Should I write this? Will I share it and have it appear online? I don’t know! If you are reading this, then I guess I decided to go ahead. It does have the blessing of those involved…
I’ve read many stories of incidents and accidents in the mountains and at the crag, some with amazingly fortunate outcomes. Some, sadly not. Stories of recovery and charting the return to a sport they still love. Accidents happen. Some may have been avoidable, whilst some were just really unlucky. I have been involved in the care of a climber who suffered a bad fall in Froggatt some years ago, until Edale Mountain Rescue team and the helicopter could arrive. Wonderful people! I didn’t see the accident happen, and I didn’t know him. Working within various climbing wall settings, I have been the first aider dealing with breaks, dislocations and sprains.
I don’t consider pursuing the sport as reckless. I feel it is an endorsement of being alive. Living. Nothing is without risk. As I have mentioned in my previous article, I appreciate the beautiful places where climbing takes me and I get to explore. I have twin daughters, now young women, but I’ve been climbing since they were little. I’ve been blessed to have had support for my pursuit from a wisely philosophical and calm family. Of course, they have seen me take Mountain Training qualifications and First Aid courses, and so comfort themselves by saying, ‘she knows what she is doing’. Admittedly, I have desensitised them over the years, mostly from my 10 years as a police officer, and more often than not, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or should that be the right place at the right time, when your role is to protect life and limb?! My Commendation for bravery was received for ‘risking her own life…’.
Over the summer of 2013, I spent most of my time Sport climbing, rather than Trad. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Just circumstance and availability or preferences expressed by friends. There was one Trad day that sticks out from that summer, when I travelled up to the Peak to rendezvous with a friend as he sought to consolidate his ‘E3’ climbing ability. On one particular route, I was aware that any fall from him would result in a ground fall. Partly, because his first bit of protection didn’t occur until several meters off the ground, but that the subsequent run-out above that point was almost the same height again. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. His choice, of course…but as the belayer, I would be the one who would have the trauma of having to deal with any accident. I’m lucky that he didn’t fall, but his minutes of shouting and swearing gave me no comfort.
Spring 2014, saw me making a concerted effort to switch the ratio back to more Trad and less Sport. I love multi-pitch Trad climbing and have a couple of reliable, sensible, experienced friends with whom I would go. My regular Trad partner is a coffee-drinking American. Over the last 4 years, he climbed with me to consolidate my qualifications, enter competitions, and drink more coffee! We’ve had ‘exciting’ moments, and discovered that we both have a tendency to sing or hum when the moves become challenging or gear a bit sparse. That’s a secret, of course!
I knew he and his wife were moving this autumn to follow their dream of a life in Cornwall, so I had an agenda of outdoor days in the diary before he left. His wife has always welcomed us back from a climbing day outside, clearly relieved that all has gone well. I remember him once saying, that he felt that I was at a disadvantage as he hadn’t taken any skills courses in the event of anything happening to me. He may not have had any formal climbing qualifications, or first aid, but I knew he had oodles of common sense and a calm nature. Once, having ‘donated’ his belay device to the sea whilst getting ready to bring me up as the second, I reached the top of my climb to see an improvised scenario befitting of any SPA assessment.
And so, on a gorgeous day in June we were back out again on the rock for an anticipated day of sunshine, coffee, and climbing! We were to be a three on this day. I have never climbed in uneven numbers whilst multi-pitching, but didn’t object as the company would be good and I wanted to use my ‘guide plate’. We chose to go to Avon Gorge to reduce the drive and walk-in time, with a lunchtime plan to sit on Lunchtime Ledge where we could watch the river and road down below!
With one multi-pitch ticked off, an abseil back to ground level, and we were ready to get going again. It was my turn to belay on our colourful half ropes, and it was a chance for the American to combine the first two pitches to Lunchtime Ledge. I had climbed this route a few weeks before with our companion. A nice, mostly ‘slabby’ ‘VS’, well within his capabilities. He set off on the warm limestone, scanning the rock for placements for his protection. His ropes ran parallel with evenly, alternating gear placements, until he disappeared out of sight via an overhang and onto a delicate slab. Several minutes passed.
Looking up, I catch my first glimpse of him coming into view and taking flight over that same roof that he climbed through about 10 minutes earlier. I was perplexed. Why couldn’t I feel his weight on my ropes? There wasn’t any excess slack in the rope at my end. With a sickening thud, he made his first impact on a ledge beneath that roof. From the sound and the impact of his helmet, and the groan of expelled breath, I knew this was very bad. It may seem strange to recall everything as if it was in slow motion, but it is how my mind’s eye replays it still. I don’t remember our companion reaching to touch the live ropes coming from my belay plate, but who did so through the same confusion that I was experiencing.
