Top tip from the mountains: let go of your hat.
We may spend much of our lives ruled by the clock (“It’s Friday morning, and I haven’t written Histories yet!”) but human perception of time is all over the place. Only this week I read an interesting article in The Atlantic about ‘subjective age’ and the gap between how old we are and how old we feel ‘inside’.And then there are the micro-level oddities of temporal perception. I came to this week’s historical account via an article about the history of ‘flow’ (to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous term for that weird state of productivity when we are so absorbed in an activity that we are unaware of the passage of time), although in fact the story in question is about the opposite type of temporal experience: that of a detailed slow-motion awareness in which objectively only seconds might have passed.
And so we come to ‘near-death experiences’ – most of us have heard accounts of strange sensations, tunnels of light and other phenomena reported by people who have come very close to dying but come back from the brink. Over the last century there have been countless studies and analyses of these – but the first systematic one dates from a short paper by a Swiss geologist and mountaineer by the name of Albert Heim (very much not to be confused with the Nazi torturer Aribert Heim).
Albert Heim (1849–1937) was born in Zürich (his father was a paper manufacturer and then a banker) and educated there and in Berlin. From a young age he was fascinated by the Alps, and this led him to become professor of geology at Zürich University in the 1870s, specialising in the structure of the mountains. He travelled across Europe for his geological studies and was even present at the 1872 eruption of Vesuvius; in 1898, he took the first scientific balloon ride over the Alps. In later life he also became an expert on Swiss mountain dogs, and campaigned against alcoholism, gambling and vivisection. Heim was respected across Europe: when he retired in 1911 his students organised a torchlit procession for him, and when he died in 1937 the UK’s Royal Society devoted five pages of its journal to his obituary.
But Heim’s love of the mountains wasn’t just academic – that obituary describes him as a “great out-of-doors geologist” with a keen eye for direct observation, and in his youth at least he was a keen climber, as our story below attests. Heim wrote more than 400 publications, and the one I bring you is not even mentioned in that obituary, yet it brought the first systematic study of near-death experiences to the world and Heim was prompted to compile it because he’d had one himself.
Heim began to collect stories from survivors of accidents, and on 26th February 1892 he presented his findings to the Swiss Alpine Club in Zürich; shortly thereafter these were published in the club’s Yearbook as ‘Notizen über den Tod durch Absturz’ (‘Notes on Death by Falling’).Heim’s paper notes:
I do not intend to present a series of horror stories and describe their misery, nor to give an account of accidents of this kind. Rather, let us focus on studying a horrific event scientifically… I would like to highlight only one point of high interest. That is the question: what are the sensations of someone suddenly suffering from a fatal accident in their last moments of life? People often have terrible ideas about this, imagining the utmost despair, the greatest pain, and the most terrible agony, and try to read expressions of fear on the faces of the dead. But it’s not like that!
He goes on to quote from the accounts he had collected, mostly from Switzerland (he observes “many reports of those who have fallen sound very similar”), then follows these with his own story, which occurred in 1871. Of course, we might have to make allowances for this being recalled two decades later, but his keen eye of observation was undiminished throughout his long life. (Despite his early brush with death, he was 88 when he died.)
In 1871, as a group of good mountain climbers, we descended from the Blauen Schnee on the Säntis [Switzerland’s 12th highest mountain – six countries can be seen from the top] towards the Seealp while there was still quite a bit of snow. I was leading the way. We arrived above the Fehlalp at about 1800 metres [5900 feet] to the upper edge of a steep snow couloir [a steep, narrow gully] that ran diagonally between two rock peaks… The others hesitated, but I immediately started to ski down standing up. Things went very fast. A gust of wind wanted to take my hat off. Instead of letting it go, I made the mistake of trying to hold onto it quickly. This movement caused me to fall. I couldn’t control my fall anymore. I quickly headed towards the left rock peak, bounced off the rock edge, then slid on my back with my head downwards over the rock and finally flew about 20 metres [66 feet] freely through the air until I lay on the snow edge under the wall.
