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Book of the month: The Games Climbers Play

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

This month, we thought we’d bring you something cheery to put you in a positive frame of mind for the year ahead. But then we came across a delightfully morbid chapter from The Games Climbers Play, called ‘Falling’ by Mike Quigley.

Mike observes a disparity between the way a person facing sudden death is represented on film – we’ve come to expect victims to scream hysterically while they helplessly await their impending doom – and the calm, logical acceptance or life-saving strategising that a person undergoes in reality. Here he brings us some scientific evidence, of which little can be found, of the emotions a person goes through when facing death without warning.

What would your innermost feelings be if confronted by imminent death? What is it like to fall off a cliff, or to be struck by bullets in wartime?

Through the years much has been discussed in literature, in biographical experiences and in story-telling about these intensely personal experiences. Yet little has been done within the scientific community to explain, for the benefit of self understanding, what it is like to face death, suddenly and without warning.

The entertainment industry has traditionally portrayed luckless catastrophe victims as undergoing their final moments on earth in screams of anguish, fear and desperation. We have come to accept this as a normal reaction to mortal incidents.

What really happens, in most cases, is just the opposite.

One of the few and perhaps most objective and thorough studies on actual near-death experiences took place before the turn of the century by a noted Swiss geologist, Albert von St Gallen Heim. His findings were reported in a 3800-word treatise entitled Notizem uber dem Tod durch Absturz (Remarks on Fatal Falls), which was published in the Yearbook of the Swiss Alpine Club in 1892.

Heim’s research remains a basis from which further studies of this phenomena have begun.

Heim gathered his material from experiences of survivors of falls in the Alps. These he compared with the experiences of other catastrophe survivors such as soldiers wounded in battle, drowning victims, survivors of railroad accidents and persons who survived death while performing their jobs.

He concluded from his research that all final experiences are nearly the same irrespective of the type of catastrophe faced by the victim. He wrote:

In nearly 95 percent of the victims there occurred, independent of the degree of education, thoroughly similar phenomena experienced with only slight differences. In practically all individuals who faced death through accidental falls a similar mental state developed. It represented quite a different state than that experienced in the face of less suddenly occurring mortal dangers.

It may be briefly characterised by the following way: no grief was felt nor was there paralysing fright of the sort that can happen in instances of lesser danger. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain; but rather a calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundredfold velocity or intensity. The relationship of events and their probable outcomes were over-viewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning quickness in accord with accurate judgement of his situation. In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual’s past. And finally, the person falling often heard beautiful music and fell in a superbly blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets. Then consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact. And the impact was, at the most, heard but never painfully felt. Apparently hearing is the last of the senses to be extinguished.

Heim emphasised that in all instances there was no pain. Victims of falls could hear, but not feel, their bones breaking upon impact. Men struck by bullets had not felt the bullet’s entry. He attributes this phenomenon to:

Great mental excitement which causes a hypnosis that forces out pain sensations.

Shock, in present day terminology. Also, contrary to popular belief, a faller nearly always remains quiet during a fall. A scream is seldom heard and most fallers are totally conscious until the moment of violent impact. Another phenomenon reported was the often superhuman and methodical attempts to save oneself, even by children as young as two years old. Heim presented an accident involving himself as an example of how precise and logical mental planning takes place within a time span of a few seconds:

In the summer of 1881 I fell between the front and rear wheels of a wagon travelling between Aosta and St. Remy and, for a fleeting moment, I was still able to hold on the edge of the wagon. The following series of thoughts went through my mind:

I cannot manage to hold on until the horse comes to a stop. I must let go. I will fall on my back and the wheel will be unavoidable. I must fall upon my stomach and the wheel will pass over the backs of my legs. If I will tense the muscles, they will be a protective cushion for the bones. The pressure of the street will be somewhat less likely to break a bone than the pressure of the wheel. If I am able to turn myself to the left, then perhaps I can sufficiently draw back my left leg. On the other hand, turning to the right would, by the dimensions of the wagon, result in both legs being broken under it.

Thereupon, through a jerk of my arm, I turned myself to the left, swung my left leg powerfully outward and simultaneously tensed my leg muscles to the limit of their strength. The wheel passed over my right ham, and I came out of it with a slight bruise.

I know quite clearly that I let myself fall only after these lightning fast, wholly precise reflections, which seemed to imprint themselves upon my brain.

In one case, an eight-year-old child who plunged off a precipitous seventy-foot cliff thought only about whether he might lose the pocket knife that his father had given him as a present. A climber who fell from the Karpfstock, and survived, reported that during his fall he objectively surveyed his situation, the future of his family and the arrangements which he had provided for their security ‘with a rapidity of which I had never before been capable’. 

Heim avoided attempting to explain the results of his findings and, instead, offered them as a consolation to the families of accident victims. One of his greatest satisfactions was when he imparted his observations to a mother whose two sons had recently lost their lives in falls. He wrote:

They fell in a blue and roseate, magnificent heaven. Then everything was suddenly still. Unconsciousness occurred suddenly and without agony, and in this condition a few seconds and a millennium are just as long and just as short.

My words were a comfort to her… then she knew that death for them had been very pleasant.

from OFF BELAY October 1975

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