What had gone wrong? Why couldn’t the ropes kick into action? Would I even get the chance to arrest his fall, or would he land beside us? Those thoughts consumed me, as abhorrent as the sounds of repeated impact from his helmet and his body against the rock. The ledges and protruding rock on what was an otherwise slightly inward leaning rock-face seemed to grab him, before catapulting him off into flight once more. I clearly remember thinking that if his weight was ever going to come on to my ropes that I would have to lock-off and hold them hard, resisting a force like I would never have experienced before. Already narrow and slick half-ropes through my standard belay device would become stretched and thinner still; striking the balance between halting his fall, and not overly shocking (and failing) any protection in the system.
And, then it happened. The full force of a 20 meter plus fall came on to the ropes. I gripped them as hard as I could, feeling them stretch and slip a little as his body caused them to equalise between the last pieces of gear to hold on each half rope. With the stretch from those dynamic ropes, he slithered to a halt against the rock about 10 meters from the ground. Suspended, upside down, silent and motionless.
All three of us are blessed with calm, methodical heads. I know this for a fact now. I tried to push the feeling in my chest and stomach away, or my mind questioning whether I had just watched one of my close friends fall to his death. I lowered myself back the few feet that I had been propelled into the air as a consequence of catching his fall. Calling out to him; hoping and praying for a response or some sign that he was breathing. If he wasn’t, I knew that I would have to risk further injury to him and lower him the remaining meters to the ground. Such movement could paralyse him. All the First Aid training says not to move a casualty where spinal injuries are suspected unless an airway is compromised. Is the casualty conscious and breathing? His back lay slightly arched, flush to the rock. Within what felt like a lifetime, but was perhaps no more than 8 seconds, he began to gain consciousness, shifting and groaning.
Our companion, also a qualified SPA holder and First Aider, was now on the telephone to emergency services. I tied off my belay plate and called up to our friend. ‘We’re here. Stay still for me. Help is on its way. We’re going to look after you. Don’t move if you can. Please.’ I took over the call to emergency services, whilst continuing to call out reassurance. This was all still within the first minute, but a realisation dawned almost instantly. Something had gone wrong in the system up above and out of sight. He’s clearly injured. He’s now conscious and breathing, but probably with broken bones and maybe even a broken back. He is upside down still. What if something else fails in the system above and he plummets the final meters…?
Time was of the essence and I watched our companion solo climb towards him. The rock was steep, but not vertical. I could see an excellent crack feature in the rock not far from where he hung, and what looked like perfect gear placements for rigging a new set of anchors. I stayed on the phone, liaising between the call taker, and my two friends. With swift and intuitive skills, both of them were now attached or backed-up safely to the new set of anchors. The perfect equalised system, with prussiks attached to the taut live ropes running to our casualty. In the event of anything failing higher up, the back-up prussiks would catch and take the strain on to the new set of anchors, preventing a head first fall that would result in certain death.
I can’t believe I am writing this about a situation that happened to us…
Within 14 minutes, help arrived. ‘Morna?’, I could hear the voice calling from behind the bushes on the busy A4 running alongside the Gorge. ‘Are they with you now?’, said the call-taker on the line to me. ‘Yes, they’re here. Thank you.’ ‘I hope your friend will be ok. Good luck’, she said.
Everything moved fairly swiftly from that point onwards. The four paramedic crews who arrived, including some with working-at-height harnesses and helmets, began to take over the scene. I now needed to release my tied off belay plate to facilitate the final stages of his rescue. I can’t tell you how many times that I have done this procedure in training, and sometimes just because I can! Yet, when it came to releasing it now, it was so tightly jammed, that it wouldn’t! Fifteen minutes of weighted skinny ropes were now jammed. Attaching a foot-loop to a prussik and onto the live ropes, I pumped my foot down to release a little bit of the tension on the belay plate. Bumpy terrain and no wall to lean against, it was hardly the indoor wall scenario where this has so often been practised! A paramedic supported me by the waist as I stood on one leg and pushed down hard on the foot loop. It worked and I released the plate.
Our coffee loving American friend was now in the safest of hands. He hadn’t yelled, cursed, or cried. He was the most composed patient that I have ever worked with, assuming an upside down almost meditative position of clasped hands. He was obedient, too! Every command we gave him, he duly obliged. Stay still! Don’t move!
I lost track of time at this point. I was asked by a paramedic for his next of kin. Oh God. Who’s going to call his wife!? I should have known that her details would be stored under ‘ICE’ (In Case of Emergency) in his telephone.