As soon as I fell, I realized that I would now be thrown against the rock and awaited the impact. I dug my claws into the snow to slow down, tearing all my fingertips bloody without feeling any pain. I heard the exact sound of my head and back hitting every corner of the rock, and I heard the dull thud when I hit the bottom. However, I did not feel pain until about an hour later. During the fall, a flood of thoughts occurred. What I thought and felt in five to ten seconds cannot be told in ten times more minutes. All thoughts and images were connected and very clear, not at all dreamily blurred. At first, I considered the possibilities of my fate and said to myself: “The rock head over which I will be thrown next obviously falls as a steep wall below, as it concealed the ground below from my view. It now depends entirely on whether there is still snow under the rock wall. If this is the case, the snow will have melted off the wall and formed a ledge. If I fall onto the snow ledge, I can survive, but if there is no more snow below, I will undoubtedly fall into rubble at this precipitous speed, and then death is completely inevitable. If I am not dead or unconscious at the bottom, I must immediately reach for the small bottle of ether vinegar that I did not store in my backpack first-aid kit but only put in my vest pocket when I left the Säntis, and take a few drops on my tongue. I don’t want to let go of my stick; maybe it can still help me.”
I held onto my Alpenstock tightly. I thought about taking off my glasses and throwing them away so that their splinters wouldn’t hurt my eyes, but I was thrown and tossed around so much that I couldn’t control my hand movements for this. Another group of thoughts and ideas concerned the consequences of my fall for those left behind. I told myself that when I reached the bottom, indifferent to whether I was seriously injured or not, I must, if possible, immediately shout with all my might, “It didn’t hurt me at all!” so that my companions, including my brother and three friends, could muster the courage to make the fairly difficult descent to me. I thought that now I could not give my inaugural lecture as a private lecturer [his first job, at Zürich’s polytechnic], which was scheduled for five days later, in any case. I considered how the news of my death would reach my loved ones and comforted them in my thoughts. Then I saw my entire past life play out in numerous images, as if on a stage from some distance away. I saw myself as the main character. Everything was as if illuminated by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful and without pain, without fear, without torment. Even memories of very sad experiences were clear but still not sad. No struggle or strife: even the struggle had become love. Sublime and reconciling thoughts dominated and connected the individual images, and a divine calm flowed through my soul like glorious music. More and more a beautiful blue sky with rosy and especially delicate violet clouds surrounded me, and I floated painlessly and gently into it, while I saw that I was now flying freely through the air, and that a snowfield was still below me. Objective observation, thinking and subjective feeling were all happening simultaneously. Then I heard my dull impact, and my fall was over.
At that moment, a black object seemed to dart past my eyes, and I shouted with all my might three or four times in a row, “I’m not hurt!” I took some of the vinegar ether, I grabbed my glasses, which were undamaged next to me in the snow, and I felt my back and limbs to confirm that I hadn’t broken any bones.
I saw my companions slowly chopping step by step in the snowy couloir, already close behind the rocky peak over which I had flown. I couldn’t understand how they had caught up so quickly. They told me that I had not answered for half an hour. From this, I realized that I had lost consciousness upon impact. This meant that half an hour of sensory, emotional and cognitive activity had been cut out. The black object was the disappearance of consciousness, which apparently occurred for the eye a fraction of a second later than for the perceiving brain. And without noticing the interruption itself, my thoughts and actions continued exactly where they had been interrupted. In between was an absolute subjective nothingness. The beautiful heavenly visions, however, were only felt as long as I was still flying through the air and able to see and think. With the loss of consciousness upon impact, they too were suddenly wiped away and not continued afterward.
Still, I was able to walk after my friend Andreas Anton Dörig helped me to my feet. The crushing pain in my back and headache made me cry out at times, until I lay on the Meglisalp, wrapped in ice packs. Nevertheless, I gave my inaugural lecture at the predetermined time.
Certainly, for the subjective momentary feeling and memory, it is incomparably more painful to see someone else fall than to fall oneself. Countless accounts testify to this. Often, spectators are so paralyzed with fright that they tremble in body and soul, or even suffer lasting harm from the shock, while the fallen person, if not seriously injured, has overcome the fright and pain… I must even testify that the memory of a cow falling still haunts me uncomfortably at times, while my own accidents are inscribed in memory in pleasant transfiguration – without pain or suffering, just as they were actually felt.
[Heim ultimately concludes that (as long as it is quick) “death by falling is a beautiful death”. A comfort, perhaps, for those left behind – but certainly not a recommendation.]
The original German article is here. It was first translated into English by Roy Kletti and introduced by Russell Noyes in their article ‘The experience of dying from falls’. This was published in OMEGA – The Journal of Death and Dying in 1972, as well as being collected in Death, Dying, Transcending: Views from Many Cultures (ed. R.A. Kalish, Routledge, 2019). As this translation is in copyright I have used AI-powered machine translation to provide the English text here, with my own minor editing.