Never Say Never - Mistakes in the Mountains Article

© Jethro Kiernan

What do you do when you're a qualified, established instructor and you make an error of judgement in the mountains that could have easily cost you your life?

Cneifion Arête.  © Jethro Kiernan
Cneifion Arête.
© Jethro Kiernan

Back in September, a day before my 31st birthday, I fell off and got rescued. Never say never!

So. It was on my favourite run: up Idwal slabs, across the cwm, up Cneifion Arete and down the ridge - the reliable circuit I use to really clear my head and kick myself back into feeling like a superhuman.  It was the third time I'd run it in 2 weeks and I had just enough time to squeeze it in before my evening plans. Someone had told me that if you go left at the start of Cneifon Arete (a classic grade 3 scramble in Snowdonia) it is a bit easier for taking up clients, so I thought I'd check it out. I remember standing below it. It looked loose, dirty and pretty unappealing. I should have stuck to my first impressions and gone the normal, initially steep way...

Hindsight is one of those brilliant things. I remember my clarity of thought when it was as friable as suspected: "No way I'd ever let a client be here - I should climb down – OK just one more sketchy move and we're OK". I remember looking at my trainers thinking that they were wet and that I'd have to press a bit harder to make the move stick, then the undercling in my left hand broke and I couldn't save it. I free-fell about 5m back to the start of the route, hoping I would be able to save it on the ledge. There I caught my right foot, twisted my knee and started flipping down the buttress underneath and then the scree slope below that. I remember thinking quite calmly as I inverted that I was probably about to find out what it feels like to break bones, hoped I'd still be able to reach my phone, and shut my eyes.

I had lost my car keys when I came round and went to look for them. I couldn't find them, which is not really surprising as it turns out that I had fallen over 40m. Somehow I gathered enough information to work out that this situation was not OK and that I should call for help.  There my long pondered question was answered - would I call mountain rescue or my housemate Rich first? Rich then told me to hang up and call mountain rescue obviously... I was pretty confused and scared apparently, but the system worked and the weather played ball.  Backstory: my housemates Nick and Rich are both in mountain rescue and I knew that Rich, an A&E consultant, was currently teaching casualty care just along the valley.


I fell off at 5 p.m., my housemates were with me with warm things saying marginally less offensive things than usual by 5:45 p.m. and I was in the helicopter by 6 p.m. - trying to make engaging/concussed conversation with the winchman James.

So I was pressed for time, complacent on "my normal run" and not wearing ideal kit. All the lemons lined up as I chose to ignore one of the golden rules I teach so often: in the mountains if it occurs to you that you should do it… do it. I knew I should have downclimbed.

One of the most uncomfortable things was talking about my accident to my peers. This was made a bit easier by knowing North Wales is very small - if you need to call a chopper people are going to find out about it so you might as well beat the rumours and raise some awareness for mountain rescue. Stepping away from my shame, embarrassment, injured pride, I could understand my emotions, see that despite them being very real and logical, I would not have felt that they were justifiable if one of my peers was in that situation. Even if they were sensible emotions the important thing was that they weren't useful in my recovery. Telling my community about my accident would open me to help I didn't know existed that might make a difference. So, no matter how uncomfortable being that vulnerable felt, it was the right thing for me to do. It resulted in an overwhelming response of sympathy, respect and care.

The rescue operation.  © Rich Griffith
The rescue operation.
© Rich Griffith

That took me a number of days to reconcile with. It took me over 6 months to admit to my clients about the accident, even those long term clients and now friends I had worked with for years. How can you be so brass to expect someone scared of scrambling to trust you to make the crucial decisions that will keep them safe, when you unarguably made an error in judgement that could have cost you your life? In fact, if you are honest with yourself, aware that you are human and can make mistakes, why would you work in this industry? Is any payment worth this responsibility for the safety of other people's loved ones? You can undertake high levels of training, planning and choose to work well below your limit, but errors can happen and there is a certain degree of unavoidable risk. Will Gadd recently wrote a very thoughtful article on this subject.