A lot of things happened between that moment and the actual call I made to his wife later from hospital. Whilst he received the best care of our NHS system at Bristol Royal Infirmary, we reluctantly climbed an adjacent route to abseil in from our intended lunch spot. If you knew him, you’d know why we did this. Anyone else and we would have left it all behind. He would want to know what happened. We did, too. It kept us busy when we’d been told that there was nothing more we could do and that we wouldn’t be able to see him for quite a while.
Abseiling in, we saw the possible scar from where a tree root had blown out from the rock face. We’d already found this hanging with him, attached to a sling. Its snap-gate karabiner distorted a little. A small piece of gear lay on a ledge, having been shocked by a force it wasn’t rated to hold, after the tree root failed above first. Alongside lay one of his approach shoes, wrenched from his harness.
I don’t think I can convey here our experiences at hospital a little while later,…from that first reunion, to calling his wife and breaking the news. Our thoughts and feelings in a spin, but never more relieved to see him.
He did break his back, along with two broken ribs, concussion, a split eyebrow and head. His head bore a cut, despite wearing a helmet that undoubtedly saved his life. The sheer force of the impacts causing a split that bled profusely. He ‘skinned’ his back to the point that it was raw, weeping and bleeding all over, so he was seen by a specialist in treating burns to decide how best to protect it from infection. The cams and equipment that adorned his harness had become weapons during the impacts he made as he fell. Throughout this time and for the next couple of days, his blood pressure would plummet and he would faint. They kept him in hospital and ran various tests, including cardiac traces, to try and establish what they were missing.
Although we will never know for sure, we all concluded that he passed out whilst climbing the final run-out few meters towards our lunch spot. Easy ground. The tree root that failed had probably been used a thousand times before, but when it broke, this introduced slack into the system. Combined with his falling momentum, this generated forces that overwhelmed the nut that came next in his protection armoury. A more substantial tree and all his other pieces of protection remained in place, which ultimately gave me a fighting chance to prevent him from hitting the ground. He doesn’t remember the start of the fall, but he does recall coming to, mid flight, before being knocked out.
It’s December now, and although June is several months ago, it’s been a journey for the three of us. We’ve had time to reflect on that day. To discuss it and dissect it in detail. And so, the real reason I have chosen to write this is to provoke some thought and discussion amongst you. It’s been a cathartic experience for me, too.
We were ‘lucky’ that day. There were three of us, which meant a spare pair of hands. The two of us who were not casualties have been trained to have a toolkit of ‘get out of jail’ cards to use in the event of an accident happening. We both held current first aid qualifications, and carried prussiks on our harnesses. We chose to climb at a roadside crag that facilitated a mobile phone signal. And, the decision to run two pitches together gave sufficient height to absorb the distance he fell. I was belaying on terra firma, and not a stance several meters up the rock face, allowing support to come quickly and across easy terrain. So, it could have been worse.
I have since wondered what I would do if it had just been the two of us, and if I hadn’t had a strong, calm, and skilled friend alongside me. You may have read this and wondered what you would do. You may have done things differently, but you weren’t there. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, along with the luxury of time to ponder actions and solutions.
There are some precautions I already take, such as that I always give a time to my next of kin for when he is to become concerned if I haven’t made contact after a day’s climbing. His details are now stored under ‘ICE’ in my phone! But, do we owe it to ourselves and the people we climb with to have basic rescue and First Aid skills, too? There are numerous providers of workshops for either of those. Mountain Training Association or the BMC would be a good place to look initially for workshops (CPD). You don’t have to be going down the qualification route.
He was wearing a helmet. It was a snug fit and didn’t move an inch. I went out and bought a new helmet later that week having acknowledged that the fit of mine could be better and I couldn’t say that it would have tolerated the repeated impacts that his did without becoming dislodged.
And so, our plans for a last summer of climbing outside were sabotaged as he took his road to recovery instead. That day in June was the last day we climbed together outside.
Our favourite coffee drinking American now continues his rehabilitation from the Cornish shores with his lovely wife, and vows to get back out on the rock.
And finally, this article provides a perfect opportunity to say a huge thank you, on behalf of the three of us that day, to the emergency services and hospital staff who came to our aid and began to put him back together again. And, also to our friends and families for listening, supporting us, and continuing to give your blessings for our pursuit of a sport that we love.
Morna Middleton is a freelance Coach and Instructor operating in the southwest and southeast of England. She has been climbing since 2003 and progressed her way through many Mountain Training Association (National Governing Body) qualifications to establish herself as a professional in the industry.
In a series of articles, she will touch upon her own experiences in the world of climbing and coaching, whilst discussing current topics, all with a particular appeal and relevance to the ‘average’ climber!
To find out more about Morna, or to make contact with her, please visit her website www.morock.co.uk