Here's a piece I wrote for the University of Nottingham Mountaineering Club's journal this year.
For obvious reasons an accident last year, which resulted in me being helicoptered to A&E and requiring surgery, has had a lasting impression on me. But it's left its mark on others too, which is what this is about. I wanted to post it here because there were many people involved who weren't from Nottingham, in some cases complete strangers, not to mention Mountain Rescue and medical professionals. It's a little audience-specific (Showell Styles wrote a poem called The Ballad of Idwal Slabs, which former club presidents recite en masse every year at the Annual Dinner) and at the end I intended to thank those who weren't there too - that was sort of the point - but I seem to have neglected to do that. I debated rewriting it for this blog but decided that it's probably best left in its original form, not least because of comments from friends who read it.
On the 6th of March 2011 I broke two of Showell Styles’ rules: “Keep your head uppermost when you’re climbing” and “If you must fall, be on a rope.” Unfortunately I wasn’t wearing braces, cheap or otherwise – instead I broke the fall with my left eye socket. This is not the recommended position to adopt when facing a groundfall. I can testify to that, which in itself is more than a minor miracle. An inch to the left and I would have taken the full blow to the temple and I very much doubt I could joke about poor technique.
I was climbing a route called Performing Flea, an HVS arête at Froggatt Edge. I’ve climbed it dozens of times before, it’s quite short and not technically very hard. On this day a single crimp was moist, one move from the top. I’d love to blame that and stop there, leaving my own judgment intact. However, I had time to register the fact that this crimp was damp, and I certainly could have reversed on discovering this (rule number 1 of soloing, don’t do irreversible moves!) Unfortunately I decided that the hold was quite positive and I didn’t feel that high up, perhaps I would have reversed had I been further from the floor. Rule number 2 of soloing: your judgment is everything. On this occasion that judgment was poor, with potentially fatal results.
I imagine that when faced with a very real illustration of their own mortality many people experience similar emotions, in much the same way as people talk about the seven stages of grief. The first for me was mild embarrassment. People crowded around me and made a fuss and prevented me from moving. They didn’t tell me what exactly was going on. I was totally unaware that I had been unconscious for ten minutes, or that the girl kneeling by my head, who said she was from Edale Mountain Rescue Team, didn’t just happen to be passing. I was also not aware that I was bleeding profusely from a head wound, or that a helicopter was on its way. Basically, I didn’t have a clue. Mild embarrassment turned to a more complete embarrassment as more information came to the fore and I realised the situation I was in.
The second emotion was anger. Anger with myself for allowing such a stupid decision to affect my life so much. On a warm up! I didn’t focus much on the fortunate aspects. I wasn’t dead, I hadn’t broken any bones outside of my face and, in fact, the only moderately serious injury besides a broken eye socket, nose and cheek, was a badly sprained wrist. I’d been climbing so well! I was looking forward to a week in Spain and then back to back weekends in Pembroke, I was planning my summer. The sun was shining outside my hospital window. I had no idea of what my recovery time was going to be, or what my attitude would be like when I was recovered.
The third emotion was a sense of vulnerability as I reflected on what happened. My eye was very swollen and I spent a lot of my time in the following days trying, tentatively, to clean the blood off my face. I didn’t like anyone else touching my face (I still don’t – my nerves are damaged and my sensation is limited). This was probably most heightened when I waited, in isolation, for surgery to reconstruct my eye socket, and was definitely not helped by one of the first things my surgeon said when I came round. After asking me to rate my level of pain on a scale (“Considerable!”) he said he was sorry, but the operation hadn’t gone as expected and they may need a second try. “How’s the pain now?”
It took me some time to realise that I was totally missing the point. My fall caused me some inconvenience, certainly a shock and some reasonable stress in recovery (illustrated by the amount of weight I lost in the first month afterwards). All of this concern was purely selfish however. I came to realise, after speaking to friends and strangers who were there on the day, and some who weren’t, that the effect on them was far more dramatic and uncertain. In my case I knew when I came round that I was “Ok”. I wasn’t worried and I wasn’t really in any pain. I felt a bit sick and a bit stupid. But I hadn’t had to call 999 and, when asked the name of the casualty, look down to see to see my friend and have to pass the phone to someone else because of the shock. I hadn’t had to have a phone call to say my fiancé had been airlifted to hospital with a serious head injury. I hadn’t had to watch while another person had a fit, while bleeding profusely from their head. I hadn’t had to hear the thump of a body hitting the ground (funnily enough, I don’t remember that bit). I didn’t try to sleep fitfully at home with my other half in hospital being checked on every hour. Basically, I missed almost of all of the parts which would be in the trailer to the film and, realistically, all of the parts which really mattered.
So, thanks to those of you who were there on the day, whether you called the emergency services, kept me warm, asked me the same questions over and over even though I started to get annoyed, drove Jes to hospital, removed my car from a notorious break-in spot, came to meet the helicopter at the hospital or sent me letters and things to do while I was recovering. It's great to know you've got back up.