It was dark when the verger walked home, through the graveyard. But he wasn’t afraid. Of his many jobs in assisting with the church’s ceremonies, one was helping bear the coffins of the dead parishioners. He helped bury one today – a young expectant mother. There, walking alone among the tombstones at night, he had nothing to fear, until he heard the screams.
Joe Simpson tries to find a way down the ice-covered cliff. There’s a crack and he’s falling, falling, falling and whacks into a ledge. His shin bone is driven through his knee. Joe knows he’s screwed. He’s young, but experienced enough to know a broken leg means he can’t climb down. Nobody is coming. It would be days before Simon could get down and return with help, if he could find any. He’s dead. This is how it ends.
It was a girl’s voice faintly crying, screaming really, for her mother, for God, for anyone. The verger ran like hell from the church and dove under his covers at home for a terrible, sleepless night. The next morning he told the minister about the ghostly voice he had heard in the dark.
It’s 1985; Joe and Simon are in the middle of the Peruvian Andes attempting a first ascent on the west face of Siula Grande. They summitted successfully, putting up a first ascent. It is on their descent that Joe falls and breaks his leg. They are miles from help, even if they could get down.
The minister shot out of the church grabbing a shovel as he went. He dug down to the coffin. They cracked it open and found the pretty young woman with her clothes torn, her fingers bloodied with nails embedded in the scratch marks on the inside of the coffin, dead. And there next to her lay the baby, also dead, she had borne right there in the coffin after she had awoken to find she had been buried alive.
Simon reaches Joe, sees the leg, and immediate thinks “You’re screwed matey.” He’s knows the score. Simon knows Joe knows the score. Neither speak. Neither climber will say the obvious. Simon is guiltily wishing Joe would have just died. Not heroic thoughts, just human thoughts. Simon, who has frostbite himself, is stuck with living Joe. Two hours go by. Simon’s thinks there might be a way to lower Joe by himself down the mountain. Who knows? With a little luck …
There are scores of horrifying stories about people being accidentally buried alive in the 18th and 19th centuries. Stories that kept them awake at night. This is what terrified them; You get sick and sleep, like sick people do. While you’re sleeping, a doctor pronounces you dead when you are not.
You wake up. Eyes open, eyes shut, it doesn’t matter. There is not light. You quickly realize you’re in a tight wooden box. You are seized with panic because you immediately know what has happened. You’ve been buried alive. It’s happened to others. Now it’s happened to you. All you can do is claw at the boards until the oxygen runs out or the dirt fills in.
The rope plays out as Joe slides, stops, anchors himself, and Simon climbs down to him. Simon anchors himself and repeat. It’s slow going. Night and a storm are moving in, but the two keep going. Can’t stop. They’re making progress and Joe thinks he may not die. Simon thinks he may not die. But then, Joe is sliding faster. His ice ax won’t bite into the hardened snow to slow him down. “What the hell?” wonders Simon who can’t see in the dark and can’t slow the rope with his wooden frostbit hands. There’s a terrific and violent jerk but the ice screw holds the belay. The rope is as taught as a guitar string.
Joe has gone over a cliff and is dangling in midair. They are two lengths of 150-ft rope apart, a football field of rising storm. Their shouts to each other can’t begin to penetrate the wind at that distance. They’re confused and each waits for the other to do something. “What is Simon doing?” Joe wonders. “What is Joe doing?” Simon wonders. Joe is hanging on. Simon is hanging on. The storm is raging on.
The cruelty of being given up for dead is unimaginable. A butcher in London is interred when his heartbeat grew too faint to hear. His shouts from under the ground could be heard however, and his family dug him up but not in time. His skull is shattered from trying to break through the boards.
Simon’s anchor is crumbling in the storm. He doesn’t have the strength or grip to pull up Joe. All he can do is hang on and wait for Joe to figure it out. Joe is hanging with a useless leg and blinding pain. He tries to climb the rope but can’t get enough grip on the icy rope to pull himself up using just his arms. All he can do is hang on and wait for Simon to figure it out.
