Tuesday, 18 December 2012

When things go wrong - a cautionary tale......

One small metolius TCU standing between
me and a rather long fall...
It might seem scary...

But falls are always safe, that gear will definitely hold and I will never actually hurt myself.

This is definitely a mantra I have used overcome the head games that are ever-present when climbing, especially on trad. It is quite obviously a lie, and the rational part of my brain will remind me of this when contemplating hard moves with uncertain outcomes, but if I think that lie hard enough I can keep all the other thoughts quiet when it matters. After all the best protection is not falling off, right?

A couple of years ago, I was in a bit of a heyday of bold climbing. Along with many of my peers at the time, I was discovering the thrills of getting away with routes that were (for us) quite hard with potentially serious consequences. Routes where the crux moves were over a definite ground fall or highly questionable protection were becoming more sought after, and difficulty was less important to us than fear factor.

Paul clipping bolts in his old stomping
ground of the Ardeche, France
It was in this time that I started climbing quite a lot with my good friend Paul Jones. Having started climbing in France, where bolted climbs are the norm, he had become a strong climber but had not yet been fully sucked in to this very British ethic of onsighting short, dangerous routes placing your own gear as protection. I tend to see great potential in most people I climb with and Paul was no exception. His background in martial arts and yoga had earned him great core strength and focus and it seemed obvious to me that he should be trying harder trad routes. Today would be that most important step for any trad leader - his first HVS.

It was mid-week, the sun was shining and we both had a day off. A rare and beautiful thing, with only one acceptable course of action. Paul came and picked me up in his faithful van named 'Billy' and we set off to visit one of the little known crags of Leicestershire. For the dedicated, optimistic and ever so slightly desperate climber there are a few funny little crags to be found around this unassuming city, each offering maybe four or five routes and one real gem. The small outcrop of wonderful pink granite we were headed for was no exception and the route of the crag went at HVS 5b, ideal for Paul and a route I was more than happy to revisit.

We had taken only the gear we needed on the walk in. It's really not far, but why lug everything over there for one or two routes? Included in that logic was the helmets. It's only Leicester, what could go wrong? Besides, we had all been working on the idea that the helmet is really only there to protect the belayer, and this line had good solid rock and no chance of anything loose reaching the belayer anyway. And Paul didn’t own one so I would have to dig out a spare. Might as well leave them behind.

Paul was understandably a bit nervous, after all this was to be his first HVS, but he was excited too. We both were. On the drive there, while listening to one of the three tapes he had in the van 'Lou Reed - New York', I went through the route with him as thoroughly as I could. An easy start leads to a ledge where you can place a few bomber small nuts in a crack to the left. Passing these provides the crux, both awkward and powerful with a number of options, but all lead to the move that makes this route so good - a long reach from a bad position on smears to a great hold above. Once you reach that, it's just a couple of hauls on good holds, place some more good gear and top out. Some hard moves but I knew it was safe, I had seen three different people fall on the crux and the worst they'd had was a bit of rope burn from catching it on the way down. One of those where if you just go for it you'll be fine. We went back to our usual banter, putting the world to rights and commenting yet again how great Lou Reed was.

At the bottom of the route, psyched and cocky as ever, we sorted out gear, Paul put on his new favourite pair of Spandex trousers and off he went.

The last surviving picture of some
very special leggings!

He began confidently up the easy ground and quickly arrived at the crucial gear placements. He placed two nuts - a number 1 and a ¾ micro, usually a bomber combination in that spot, and took the time to seat them well and look at them carefully. When happy that all was well, he set about working out the difficult crux moves. It is one of those pieces of rock where you really have to think in three dimensions and there was really not much advice I could give beyond the locations of the useable holds.

Paul tried in earnest, moving up and down trying different things but struggling to find what he needed to feel confident committing to the long reach above. He had one really good go and got set up for the reach, but then got the panic we have all felt trying moves we don’t like and started backing down again. It was at this point things went wrong.

Defaulting to his sport climbing experience, Paul shouted “Take in!”. Initially I encouraged him to step down a couple more moves to get back to the ledge, more so he could save his ‘flash’ attempt than anything else. But it was clear he did not want to so after a moment I started to take the rope tight. As I did so he sat back, in the usual manner anyone would, ready to rest on the rope and get his thoughts together.

The problem was that the crack he placed his gear in was on a piece of rock that angled away from him at about 45 degrees. Also, though he had given both the nuts a good tug when he placed them, the bullet hard granite had not allowed the nuts to really seat in the way that they would have in the Gritstone we were used to. As he sat back, the quickdraws were raised slightly, and this was just enough to lift both nuts clean out of the crack. He did not even slow down.

With no expectation whatsoever that he would do anything other than rest on the rope, he simply carried on rotating in his seated position as he fell backwards through the air. His back hit a ledge a couple of metres below and he carried on, somehow completing a full flip with a half twist in the six meters between there and his final point of impact on the ground.

