Solo scrambling is one of the great joys of the hills, but it's also a serious business. Lyndon Marquis recounts a near-fatal accident on a popular Lakeland route. If you're squeamish, read it with your eyes closed...
It's a dreich Autumn morning and I have chosen to climb the classic Cam Crag Ridge. A gnarly grade 2 scramble up the eastern flank of the Glaramara massif, it ascends 200m of grippy, volcanic rock that just keeps billowing out above you like some sort of igneous parachute opening.
I park near Stonethwaite and follow the road into the village, and thence join the farm track running beside Langtsrath Beck. It winds through old woodland, mist-shrouded and hung with moss. It is wild country here; on a sunny day there would be walkers, picnickers and possibly swimmers. Today it is bleak, grey and forbidding.
As the track crosses the stream to join the Cumbrian Way, I veer west and uphill. At the 200m contour, I turn my face to the heights and handrail Woof Gill up to Woof Stones. I pause at the foot of the stones for a bite and a drink and to strap on my helmet. According to the time stamp on a selfie, it's 12:38.
The first few metres of the scramble are easy going on rough-textured rock. I top out above Woof Stones and head across a long, flattish slab to start the next, steeper stage of the scramble.
The route begins in earnest, here – closer to vertical, slightly overhung in places. As I am on an overhang, moving my right hand up toward the next hold, both feet flick out from under me – perhaps I placed them both on moss? Perhaps…well, perhaps whatever; I am suddenly hanging on my left arm. I can't get any purchase with my right hand or either of my feet. I dangle on my left arm until it goes dead. Then I drop…
…five metres onto uneven ground where I snap my right tibia and fibula. Oddly, it's almost more of a sound than a sensation. Loudest noise in my life, and I have seen My Bloody Valentine live.
As I bounce 30-40 metres down a rock-studded slope, I hear more bones popping inside. The world cartwheels around a fragile, little hub of pain, fear and panic. Toward the end of my tumble, my helmet is ripped off by the violence of my descent. At some point I pass out. For this relief, much thanks.
When I return to the world, I am on my back, head pointing downslope. I can feel there is something wrong with my ribs. I look up to find my right foot is flopping about horrifically. I lever myself upright and try to assess the situation. When I load my weight onto my arms, I discover that my right collar bone may be broken and that I can't feel my left arm. From my records:
- Left 4-10 rib fractures
- Thoracic 6 vertebral body fracture
- Thoracic 5 + 6 and lumbar 1 + 4 transverse process fractures; sacrum 1 + 2 spinous process fractures
- Right clavicle fracture
- Left brachial plexus neuropraxia
- Open right tibial fracture
In short, I traumatised the nerve cluster that works my left arm, broke my back, my right collar bone, seven ribs and my right leg. In isolation, none of these injuries are life threatening, but collectively…
It does not hurt as much as you might think. Do not misunderstand me; it hurts plenty - just not as much as the as the list suggests. But the sheer intimacy of death's presence – oh my word, the weight of that terror, pressing me into the Earth as firmly as gravity has pulled me here. And it just goes on and on and on and on and on.
I left a decent route description with my family. They will call Mountain Rescue if I'm not back by 17:00; it is now 14:30. It is going to be a long day.
My iPhone has survived in the lid pocket of my MacPac, so I try to summon rescue myself. No signal for a 999 call. Elsewhere in my rucksack, I have a flask of coffee, some sandwiches, a survival bag and my Buffalo belay jacket.
I heave myself into a position where my back is supported and my leg is elevated in a straight line. I drink coffee. I eat sandwiches. I cannot get my legs into the survival bag because one of them is broken, but I get it underneath myself as insulation. I cannot get my belay jacket on because my left arm no longer works, so I drape it across my shoulders. I can't get my gloves on because my left hand is useless, so I tuck my cold hands into the kangaroo pocket on my smock. Then I hunker down to wait for the cavalry. I am weatherproof but I am frightened, distressed and I have never felt so alone. Also, I have now run out of coffee.
I slip in and out of consciousness for the rest of the afternoon. In a lucid moment, I find that it is raining, getting dark and there is blood dripping from my right trouser leg. At around 20:30 it is very dark and still raining. I start to consider a night out here alone and the possibility that hypothermia or blood loss might reach me before Mountain Rescue.
I suddenly see two dogs bounding past on the edge of torchlight and I hear voices. Rearing up on my shattered frame, I shout "Help me, please help me, I'm here, please don't leave me!" Somewhere in the darkness, a voice answers "It's alright, keep shouting and we'll find you." Half in elation, half in agony, face puffed up with tears and snot, I call over and over "Help me, I'm here, help me, I'm here" until my voice cracks and my world irises down to a little circle of headtorch glow and happy, licking muzzles. A multi-person shelter is pulled over me and after over 8 hours alone with my injuries, I dimly grasp that I am not going to die. Morphine arrives and I am cast free of this world's shackles for a short while.