On the other hand, the gains from the outdoors are astronomical. They can transfer to everything else in life and far outweigh the inherent risks, most of which - with sufficient training and experience - can be minimised. Instructors are rarely in it for the money: the good ones want to share the benefits and this is a lot of their reward.

To my mind, a greater issue for the industry has been the traditional "boy's club" culture – don't lose face, don't admit to accidents and near misses. This is incredibly understandable as it's initially terrifying realising that you can make a consequential mistake or not prevent somebody else from making an error. This is not the first time this has been highlighted and happily it is no longer being accepted as the norm. Research has identified that the collection and analysis of near miss incident data is a key commodity in the future prevention of incidents in the outdoor activity domain. And yet, as there is no legal requirement to be qualified or insured to lead outdoor activities, reporting is still far from unified and incredibly limited. The Association of Mountaineering Instructors, amongst other professional organisations, have been making good headway in encouraging our instructing community towards a much more honest, open and supportive culture. This should reduce the number of accidents and my hope is that it will alleviate a lot of misplaced feelings of guilt and shame.

Having ragdolled over 40m, my body was worse for wear. I received 14 staples to hold my head together, my back looked like I had been flayed alive (I remember having to get into the bath with all my clothes on to get them out of my lacerations), I split one of my eyelids and I had made a real mess of my right knee. It was pretty mangled: a totally ruptured MCL and ACL, torn lateral meniscus and serious bone bruising. The body is a very impressive thing and by listening to its demands for a huge amount of sleep and eating most of my injuries healed surprisingly rapidly, including the MCL magically finding the other end of itself and stitching itself back together.  For me the right choice and only medical intervention was to get ACL reconstruction at the end of January.  From all sides medical professionals and athletes were telling me: ACL surgery is only as good as your rehab.

Worse for wear.  © Sally Lisle
Worse for wear.
© Sally Lisle

For me rehab will be an 18 month process and, despite no prior experience of rehab, I imagined it was going to be time consuming, boring and painful. I applied so many tools, including reward in the form of only allowing myself to train on the fingerboard after I had done a session of rehab. I remember how delighted I was to get my pull up PB - mini wins!

About 2 months into my rehab I really found my motivation waning. I could sort of climb and work again so committing the time to the monotony of physio was really hard. I found just saying "well I know I have to" wasn't enough any more. I needed to trick myself into doing physio and over the next two weeks the answer appeared.

My physio exercises demanded "closed chain resistance" training – aka biking. When I was visiting my friend, he lent me a really nice bike. After 10 minutes, when I couldn't wipe the grin off my face, I had a suspicion things were going to escalate. I flipped my mindset and traded the need to do endless physio for training for a challenge that was unarguably hard and desirable for me. I've never been a biker before. This little glimpse into how joyful it could be and how hard you could try, led to me to buying a bike and deciding to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats in just a couple of months' time.

This made for a tangible, meaningful goal and created what's known as achievement motivation. It successfully changed my drive from avoiding a bad outcome (not getting better) to achieving a good outcome (accomplishing something difficult and having an adventure).  Any form of avoidance is going to trigger inhibition systems in your brain – striving towards a positive goal is far more powerful in engaging motivation and changing behaviour patterns.

Support from friends.  © Sally Lisle
Support from friends.
© Sally Lisle

A lot of content about successful goal setting talks about making them SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-specific. While I do find this model useful as a framework to ensure your goals are based in reality, I find a meaningful goal – one that actually can inspire behaviour change – must go much deeper. It has to be inspirational to you personally. To me this means that my goals must be challenging enough for me to be uncertain about the outcome. It's possibly attainable, but only if I do X Y Z Q F and all the other letters that pop up as hurdles I haven't thought of along the way. It doesn't feel realistic, but if I look at the facts and remove my emotions from the situation it should theoretically be realistic.

I remember my first bike ride on the road just over three months ago. I went 10km chanting "Don't fall off. Don't fall off." until I told myself off for the negative phrasing and changed it to "Stay. On. The bike." Needless to say I was very intimidated. After setting myself the goal of cycling from one end of the UK to the other I spent the next two weeks working out if it was really such a good idea after all. We'll find out next week. Most importantly I asked the medical team that I trusted. My brilliant physio Andy McVittie replied - "It's a big ask but that shouldn't mean we don't go for it. If this gets you over your rehab hump (which is entirely natural) then it will be a good thing." 

