July 31, 2020

Falling: Reflections on Risk

“Report: There is an acute fracture of the posterior inferior corner of the L1 vertebral body with a retropulsed fragment that impresses the anterior thecal sac and displaces the cord to the left. It also impinges the L1 nerve root in the lateral recess.

Conclusion: Acute L1 vertebral fracture”

Last Wednesday, whilst out climbing for my girlfriend Sofie’s birthday, I fell 4 metres and hit the rock below.

A beautiful limestone ledge in the Subluminal Cliffs area near Swanage, Dorset, only minutes ago a spot of serenity and birthday cheer, had now become a blurry haze, as my head spun and I struggled to focus on Sofie‘s reassuring, calming eyes.

I scanned my body for any obvious sharp pain, bones sticking out, or blood. Everything seemed to be in the right place; nothing was hanging off; there wasn’t any obvious catastrophic bleeding. But my lower back wasn’t right, a good 7 out of 10 on the pain scale, requiring a few shouts and plenty of deep breathing to alleviate. My left heel was also throbbing.

Sofie got me sat up and comfortable, away from the edge. I wouldn’t want to have been with anyone else in this situation. She formulated a plan and calmly told me what to do. We were on a ledge, 15m below the coastal path. We had abseiled in and left the abseil rope in place; now we would have to get ourselves back up. Worst case scenario we could flag down a boat and call in for rescue, but this really was a last resort. I’m a firm believer in taking care of oneself independently in the outdoors; if we’re to choose to put ourselves in challenging situations, we need to be self-sufficient, to be able to get ourselves out of tricky situations. Sure, emergency services are there if we need them and calling out a rescue is an option, but I don’t see it as a magic number we can just dial as soon as things don’t go quite to plan.

Escape Options

We saw 2 options (there are almost certainly many more possibilities, but these are all that we knew how to do):

1. Prusik up the rope

A fairly straightforward technique, but pretty strenuous. Thankfully we had practised it a couple of days before, so it was fresh in our minds. It would undoubtedly be rather painful if we had to do it, but at least we knew it was possible.

Tune in at 9:06 for a demo of the movement. Video credit: http://www.leadingedge-mountain.co.uk

2. Sofie to climb/ prusik up to the top, then haul me up.

Our initial thought was for me to prusik up the rope first, so that I wouldn’t be left down on the ledge by myself. Thankfully Sofie realised that it would be better for her to prusik up first, then get me on belay at the top. This way, if I were to encounter any problems or go unconscious on the any up, she would be able to control the situation from the top and haul me up if needed.

I could not have been more grateful for this decision. Just watching someone prusik up a rope is strenuous, let alone actually having to do it yourself. It also exerts quite a lot of stress around the waist, the area I was experiencing most pain, as you have to put your whole weight in the harness.

I lay in the recovery position on the ledge whilst Sofie got herself to the top through a combination of prusiking and climbing. She sent down a carabiner on a bight for me to clip into and put me on belay. I started climbing; if I didn’t have to prusik, I wouldn’t. As I climbed, the pain seemed to disappear. The motion of moving up the rope was reassuring; if I could climb, surely my injuries couldn’t be that bad.

Emotions

I got to the top and got myself safe away from the edge. Then the pain returned and the emotions overwhelmed me.

Shame,

Embarrassment,

Fear,

The selfishness of it,

The pointlessness of it,

What was I doing up there?

Why had I felt the need to expose myself to such a high level of risk?

How could I have been so arrogant to think that I could do it (having only ever done 3 climbs at this grade before)?

I wept. I apologised. It was Sofie’s birthday; this was hardly how we had both hoped the day to go. I wanted more than anything to turn back time and make different decisions.

But there is no place in accidents for self pity. We learn more from our mistakes than we do from when everything goes to plan. As Sofie drove me to hospital we discussed the learnings; lying in a hospital bed juiced up on morphine has provided further space for reflection.

Rethinking Risk

It would be all too easy to spin myself the story that the accident happened because the cam popped out and didn’t hold my fall. But that would be facetious; what really caused it was my approach to risk. A rethink is evidently overdue:

1. Be more risk averse in the outdoors.

When I work in the outdoors, I am hyper aware of risk, and do all that I can to err on the side of being risk averse. This has not been true of my approach to personal activities in the outdoors. I have thrown caution to the wind. I have enjoyed throwing myself into challenging situations of stress and discomfort. I have often got away with it, and ended up feeling invigorated by the challenge overcome, coming through the other side to feel alive, heart pumping, breathing deeply. This approach has to change. There is no reason why I should approach work outdoors differently to my personal activities.

2. Welcome the emotions that come with risk, such as fear, anxiety and stress; then act on them accordingly.

Until now, I have had a tendency to move in the opposite direction when I encounter risk, to rebuff any feeling of fear with a ‘get on with it’ mentality, switching off the mental cues my body has been sending me. The cues were all there on the day of the fall too. I had only been trad climbing once since lockdown had allowed it; we were down on a ledge with no phone reception or people around if anything were to happen; the route looked particularly hard for the grade. But instead of listening and taking heed of these cues, I brushed them to one side and became more determined to do the route. This approach has to change. I need to listen to my emotions more and let go of the pressure I exert on myself to succeed, to push it, to always being moving forward making progress.

3. Embed risk assessment more throughly into all outdoor activities, particularly climbing.

Had we taken the time to look at the route in more detail, likely at the base of the climb, and discuss the risks, I would have been more alert to the risk of a ground fall. But we didn’t, and the thought of hitting the ground didn’t play on my mind anywhere near as much as it should have. Had I been more alert to the risk, I would have placed more protection, laced up the crux and probably not have hit the ground. If there’s a low crux, why not place 2 or 3 bits of gear? I could have, but didn’t. If there’s a low crux and no obvious protection, why do the route at all?

Building back stronger

I was lucky. Whilst it’s still early days and I don’t by any means see recovery as guaranteed it seems that, all going to plan, I will be able to continue being mobile, and be back to full strength within 2-3 months.

I got away with it. A near miss.

I wish it hadn’t happened, and regret the fact that it took a ground fall to waken me up to the changes I need to make. But it did. I am always learning on the journey to understand my relationship with. the outdoors. I take heed of the reflections this accident has given me, and will be stronger as a result.