There is torchlight and a shimmer of bright nylon overhead. A voice tells me they have ordered a helicopter and that it will be half an hour. A sense of being in fierce wind, a strap coming tight over my torso, so much light and so much noise. The voice warns me I'm going to be winched.
If you want to skip the queue in A&E, I recommend arriving on the hospital roof in a helicopter. It is not all gin and slippers, mind. In and out of consciousness and constantly medicated, I become convinced that I am the victim of a conspiracy to gas me, and so I effect a standoff with the surgical staff until they can prove their bona-fides. They are colossally patient with me.
I spend two days in surgery, of which I have very little memory. I do remember an MRI scan, very close, very loud. In my fear and disorientation, I am crying and begging them to stop. Eventually they sedate me as I am moving too much for a clear image. When the world reclaims me, I have a titanium rod running from just below my right knee to just above my right ankle and five of my vertebrae are connected with Mecanno.
Morphine and I do not get along; oh, dear me, no. The dreams it fosters are so terrifying that I become scared to sleep. In one of them, Bruce Willis dares me to remove my own catheter. I can only confirm that it is both painful and fruitless.
I am discharged on 1st December and undergo months of physiotherapy. It is hard, but it gradually yields results. My mobility and fitness improve. All is going well until…
…because my tibia was exposed for such a long time, the bone has not healed. The titanium rod is removed. The surgeons cut 3cm of dead bone from my tibia and shunt the two halves together. Then they put 12 pins through it and fix them externally to a series of stainless steel rings – an Ilizarov frame. My right leg is now 3cm shorter than it was, and my muscles and tendons contract to the new length.
So that I can stretch the missing 3cm back in using the frame, I have a corticotomy, which is to say that they re-break my leg. With a drill. And a chisel.
The old break is sufficiently healed that I can start opening up the new break. I crank the bottom two rings apart by 0.75mm a day. As the gap widens, the pins gradually stretch my flesh. It's an extraordinary sensation. This will continue until 29/09/16.
I snap a pin. The torsion from widening the gap, coupled with 4 months of my being possibly more active than the average patient, distorts and then breaks one of the pins on the bottom ring. The pin is removed and a new one is driven through my leg. Not in the old hole, no. They make a new hole. Of course. This is my third nerve block. When it wears off, oh my word.
The consultant decides that the frame can come off. The pins are snipped through with bolt cutters. As they snap, the tension they are under is released directly into my skeleton. That's as much fun as it sounds. Most of them are heaved free with pliers and some accompanying sacrilege on my part. A burly, male nurse is brought in for the stubborn pins. He is able to shift all but two of them. My consultant appears. He takes what is basically a drill chuck on a T-handle, and clamps it to the end of a pin. Two nurses hold my leg down. The surgeon heaves on the pin. The third nurse hits the pin from the other end. I inhale gas and air all the way down into my pelvic girdle. My good leg actually goes into spasm. There is a fair bit of blood. One more pin to go. See previous pin. Peace, the charm's wound up.
I often wonder how I looked, tumbling down the ridge. Was my face creased in pain? Terror? Was it blank with grim acceptance? Did I cry out? At what point did unconsciousness drag me from my horror? As friction overcame gravity did I gently slide to a halt in unlikely, cinematic grace?
I will never have the answers to much of this, and perhaps that's for the best. I may never regain feeling in my left arm – now numb between elbow and shoulder – or across my left shoulder or down my spine. I am very happy to be here, though. Deeply so. And I am profoundly grateful to Keswick MRT for scraping my bloody ruin off the mountain in such awful conditions.
In the end, I was on the mountain for between eight and nine hours. I wasn't rescued by dogs. There were dogs, but they arrived 30 minutes after I was found. My mind just rearranged the order of events, presumably for a more a satisfying narrative.
It's a funny thing the mind, and it is possible mine still works because of my helmet. Your shout, about whether you wear one, but it is too late to wish you were once you are airborne. And, no, nobody thinks it will happen to them. I have done that route half a dozen times. I know it really well and I was treating it with respect; I was still unlucky. So, yes, your shout..
Also, tell someone where you are going. I am alive because Keswick MRT were not searching the whole of Borrowdale. And if you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, perhaps think about doing something to fund our Search and Rescue teams – they are volunteers, giving up their free time to save people like me. And possibly you.
Please do not be put off scrambling by my mishap. It is one of the outdoors' great joys: more of an adventure than a walk; more of a journey than a pitched climb. I shall be heading back to Cam Crag Ridge as soon as I'm through the far side of physiotherapy. I will probably take someone with me this time…
About Lyndon Marquis
Lyndon lives in Bingley, near Bradford, West Yorkshire and is not as clumsy as you might imagine. He has been blogging about the outdoors since 2014.
You can follow his recovery and further incredibly safe adventures on Not Really A Llama – please stop by and say hello. He can also be found on Twitter, hiding behind his own name and photograph, as @LyndonMarquis.
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