The sun was shining and the atmosphere was good as a tour group set out from the top of Nybyen in Longyeardalen on Sunday, April 6. The nine were planning to go up on Nordenskiöldtoppen. On the way up the ridge the party elected to split in half and meet at the top, since three were skiers and the rest were on foot. The group with Stefan Schöttl went right. He had one friend to his left and one five to six meters behind when the idle suddenly became drama.
"I went on the snow and suddenly a hole opened itself," the geology student from Graz, Austria, said. "I remember it was a long fall. In the first part it was a free fall."
Protected self in the fall
Svalbardposten was the only Norwegian newspaper to interview Schöttl after the dramatic journey. He agreed to the interview because he wanted to talk about the incident, and how he has related to it with fellow students and residents in Svalbard, where's Sunday's incident is being widely discussed.
It could have gone terribly wrong on the way up to the mountaintop and the 25-year-old sees in retrospect he was extremely lucky.
Within seconds of the ground disappearing beneath him he was at the bottom of a deep crevasse at the edge of the glacier. He instinctively tried to protect his head with his hands, as it was a long way down.
"The first five to ten meters was the free fall, but it got narrower and narrower," Schöttl said. "The last part I slid to the side to the crevasse."
Q: What happened after you were down?
"I was surprised. I looked up and realized that I had fallen and that it was impossible to come up."
Q: How did you react?
"At first I was scared, but eventually I became calmer. I felt no pain and I had a lot of adrenaline in my body. I think that was an important reason why I kept my calm. I was surprised at how calm I was."
The student smiles a lot as he adds details about the incident, but he's also been influenced by his life's most dramatic experience.
Sign of life
Schöttl, a student at the University of Graz, came to Longyearbyen and The University Centre in Svalbard in February in connection with a thesis. He has many years of experience hiking with or without skis, on glaciers and climbing in the Austrian Alps. The first thing he did at the bottom of the crevasse was to check that the ground he stood on and the surrounding walls were stable. The width was tens of centimeters wide and it was impossible to turn his feet around.
A short time later he heard his mobile telephone ringing and he struggled at length to get it. Mobile coverage is poor or nonexistent outside of Longyearbyen, but there was sufficient coverage where he was.
"The first call was someone from the group, but it was tight and I had no way to get my mobile telephone and answer," he said. "Eventually I got the telephone up and called back. 'Stefan, is that you?' they asked. I said 'Yes, I'm OK,' but they could not hear me. At least I gave them a sign of life from me."
Q: Did you cry out?
"I did not. It was deep and the chances the sound would carry out were small."
To get a little more space he scraped away at the snow on the sides with his hands. Ice walls emit much cold and the risk and hypothermia is great. The 25-year-old had dressed for an easy ascent to Nordenskiöldtoppen, but he now knew it would take some time before he was rescued. In his backpack he had thicker garments.
"I realized that I would be there long and put on all of my clothing to keep warm," he said. "I tried to move a little and drank a little hot tea. It was not an ideal situation."
Q: So were you sure you'd be rescued?
"That I would be rescued, I was quite certain, for a friend on the tour was behind me a few meters away and she saw it. And I'm glad that they were up there acting so well. They did everything right, remained calm and called for help. They had the emergency number on the mobile phone."
Schöttl was trapped 25 meters deep in the crevasse for about two hours. He didn't have any sense of the time as the drama unfolded, but after a while he heard the sound of a helicopter and saw the rescue operation was finally underway.
Two helicopters were used in the rescue operation. One brought his tour mates down the mountain while the crevasse operation was in progress. Down in the crevasse, Schöttl eventually saw a rescuer appear and start to lower himself down.
"When the rescue team arrived I realized that it would take more time, but that I would be back up before too long. The rescuer asked if I was OK when he lowered himself down and talked all the time to me as he brought me up. It was good to come up again."
Q: What happened then?
"I immediately got a quick check on the spot, and then we went to the helicopter and flew to the airport, where I was picked up and brought to the hospital. There I was examined and they measured my body temperature, and everything was normal."
Since Schöttl was away from home, he called Austria to tell his shocked, but relieved, parents what had happened in Svalbard.
"You think a lot about what has happened," he said, pointing out not everything is back to normal yet. The experience has made a big impression and a lot of time is used for debriefing – processing – of impressions.
On Monday he was back at UNIS to say that all was well, and he discussed and reviewed Sunday's event with the rest of the group. They have since gone out to eat, but much is different.
"It is not 'business as usual,'" he said. "I am trying to go on at UNIS and talk a lot with people. It is helpful to talk with others."
Since then Schöttl has seen video and pictures of the rescue operation. Photos taken from the helicopter show a pattern in the snow out from either side of the hole Stefan went through, but on the ground this distinction is very difficult to spot. He also said Sunday was his lucky day.
"I had good friends, we had equipment [Editor's note: mobile] that worked, there was good weather so the rescue was not prevented and I did not hurt myself in the fall," he said.
Q: Did you know that there were cracks in the area you went on?
"I knew that I was on a glacier, but I was unfamiliar with the cracks. I have tried to analyze what went wrong, that is important for me. I went too far to the right and did not follow the edge. That was the problem."
Q: Will you go back to that place?
"I'm going to continue with mountain sports and there will be more trips," said Schöttl, who offered thanks to everyone who participated in the rescue, not to mention his friends for doing a great job when the critical situation arose. "Eventually I'll probably also take a trip to see the area, but not yet."