed by an icy wind.
They made several attempts, but the helicopter just descended
towards me and wasn’t able to land. And then…

As the hunter saw the helicopter disappear and return again and
again, he thought to himself ‘I can’t do this anymore. If I have to spend
one more night here I’ll die’.

But from the sky, an angel is winched down. Aslak Himle, whose
mitten waved from the helicopter window, is sitting in the helicopter.
At Timeglaset, one man’s time on earth is about to run out. He is lifted
into the air wrapped in the Jerven tarp in the nick of time. The skin
from his hands is stuck to the barrel of his gun. Mittens are placed
on his injured hands, and he is given a cup-a-soup and a blackcurrant
toddy. The last thing he sees from the air are search parties
approaching the place where he was lying from two directions, and
he just has time to think: ‘What a wonderful country this is’ before he
falls asleep.

When he wakes up, a woman is standing over him – a doctor at the
emergency department. ‘You’ve had a tough time,’ she says. ‘How so?’
he asks. ‘You smell of acetone,’ she says. You’ve been ‘eating’ yourself,
your body has been eating your own tissue’.

He has been shaking with cold for three days. It was touch and go. His
body’s core temperature is 32 Celsius degrees. He’s never tried to find
out how long he had left. His medication at Haukeland consisted of
huge plates of open sandwiches – he ate everything.

Survival, fear and constructive action. What’s in you when you
experience something like that?

‘You feel very, very small. I shouted as loudly as I could for help. No
one in the whole world heard me. I fired a number of shots up in the
air before I wrapped myself up in the tarp. I’d also stood at the edge of
the gorge – where I also fired several shots. Someone had heard those
shots, but they hadn’t worked out that they were a signal.’

Psychosis is a state of confusion when someone is exposed to stress
– your brain loses the switch point that allows you to change tracks
between reality and imagination. How close were you to becoming
psychotic?

‘In terms of the track metaphor, I had a one-track mind. My entire
focus was on not falling asleep. And keeping my fingers warm. I’m
afraid that some of the people who freeze to death in the mountains
are people who believe they can sleep through a night in the snow.
Sleep just a little. That’s not how it works. I knew that if I fell asleep,
I’d die.’

What thoughts have you had about the angel?

‘I find myself in a no-man’s land between faith and doubt. I know that
it wasn’t a real angel – or it’s maybe in precisely this type of landscape
between the extremes of life – in the interface with death – that
angels exist? We are fantastic creatures, I think that what is left of
our childhood faith perhaps resurfaces when all else is lost and we’re
about to die.’

Have you changed?

‘I don’t know. I think I thank God more often when things go well. I
recognise that life is good. Sixteen years have passed, but it still feels
so raw. I’ve never been so small. So tiny. So helpless. I tried to walk but
it was too painful. If I had set off walking, I would have died.’
Skarstein has yet to return to Timeglaset. But there is one thing he
has thought about doing. He would like to find the spot where he fired
shots into the air – to see if the used cartridge cases are still lying on
the ground.