Saturday the 24th of August started overcast and sullen in the Norwegian village where I was staying a few years ago, but there was promise of fine weather later in the day. I could start my climb early, through the low-lying orchards and woods, and by noon, I reckoned, reach the top of the mountain. By then, perhaps, the weather would have cleared, and there would be a magnificent view from the summit—the lower mountains all around me, sweeping down into Hardanger fiord, and the great fiord itself visible in its entirety. “Climb” suggests scaling rocks, and ropes. But it was not that sort of climb, simply a steep mountain path. I foresaw no particular problems or difficulties. I was as strong as a bull, in the prime, the pride, the high noon of life. I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.
I soon got into my stride—a supple swinging stride, which covers ground fast. I had started before dawn, and by half past seven had ascended, perhaps, to two thousand feet. Already the early mists were beginning to clear. Now came a dark and piney wood, where the going was slower, partly because of knotted roots in the path and partly because I was enchanted by the world of tiny vegetation which sheltered in the wood, and was often stopping to examine a new fern, a moss, a lichen. Even so, I was through the woods by a little after nine, and had come to the great cone that formed the mountain proper and towered above the fiord to six thousand feet. To my surprise there was a fence and a gate at this point, and the gate bore a still more surprising notice: BEWARE OF THE BULL! in Norwegian, and for those who might not be able to read the words, a rather droll picture of a man being tossed.
I stopped, and scrutinized the picture and scratched my head. A bull? Up here? What would a bull be doing up here? I had not seen even sheep in the pastures and farms down below. Perhaps it was some sort of joke, tacked there by the villagers, or by some previous hiker with an odd sense of humor. Or perhaps there was a bull, summering amid a vast mountain pasture, subsisting on the spare grass and scrubby vegetation. Well, enough of speculation! Onward to the top!
The terrain had changed again. It was now very stony, with enormous boulders here and there; but there was also a light topsoil, muddy in places because it had rained in the night, but with plenty of grass and a few scanty shrubs—fodder enough for an animal that had the whole mountain to graze.
The path was much steeper and fairly well marked, though, I felt, not much used. It was not exactly a populous part of the world. I had seen no visitors apart from myself, and the villagers, I imagined, were too busy with farming and fishing, and other activities, to go jaunting up the local mountains. All the better. I had the mountain to myself. Onward, upward—though I could not see the top, but I had already ascended, I judged, three thousand feet, and if the path ahead was simply steep, but not tricky, I could make the top by noon, as I had planned.
And so I forged ahead, keeping up a brisk pace despite the gradient, blessing my energy and stamina, and especially my strong legs, trained by years of hard exercise and hard lifting in the gym. Strong quadriceps muscles in the thighs, strong body, good wind, good stamina—I was grateful to Nature for endowing me well. And if I drove myself to feats of strength, and long swims, and long climbs, it was a way of saying “Thank you” to Nature and using to the full the good body she had given me.
Around eleven o’clock, when the shifting mists allowed, I had my first glimpses of the mountain top—not so far above me. I would make it by noon. There was still a light mist clinging here and there, sometimes shrouding the boulders so that they were difficult to make out. Occasionally a boulder, half seen through the mist, looked almost like a vast crouching animal, and would reveal its true nature only when I came closer. There were ambiguous moments when I would stop in uncertainty, while I descried the shrouded shapes before me…. But when it happened, it was not at all ambiguous!
The real Reality was not such a moment, not touched in the least by ambiguity or illusion. I had, indeed, just emerged from the mist, and was walking around a boulder as big as a house, the path curving around it so that I could not see ahead, and it was this inability to see ahead that permitted the meeting. I practically trod on what lay before me—an enormous animal sitting in the path, and indeed wholly occupying the path, whose presence had been hidden by the rounded bulk of the rock. It had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body, and an enormous, mild, milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up toward me. And in that moment it changed before my eyes, becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous. The huge white face seemed to swell and swell, and the great bulbous eyes became radiant with malignance. The face grew huger and huger all the time, until I thought it would blot out the universe. The bull became hideous—hideous beyond belief, hideous in strength, malevolence, and cunning. It seemed now to be stamped with the infernal in every feature. It became, first a monster, and now the Devil.