This highlights another point about how to make use of goals – focus on the process. The benefits of this are twofold – ask most top level athletes and they will likely tell you the most meaningful enjoyable part of their success was not the achievement itself but the journey, sense of purpose and connections made along the way. For me the process was the goal. In the end achieving the outcome of cycling the length of the UK would be a bonus. It is possible I'm saying that just because I'm still not totally certain I can do it.

Crazy biker Sal.  © Sally Lisle
Crazy biker Sal.
© Sally Lisle

While a lot of this last year's suffering was brutal and I would not wish it on anyone, generally speaking I found it really interesting.  Strangely, it was a relatively straightforward process to go through. I only had one chance to get better properly so I would gain all the information I could about how to do that and adjust each time I got more information.

There is a very good sports psychology book that focuses on this concept. It is written by Ben Hunt-Davis who examined how he and his crewmates managed to transform their "average performance" as a rowing crew into winning gold at the Olympics in 2000. They spent a long time working out their "crazy goal" which they coined from the media at the time. They didn't just want to improve on their last performance - they wanted to win gold. Analysing everything, they worked out what they could and couldn't control and what was going to lead to them winning the race. It boiled down to a simple question which they asked whenever a decision happened in their lives in the 4 years leading up to the Sydney Olympics – will it make the boat go faster? Knowing how much I cared about my climbing performance and future ability as an instructor, at every point during the day I was asking myself – will it help my recovery?

Personal mental and physical health should be a priority for all people. As a passionate climber and instructor, the lifestyle and livelihood I love so much very obviously depends on my recovery. This understanding that my application to physio directly affected everything I want to get from life gave me a commitment to my rehab. I also benefited from a really resilient mental grounding, and being forever inquisitive about human experience, I really enjoyed exploring this process. It is always amazing to get a deeper understanding of myself and others.

On Saturday July 17th I will be setting off from Land's End and (hopefully!) making it to John O'Groats by the end of July…..  If you would like to follow my mini adventures along the way please follow me on Instagram @sallylizzle, where I will share as much of my suffering as I can bring myself to! Any words of encouragement would be hugely appreciated.

I am taking the opportunity to raise money for the charity Mind. I have had some amazing support throughout my life. I'd really like to help others benefit from similar support. If you are in a position to donate and would like to please follow this link:

Sally is a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor based in Snowdonia. Her outdoor company Far Out Pursuits provides bespoke activities for groups and individuals in the mountains. The courses range from navigation to wild camping, guided coastal walks, scrambling, climbing and coasteering. Courses are all bespoke and designed with a deep understanding and respect of human psychology.  Whatever the chosen activity the instructors strive to use the outdoors to inspire confidence and connection, teach competence and expand what people believe they're capable of.

Support UKH

As climbers we strive to make the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKH Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate then please help us by becoming a UKH Supporter.

UKH Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKH Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

26 Jul

Brave thing to do, putting this experience down on paper. Good luck with your cycle!

Maybe this is a generational thing, but the outdoor professionals/instructors I know are way more open about mistakes/accidents etc. than the non-professionals I know. Admittedly, most of the instructor types I know are <32yo. They all like to analyse and talk about things that went wrong, things that went right (de-brief, I guess) in detail, things like human error and heuristics as well as more 'techy' things.

31 Jul

I applaud your efforts, both sharing your story amongst your local community and this wider audience, and also your rehab; I've broken more than my share of bones (mostly on, or rather off of, two wheeled vehicles) so I can appreciate how hard it is to continue working past that plateau where you are probably 70% functional, and just want to get on with life. A quick glance at Instagram looks like your means/trip has gone well too.

Yep, it's worth figuring out how to make the distinction between intuition in the mountains and the ordinary fear/'gripped' sensation. I'm still working on it!

31 Jul

Excellent article, very open and honest. This prompted me to read Sally's other articles on managing feat, interesting stuff!

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest