It has been almost two years since I so nearly paid the ultimate price for my passion for the mountains and the outdoors in general. While I was very lucky to survive a fall that on another day would have proved fatal, it is still very difficult to comprehend how I did manage to survive. What I do know is that, not only am I fortunate to be alive, but that I am extremely fortunate to be physically able to type this at all.
The day began early on Saturday the 11th of November 2006 and a drive from Helensburgh to Bridge of Orchy. There were two Munros to tick off, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a’Chreachain. The weather for the day was going to be typical for mid-November in Central Scotland. A cold North wind and a light snow covering on the ground, but dry and with excellent visibility to enjoy the fine views from the summits. My sixteen year old son, Michael was joining me today and we set off for the 90 minute drive to Achallader Farm where the farmer has kindly set aside an area for car parking.
Having decided to tackle the route anti-clockwise, giving an easier walk-out, we set off through Coire Achaladair to the bealach. The burn was fairly icy, but there were no difficulties in crossing. Once on the bealach we turned up the long ridge to the summit of Beinn Achaladair. The views were stunning, but we didn’t linger, as the gusts had really picked up and were picking up the light snow covering. We headed down into more sheltered ground and had some food and a hot drink. By this time, we had put on warmer clothing, a decision that later would become lifesaving. Suitably refreshed, we started to head towards Beinn a’Chreachain. It was at this point, that the day changed course which almost proved fatal. Michael complained of pain in his ankle.
He had recently completed the West Highland Way, but with some discomfort. There was still a fair bit to go, but I gave him the option, and at the time, he made the correct decision not to continue. Whether I made the next decision correctly is something that I still think about, even though there is nothing I can do to change anything. Heading back up and over Beinn Achaladair was out of the question and I felt that the most direct route off the mountain, with a shorter distance to the car would be the best for Michael’s ankle. However, I didn’t plan for such a rapid descent. We headed towards the forest and the Water of Tulla. Although the ground was steep, there wasn’t much descent to cope with to reach easier terrain.
We had left much of the strong gusts behind and things should’ve been easier at this point. But in an instant, it was a turn of foot on some ice that almost proved my undoing. I had stopped and turned to see what Michael was doing when my heel slipped slightly. It was enough to spin me and to instantly lose my bearing. Pack-side ended up over the slope and I lost my balance. I hit the ground hard but couldn’t stop, just continued to pick up speed and bounce down the mountainside, colliding with several rocks on the way. I’ve been asked many times if had lost consciousness at any point. Fortunately I didn’t. Although this meant that I remember every hard contact with rock, and there were quite a few, I was able to regain some composure once I had stopped. The downside was that I was very aware as soon as my arm broke!!
It’s strange what goes through the mind. My first thought was “I’m supposed to be going out for dinner tonight” Weird!! But reality soon kicked in especially when I heard my son shouting. Thankfully I was able to answer him. I can only imagine the horror in his mind when he saw me fall and the relief when I answered him. To his credit, he phoned 999 straight away. Although he had just seen me take the most horrendous fall and that he wasn’t completely sure of his location, he got things moving with the description that he was able to pass. It was then that some panic set in and he lost his footing coming down to me. He broke a couple of bones in his hand and bumped his head, which caused him to lose consciousness, though thankfully for a short time. One he reached me though, I’m sure I wasn’t a pretty sight. Although my jacket had stayed intact, I knew that my arm was in a bad way. I was also aware of a gash on the top of my head and a sharp pain in my back. Michael appeared to be in one piece and not fazed by his fall, although I’m sure that he was trying to be brave for me as well. I would think that he realised that I was in the shit!!
I had lost my pack in the fall and we had no idea where it was. Later, when I was able to look back at things, I could see a chain of events that were all positive to me staying alive. The first was the decision to take the insulating gear out of the pack and put it on. The second was to carry two mobile phones with different networks (although they both worked) and to keep them in our jackets. It’s something I’ve always done. But getting signals on the phones was to be the most crucial. I was able to phone 999 and speak to the operator. I even got the pronunciations correct, although I failed the Grid Ref test!! The most surreal moment was being asked for a postcode!! I vaguely remember an expletive at that point!! Once the call had been made it was time to take stock of our situation. I knew the weather was expected to worsen later in the evening, when we’d planned to be miles away, and I knew that we’d be glad of the warm gear. I also had some chocolate in my jacket and we had plenty of battery life on the phones. There was no possibility of self-rescue so we had to sit tight.