And there’s the story about the young man who buried his wife and is approached afterwards by a stranger who said she’d witnessed his wife once having a seizure. At that time everyone thought she had died too until she sat up in bed. The young man dashes to the cemetery demanding his wife’s immediate exhumation.
The belay anchor is crumbling beneath Simon from the weight of Joe. Soon Simon will be tumbling down the slope after Joe and over the same cliff. Simon begins to slide. His own death won’t save Joe. On an impulse he bites off a glove, gets out his knife and cuts the rope.
She is dead, but from fresh wounds. She’d torn out her hair and gnawed off two of her fingers in her confusion and panic that comes from finding yourself in a small lightless box in the ground. No doubt she’d heard the stories of others, her own too, and was fully aware she’d been buried.
Joe feels the rope slipping and knows Simon is being pulled off the mountain. Then he’s falling, falling, falling. The anchor has failed. “This is it” he thinks.
Joe hits hard. It’s ice and by the lack of wind and storm he knows he landed in a crevasse on a small ice bridge. He takes out an ice screw and anchors himself. Hysterical laughing. Joe has a glimmer of hope, just a glimmer. If Simon fell over the cliff too then he must have landed in the snow. Survived. Maybe he could rig a pulley system used for crevasse rescue and pull Joe up. Joe pulls in the rope hoping to give it a tug to let Simon know he is alive. He finds the evenly frayed end of a cut rope, and cries himself to sleep.
Simon holds up the cut rope. He killed Joe. He doesn’t feel guilty. He just feels … empty. He digs a snow cave and doesn’t sleep.
And so they were afraid, and their fears were justified because this really happened – a lot actually. Studies from doctors, grave diggers and undertakers suggest that somewhere between two and ten percent of “dead” people back then in fact weren’t.
In the morning, Joe shouts and shouts for Simon. No answer, just echoes. He is alone, given up on, dead and buried. There is only one thing he can do – keep going down. He untangles the rope, rechecks the anchor and abseils into the darkness.
Doctors did the best with what they had to work with, but remember, they didn’t have EKG’s or EEG’s. They didn’t know what a coma looked like, a seizure, a reversible vegetative state, or even an opium stupor for that matter. The first stethoscope didn’t arrive in this world until 1816 in France and that was just a wooden tube.
Devastated, the next morning Simon resumes his descent expecting to also die. In the clear sky he easily spots the cliff and skirts around it. He sees the crevasse. Horrified, he shouts for Joe. No reply. It’s dark and Simon is relieved he can’t see Joe’s body. What will he tell people?
In the 17th century, collapse and apparent death were not uncommon during epidemics of plague, cholera, and smallpox. British businessman and premature-burial-phobic, William Tebb, compiled 219 instances of narrow escape from premature burial, 149 cases of real premature burial, 10 cases where bodies were accidentally dissected before death, and 2 cases where embalming began on the not-yet-dead.
Joe reaches the end of his rope. He plucks up courage to shine his light down. The bottom is 15 ft away. Off to the side there is a beam of sunlight. If he could drop to the floor maybe he could climb up and out of the crevasse. He falls again, lands again. It’s not the bottom, but another ice shelf.
Part of the problem was that nobody knew when exactly death did occur. It was a controversial subject. No detectable heartbeat? No movement of a candle flame near the mouth? Cool to the touch? Laying still for 1,2, 3 days or more? Jan Bonderson, author of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear writes, “The huge modern textbooks on forensic medicine… choose to ignore the fact that less than 150 years ago many medical practitioners freely admitted to being uncertain whether their patients were dead or alive.”
Joe crawls towards the light and can see down through the ice. It is very thin and he expects it to break from his weight. It doesn’t. Injured, it takes him 5 hours to do what he could have normally done in 10 minutes. He emerges from the icy tomb and is blinded by the brightness. He immediately begins to worry about the 6 mile descent back to base camp. He looks down the glacier strewn with crevasses and wants to give up.
Bonderson explains that the fear of accidentally being buried alive reverberated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the United States, and even continued into the 20th century. Hundreds of stories about people being discovered buried alive circulated in medical journals, literature (from the medieval Decameron to Edgar Allan Poe) as well as in popular lore.