He landed hard. To his left was a mess of rubbly blocks and to his right a large pointed boulder, either of which would almost certainly have killed him outright. He lay in the single solitary strip of green, with no reaction at all to his fall

An excellent first aid course for
any outdoorsy  person.
Click here for more info
I immediately shouted to him and ran over, his eyes were glazed, pupils contracted and after a few moments he started emitting a gurgly snoring sound. By some amazing coincidence, I had recently completed my Single Pitch Award and it was only two weeks since my Outdoor First Aid training with BASP. Without emotion even entering into my head, the mental checklist took over. This was just another accident with a clear list of things to do and with no-one else around it was down to me to do them.

Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Then deal with the rest.

His airway was obviously not clear so I tried a chin lift but it did not work as there was blood in his mouth. After a serious fall, it is always preferable not to move the body, but I had to get him breathing. As carefully as I could, I rolled him to recovery position and this cleared his mouth and got him breathing. I kept trying to get a response but his eyes were not even trying to focus and there was no vocal response at all. I also noticed trickle of blood from his ear which could not be a good sign.

It was time to call 999, this was definitely beyond anything I could deal with alone. My rubbishy phone had no signal so I was forced to run for help. We were not exactly in a place where you would expect to see anyone, but by another massive stroke of luck there was a lone birdwatcher at the side of the road. I barked orders at him, leaving no room for question or delay, and he got straight on his phone with the information I had given. I did not wait to hear the response, but shouted for him to let me know when they would be there as I ran back to Paul.

When I got back to him, I got a groaning response and his eyes were trying to focus on me. I tried to make him comfortable where he was but he was very disorientated and kept trying to move around. I was worried about spinal injury so I tried my best to keep him still. I checked him over for any obvious breaks or major bleeding, but did not find anything beyond the obvious head trauma and a few small scrapes and cuts.

I removed his climbing shoes to stop pain later on, untied his rope, and removed what I could from his harness. I remembered a story of another friend having a bad fall and being a tad annoyed when the paramedics cut his harness off so I had a go at getting Paul’s off, but it could not be done without moving him quite a bit and I thought it better to leave it be. As his speech came back, slurred and mumbled, he kept asking what had happened, where he was and why he was here. No matter how many times I answered, those same questions kept coming out.

The helicopter took about fifteen minutes to arrive, and pulled off a quite incredible landing on the marshy river bed with what seemed like a few meters clearance from the trees either side. The paramedics were kitted up and by our sides in a minute or two, and after taking a moment to establish their own safety and gain some information about what had happened they got to work on Paul.

This is near enough exactly where he landed -
you can see the blocks to the right which
could have ended this story very differently.
The usual checks for breaks and bleeding were made and they quickly decided to give him a shot of morphine. They were rightfully worried about head and neck injury so I held his head while they checked him over and strapped the head support blocks on. Before long, the scissors came out and cut off his harness, along with most of his pride and joy spandex! We then log rolled him onto the backboard, strapped him down and worked together to negotiate the obstacles between there and the helicopter. 

One of the only memories Paul has of this incident is of big orange
blocks. In this shot he was in the helicopter ready for take off.
The take off was every bit as impressive as the landing and I sat and watched with another paramedic who had arrived by car.

It was only at that moment, watching the helicopter rise up into the air, that I actually began to feel what had happened. The potent blend of adrenalin and emergency procedure had completely inhibited any emotion or sense of self up to that point and as the pressure of the moment was lifted, so I became aware of what had happened in a different way. I became aware that one of my best friends had nearly died right in front of me, that there was a chance he still might. I had thoughts of the consequences of a back, neck or head injury. Doubts about what I had done and whether it was right. Regret that we didn’t wear helmets. Anger at myself for being so stupid.

The paramedic left, after very kindly going through the first aid actions with me and saying that he would have done the same. That meant a lot and helped me put at least some of the most difficult thoughts out of my mind.

I started to collect all the gear together and coil the rope. I couldn’t do it. This simple procedure I had performed so many times was just too much for my brain to process and after fruitlessly passing the rope between my hands a few times I just picked everything up in a bundle, took it to the van and threw it all in.

Stuck in the outer reaches of Leicestershire with no-one around, I had little choice but to drive ‘Billy’ back home, his beloved van with almost as many quirks as Paul himself. I unlocked the passenger door and clambered over to the driver’s side as I had seen Paul do so many times before. Between the unusual clutch control, window glass dropping into the door and Lou Reed urging me yet again to take a walk on the wild side, it was a difficult journey home and I had to stop a couple of times just to get my head straight.

Before I left I called my housemate Gareth and he started finding contact information for Paul’s family and finding directions to the hospital. By the time I got home I was far too full of thoughts to want to continue driving so it was great that Gareth and I shared a car. We grabbed a few bits of Paul’s clothing and carried on up to Nottingham.

We arrived at the hospital nearly two hours after the accident. We had to wait a while to see him, then were given directions where to go. The sign on the door said ‘Resuscitation Unit’. I was apprehensive to see what we would find in there, still gripped by the fear my friend could be in a serious condition.