I retained my composure, or a semblance of composure, for a minute in which, perfectly “naturally,” as if turning about at the end of a stroll, I swung in mid-stride through 180 degrees, and deftly, daintily, began my descent. But then—oh horrible!—my nerve suddenly broke, dread overwhelmed me, and I ran for dear life—ran madly, blindly, down the steep, muddy, slippery path, lost here and there in patches of mist. Blind, mad panic!—there is nothing worse in the world, nothing worse—and nothing more dangerous.
I cannot say exactly what happened. In my plunging flight down the treacherous path I must have misstepped—stepped on to a loose rock, or into mid-air. It is as if there is a moment missing from my memory—there is “before” and “after,” but no “in-between.” One moment I was running like a madman, conscious of heavy panting and heavy thudding footsteps, unsure whether they came from the bull or from me, and the next I was lying at the bottom of a short sharp cliff of rock, with my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me and in my knee such a pain as I had never, ever known before. To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next—such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations.
I had encountered this phenomenon in others—in my patients who had been suddenly stricken or injured, and now I was to encounter it in myself. My first thought was this: that there had been an accident, and that someone I knew had been seriously injured. Later, it dawned on me that the victim was myself; but with this came the feeling that it was not really serious. To show that it was not serious, I got to my feet, or rather I tried to, but I collapsed in the process, because the left leg was completely limp and floppy, and gave way beneath me like a piece of spaghetti. It could not support any weight at all, but just buckled beneath me, buckled backward at the knee, making me yell with pain. But it was much less the pain that so horribly frightened me than the flimsy, toneless giving-way of the knee and my absolute impotence to prevent or control it—and the apparent paralysis of the leg. And then, the horror, so overwhelming for a moment, disappeared in face of a “professional attitude.”
“OK, Doctor,” I said to myself. “Would you kindly examine the leg?”
Very professionally, and impersonally, and not at all tenderly, as if I were a surgeon examining “a case,” I took the leg and examined it—feeling it, moving it this way and that. I murmured my findings aloud as I did so, as if for a class of students: “No movement at the knee, gentlemen, no movement at the hip…. You will observe that the entire quadriceps has been torn from the patella. But though it has torn loose, it has not retracted—it is wholly toneless, which might suggest nerve injury as well. The patella has lost its major attachment, and can be flipped around—so!—like a ballbearing. It is readily dislocated—there is nothing to hold it.
“As for the knee itself”—and here I illustrated each point as I made it—“we find abnormal motility, a quite pathological range of motion. It can be flexed without any resistance at all”—here I manually flexed the heel to the buttock—“and can also be hyperextended, with apparent dislocation.” Both movements, which I illustrated, caused me to scream. “Yes, gentlemen,” I concluded, summarizing my findings, “a fascinating case! A complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon. Muscle paralyzed and atonic—probably nerve injury. Unstable knee joint—seems to dislocate backward. Probably ripped out the cruciate ligaments. Can’t really tell about bone injury—but there could easily be one or more fractures. Considerable swelling, probably tissue and joint fluid, but tearing of blood vessels can’t be excluded.”
I turned with a pleased smile to my invisible audience, as if awaiting a round of applause. And then, suddenly, the “professional” attitude and persona broke down, and I realized that this “fascinating case” was me—me myself, fearfully disabled, and quite likely to die. The leg was utterly useless—far more so than if it had been broken. I was entirely alone, near the top of a mountain, in a desolate and sparsely populated part of the world. My whereabouts were known to nobody. This frightened me more than anything else. I could die where I lay, and nobody would know it.
Never had I felt so alone, so lost, so forlorn, so utterly beyond the pale of help. It hadn’t occurred to me until then how terrifyingly and seriously alone I was. I had not felt “alone” when I was romping up the mountain (I never do when I am enjoying myself). I had not felt alone when I was examining my injury (I saw now what a comfort the imagined “class” was). But now, all of a sudden, the fearful sense of my aloneness rushed in upon me. I remembered that someone had told me, a few days before, of “a fool of an Englishman” who had climbed this very mountain, alone, two years before, and had been found a week later dead from exposure, having broken both his legs. It was at an altitude, and latitude, where the temperature sinks well below freezing at night, even in August. I had to be found by nightfall or I should never survive. I had to get lower, if I possibly could, because then at least there was a chance of my being seen. I even entertained hopes, now I came to consider things, that I might be able to descend the entire mountain, with a bum leg, by myself; and it was not until much later that I realized how this, above all, was a comforting delusion. Yet if I pulled myself together, did what I could, there was a sporting chance that I would make it yet.