An inner voice tells him to “go just a little further”. He can do that much. Joe crawls a bit and comes across tracks. Simon’s tracks. He can follow them back to camp. Delirious with pain, exhaustion, lack of food and water, he just wants to stop. The voice tells him not yet, “ just a little further.”
He makes it off the glacier but loses Simon’s tracks in the fading light and another approaching storm. Joe digs a snow hole and buries himself for a night repeatedly interrupted by fevered dreams.
Christians, of all people, seemed to have had a certain morbid intolerance for those buried alive. In the 6th century, a monk of The Order of St. Columba, Oran by name, was dug up the day after his burial and found alive. When he told his fellows he had seen heaven and hell, he was promptly dispatched and buried a second time on the grounds of heresy.
Joe comes out of his hole the next morning. The white landscape depresses him. Including their time on the mountain, he has now been two days and three nights without food and water. He crawls but repeatedly passes out. The voice wakes him, urging him on.
Meanwhile, Simon is back at base camp. He has painfully explained to Richard, who stayed behind, what has happened. He wants to pack up and leave this place, but he needs strength. A day or two of rest. He doesn’t want to face people. They’ll leave then.
In the 13th century, Thomas a Kempis author of the great devotional work The Imitation of Christ, was refused sainthood on the grounds that when they dug up his body to see if he had sullied, they found scratch marks on the lid of his coffin and concluded that he was not humbly reconciled to his fate.
Joe makes a splint out of his sleeping matt. Hop, hop, fall, pain … hop, hop, fall, pain … like a child’s game gone horribly wrong. A trickle of water is running down a rock. He slurps and slurps. He hops with fewer falls. He doesn’t think about the miles left to camp. The voice tells him he just needs to “get to that rock just ahead.” He does. He rests. The voice then tells him he just needs to “get to that next rock over there.” He does.
While visiting Edisto Island, South Carolina 1852, a young girl contracted diphtheria and died. To avoid spread of the disease, she was quickly interred in a concrete sarcophagus inside a local family’s mausoleum. Ten years later the family loses a son to the Civil War and his body is returned home. They open up the tomb to lay their son’s remains to rest and find the first coffin lid slid ajar and a small skeleton collapsed just inside the locked door.
Simon is facing his own struggle. Richard is telling him it is time to pack up and leave. He can’t go home and face people. What could he possibly say to Joe’s family? He had cut the rope. Not today. Tomorrow they would leave, first thing.
While working on this story I had an MRI to check on things from my mountain biking crash. I’m in a tube with absolutely no room to even squirm. There is light, but I have to keep my eyes shut or I’m afraid I’ll panic. I’m listening to music, but all I can think about is being buried alive; imagining waking up in this thing in absolute darkness.
After 36 minutes, the assistant hauls me out and asks me how it went. I tell her of the piece I’m writing and what I was thinking. “What is wrong with you?” she asks.
Joe begins to despair. What if Simon and Richard were gone? This is the third day since Simon cut the rope. There is no reason to stay. Night comes again but Joe cannot stop. Somehow he continues on hopping, falling, crawling, passing out, but getting up again, and again, and again, and again…
The worst living nightmare is being written off, given up on, buried prematurely, buried alive. Nobody wants to be discarded as no longer relative or useful, but we do it to each other anyway. People can be unrelentingly brutal.
Joe smells something awful in the dark hours of early morning. It’s the area they’ve used for a latrine. Camp is near. He drags himself through the rocky field to a small rise. Camp is on the other side. Or is it? He just can’t … go … on. He can’t find that the camp is gone. There is no voice urging him forward. Joe cries Simon’s name into the night, over and over and over.
There are redemptions, new births, emancipations, pardons, prodigal returns, and reunions. If even from a distance, past the necessary border walls we sometimes must build and maintain, if there is any spark of life at all worth saving, it just might be your own.
Suddenly Simon is there cradling him. “I cut the rope,” he sobs. And there, withered, broken and traumatized in that stinking barren and hopeless pile of rocks where Death itself reigns but is now reversed, Joe says, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
You can read more by Doug at intothewilderness.net