To Gareth it was a shock to see the state he was in. To me it was wonderful. His eyes were brighter and much more normal looking ad his speech was much less slurred. He appeared more aware of his surroundings and when he asked those same questions again, “what happened?”, “where am I?”, “why am I here?”, it actually seemed like he was taking some of it in.

We stayed with him for quite some time and he was moved to a less urgent part of the hospital. His condition improved and his family arrived, and we eventually got home about 6 hours after the accident.

Paul had escaped with a fractured wrist, cracked ribs and bruising but no serious damage to his back or neck.

In the days and weeks that followed, my initial joy that my friend was still alive was tempered with other fears. Though he had escaped many breaks and fractures, he had taken a serious blow to the head. When I went to see him, this witty, creative, intelligent person who I had never seen lose a game of chess was shuffling around his parents’ house, mumbling and losing track of what he was doing. I was reminded of McMurphy returning to the ward after receiving ECT in that heartbreaking scene of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. I sat with him in his much beloved studio watching him trying to make a tune and he was just getting baffled by the whole thing, and soon gave up.

It was a disturbing sight, and though his parents and I spoke about the effects of concussion and how it just takes time to get back to normal (or ‘normal for Paul’ as they affectionately termed it), the unspoken worry we all had was that this was how it was going to be, that this was all we would get back. 

Thankfully, after what seemed like far too long, Paul did return his ‘normal’ self. I had said to him in the hospital, “If you want to give up climbing, I would not say a word about it. No-one would question that. But if you do want to keep climbing, we need to get back on it as soon as possible, otherwise it’s just going to keep getting more difficult to go back to. And not only that, but some day we have to go back and do that route again too”. I genuinely believed that, and really wanted to help him with it, so as soon as he was mentally and physically able we were back down at the wall doing top ropes and building up his confidence in the system again.

Before we went outdoors again he bought a helmet.

A month after the accident, we went to the Verdon Gorge together to fulfil a dream Paul had retained since his childhood. We climbed the biggest route we had ever done, the 350m high ‘La Demande’. That was a story in itself, which I will cover in another post, but we made it.
Back at the car park after 'La Demande'. One of the best climbing experiences I have ever had.

A couple of weeks later, we went back to do that HVS again. He rested on the gear again (my heart was pounding at that point!) but this time he had placed the gear more carefully and sat back more carefully. It was also backed up with gear lower down. The gear held, giving him the confidence he needed and he got back on and finished the route.

Paul tells me he did not really feel right until two months after he fell, and has never recovered any memory of what happened after we got to the crag that day. I have nothing but respect and admiration for his bravery and dedication in getting back on lead and dealing with the fear of falling which he tells me became much greater, and understandably so.

He still beats me at chess. I wish I had played him while he was concussed!

Lessons learned from that day:

Place your gear well, and check it again.
…..and don’t rest on it unless it’s bomber!

Do a first aid course. A proper outdoor one.
…..It may save someone’s life and will help you to stay calm and be sure you are doing the right thing in a crisis.


Some other notes from this story:

I have massive admiration and thanks for the paramedics, pilots and hospital team who dealt with this accident. Without that safety net we are so lucky to be provided with in the UK, my friend could well have died.

Each time you go climbing without a helmet, you are not just risking your own safety but also making a higher risk that a fall will leave you unconscious and incapable. A casualty in this state is difficult to deal with and can end up putting more people at risk. Consider this when you are going multiple pitches up or climbing in hard to access places. I am not the most disciplined and do still climb without a lid when I am fully confident it is safe to do so, but I keep a strict rule with myself not to climb on any trad routes or any multipitches without a helmet.

This is not a story about Paul’s mistake. Neither of us wore helmets and either of us could have ended up in hospital. Not only that but many of our friends at the time did the same. It could have been any one of us.

The reason I have not published this story until now, or mentioned the name of the crag or the route is that access in many of the climbing areas in Leicestershire is delicate. I do not want to upset that balance and it is important to note that this IS NOT a story about a dangerous route on a dangerous crag. It is a story of a climbing accident that could have happened anywhere, and there has never at any point been mention of the landowner’s responsibility, nor should there be.

This is the hardest thing I have ever tried to write. Even now, so long after it all happened, it makes my palms sweat to recall the details and it has not been in the slightest bit pleasant. I just hope that maybe someone will read this and take something useful from it, and if that happens then it was worth it.

Wear a lid!
Read a review of this one here!
If you are still not convinced about wearing a helmet, maybe you should just give it a try again with an open mind – some of the new ones coming out are very nice to wear. I have reviewed one here which I think is great, but whichever one it is just find one that you actually like wearing and give yourself more reasons to wear it than not to.

Paul is climbing harder than ever and has done many hard leads since then. We have done many routes together and I look forward to doing many more.

He always wears a helmet.

'Normal for Paul'.... and what remains of that amazing Spandex!

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