The pain in my back was excruciating. I believed the pain was due to being wedged against some rocks, so I had told Michael that I needed to move. There was no way that I could have stayed in that position for hours. Michael was set against it. I was wedged slightly onto my left side, so I tried to move with my right leg. When nothing happened, I knew that something was badly wrong with the leg as well as the arm. I decided to sit tight!! Over the next few hours, the police phoned back and Michael replied to a text from his mum. I’m in trouble now, I told him!!
Darkness was closing in and the wind had picked up. The cold stopped the bleeding from my head and I was in less pain and discomfort, but I was also acutely aware what else it was doing to me. I kept talking and wiggling things!! We talked about anything and everything. Self-determination and the will to survive is an amazingly powerful emotion, although I would rather not have to experience it again. I knew that I was fading but, foremost because of Michael, I knew that I had to keep going. We could see cars on the A82 Fort William road. It was so surreal to see how close they were.
After what seemed like an eternity, we could see the head torches of the Mountain Rescue Team approaching from the road. While this was a very heartening sight, the sound of a helicopter approaching was a sound and emotional experience that I will never forget. By this time, the wind was as bad as it had been on the summit and it had started to rain. We were so close to being rescued and I was really struggling. Michael was doing so well, but he was beginning to feel the strain and probably the effect of his injury as well. The Police were phoning back and I had to tell Michael not to get too upset with them. It became obvious that the helicopter hadn’t picked us out. Even worse the M.R.T. were heading away from us!! To hear Michael when the helicopter flew off was heartbreaking and he was very difficult to reassure.
What we learned some time after, was that the helicopter didn’t have infra-red (it does now) and had gone to pick up the Arrochar M.R.T. They were dropped off higher up and came down in the direction that we had taken. The Oban M.R.T. had been sent to wrong corrie and it was only by some foresight from the helicopter crew that saved the day. The M.R.T. turned off their head torches and Michael was told to light up the phones. On the helicopter’s return, they immediately picked us out. The M.R.T.s were with us soon after that. I remember the rustling of a survival tent and swearing as I was moved.
The last thing I remember is one of the guys speaking to Michael, then, I don’t remember anything for five days. I’ve been told that once I knew that he was safe, my mind and body just relaxed. I was flown to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and was critical throughout the night.
My family were told to prepare for the worst. My rescuers didn’t think I’d make it either!!
At some point, over the next couple of days, I stabilised and was then able to undergo surgery. I woke up on the following Thursday. Although there were times in A&E I had been conscious and communicating with my family, that whole period is a complete blank. However, it was on the Thursday that I learned the full extent of my injuries.
I knew about the broken arm and the gash on the head. I had also broken 7 ribs on the left side (the pain in the back), my right hip (why I couldn’t move my leg) and had also broken my neck. Particularly fortunate that I couldn’t move at all!! I was transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Spinal Injuries Unit within the hospital. The unit is staffed by a highly professional and dedicated team of nurses, doctors and consultants, which is an understatement.
Despite my injuries, I made rapid progress, and amazed everyone, myself included, by walking (very aided!!) out of the hospital, two and a half weeks later. My recovery has been within the 2 year diagnosed timescale but there have been setbacks and further operations, which, in the scheme of things, are minor glitches.
I have also been fortunate to have attended the Northern Police Treatment Centre in Perthshire on several occasions and have received first class physiotherapy.
There have been many snippets of information that I’ve picked up since the accident.
The 9 inch gash in the side of the helicopter due to the gusts, the time added on to to the rescue by poor communication, the most incredible flying that the MRTs have ever seen, stopping breathing in the helicopter, my core temperature was measured 33 degrees, to name but a few.
One episode does stick out though. I remember lying in bed in the Spinal Unit and watching the search for two young lads who were missing while ice-climbing in the Cairngorms, only to succumb to the conditions a short distance from safety. I knew then that I would go back to climbing, but that I would never grumble or give up during my recovery and would always realise how lucky I am.
Briefly, in May 2009, I am going to complete a route called the Scottish 4,000ers. Nine peaks over 4,000 feet and fourteen peaks over 3,000 feet. The trek will last 9 days, all wild camps or bothies and over 30,000 feet ascent. I would like to raise as much money as I possibly can on behalf of the Oban and Arrochar Mountain Rescue Teams. There is a separate fund for the Northern Police Treatment Centre.
I hope that all of you who read this can see how just the slightest slip, while enjoying our passion, can have such an impact.
I hope that you will support me.