“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.

Before I start waxing lyrical about why the North-West Highlands is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world, it probably makes sense to define where exactly I’m talking about. The below map gives a pretty good idea of said region, noting that it doesn’t include Skye or Applecross (these are often included when people refer to the north-west). I have by no means explored this region in its entirety (I haven’t ventured further north than Kinlochbervie in fact), but as I sit here writing this I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly lucky to have experienced it’s rugged splendour, and want others to do the same - here’s why.

Escape the crowds

Escape people might in fact be more apt. There’s no-one there. As soon as you venture away from the hubs of Lochinver and Ullapool, or off the beaten track even a little, it’s unlikely that you’ll more than a couple of people out on the trail. When Sofie and I went out running on Ben More Assynt last weekend, we didn’t pass a single soul; the same can be said for a glorious day before climbing on Reiff. I even counted no more than a dozen people when I went up Suilven on a warm sunny day in May; that’s on one of the best-known, attractive walks in the area.

Geologically rich

I should disclose here that I likely find rocks more fascinating than the average person, but even the most geologically- nonchalant of people would struggle to not be impressed by what the north-west has to offer. The Lewisian gneiss (pictured below) is around 3 billion years old, making it the oldest in Europe. On top of that there’s Torridonian sandstone (almost 1 billion years old), Moinian schist and Durness limestone. Furthermore, there’s sites where you can observe different “thrusts”, where one tectonic plate has been forced over another. It was the north-west Highlands that gave birth to modern geology, and it’s so geologically rich that the whole area has been awarded the status of “Geopark” - this also means that there are lots of information boards to stop at and learn about the area’s geodiversity when you’re driving.

Wildlife

It was hammered home just how wild the north-west is when climbing out on Reiff last Friday. Oystercatchers circled above us, singing their distinctive squeaks, whilst cormorants nested on the cliffs below, and a seal bobbed its head up and down in the little bay next to us. It’s also not all that uncommon to see white-tailed sea eagles up here too,  or dolphins if you head a little out to sea. The island of Handa is home to more than 250 breeding pairs of puffins, whilst ptarmigans are commonly spotted on the higher tops. It’s a utopia for wildlife, and really made me rue not having a proper camera (other than my phone) to better document it.

Adventure paradise

There’s enough hiking, running and climbing here to keep you busy for a lifetime, with most of it feeling untouched, unspoiled and little climbed. The trails have a rugged charm to them, and are mostly unmaintained, necessitating good command of a map and compass, as well as high tolerance for bog-wading. The climbing is abundant, and rich in its variety; we went from sea cliff climbing in Reiff to sea stack climbing on the Old Man of Stoer to crag climbing on solid gneiss in Rhiconich over the space of two days. Walk Highlands is a good place to start for researching walks (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ullapool/ and https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/sutherland/), whilst UKC has heaps of area guides to available for climbers.

It’s really not that far

Part of the reason why the north-west seems to be such a hidden gem, with so few people, is that people see it as being really far away and hard to get to. But is it actually that far? Edinburgh to Lochinver is a 5-hour drive, with Glasgow the same. That puts it in the ‘close enough for a weekend trip’ category as far as I’m concerned. Now suppose that you’re flying into Scotland instead, and can choose to go to Inverness, and it’s a paltry 2 hours away. Furthermore, what seems strange is that people routinely drive this same distance or further to go to Skye, an admittedly beautiful island, but with perhaps ten times the number of people as in the north-west. It does seem like numbers are increasing to the region though, with the increasing popularity of the North Coast 500 driving route.

Will it become like Skye in the future? Quite possibly, so get there sooner rather than later. There’s no time like the present. 

All-In to Benidorm

”Let’s do an ‘All-In’ to Benidorm.”

It’s a gift that keeps on giving; when people ask what my plans are for the Christmas break, and I tell them that I’m going to Benidorm, I’m invariably met by a reaction of shock and horror.

“Err... why?” uttered with varying degrees of condemnation.

”To hit the acclaimed nightlife of Benidorm and kick back on the beach downing San Miguels whilst working on my tan of course...oh, and the climbing.”

Well-kept secret?

”Costa Blanca? Really? There’s mountains there?”

It wasn’t until a cold November evening climbing at the Ratho freezer that my ignorance was made apparent to me. A fellow member of the mountaineering club I climb with, JMCS, had just returned from a week of climbing in Costa Blanca, and couldn’t stop singing its praises. He’s made climbing there a staple in his annual climbing calendar, and even had plans to return over Christmas for more.

“There’s enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.”

Cycling back home in the cold, puffing air into my gloves to try to stave off the hot aches in my fingers, the idea of a week of sport climbing in the sun began to feel ever more enticing. A few searches that evening cemented the idea; not only was there tonnes of quality climbing in the area, it all looked pretty accessible from Alicante, where we could get a cheap flight too, and accommodation was abundant given the number of British tourists flocking to the area for the sun, sea and san miguels on the beach experience.

https://www.ukclimbing.com/logbook/books/costa_blanca-135

Ok, so we were late on the scene. Climbers have been frequenting this area for decades; if you speak to an experienced climber, you can be almost certain that they will have climbed here. That said, better late than never, right?

British enclave

Driving from Alicante to our apartment on New Year’s Day proves a rather surreal experience. It doesn’t take long for the imposing skyline of Benidorm, complete with the affably nicknamed ‘vagina building’, to come into view in all its glory, flanked by billboards advertising almost exclusively in English. Right on cue, the ‘Brexit news’ comes on the radio.

”Where on earth are we?”

A surreal, sleep-deprived laughter ensues, followed swiftly by an enthralled silence as the Puig Campana makes itself known. The most prominent mound of rock on the drive down past Benidorm, the outcrop lies only half an hour or so away from the city centre and provides some of the best long multi-pitch routes in the area. The Espolon Central route is commonly seen as one of the ‘Must Dos’ of the region; after seeing it first-hand it has quickly catapulted itself to the top of our hit list.

Puig Campana in the evening sun

First forays

Waking to clear skies the next day, and no chance of rain, I can’t help but feel invigorated by the feeling of the sun on the skin. Whilst I love the northern winter, complete with short dark days, routine hot aches on the morning runs and cycles and continual brewing of hot drinks, being outside soaking up some vitamin D sure does feel healthy.

With such a huge number of places to visit, we decide to start at the well-known Sella. Stabbing in the dark at which area to base ourselves at for the day, it seems like you can’t miss; there’s so many sectors to the crag, each offering dozens of climbs at differing grades. We sound out the grading with some friendly 4s and 5s; it quickly becomes apparent that the style of climbing here is different to anything I’ve done before, complete with deep pockets and even handlebar grips in places (who knew these sorts of holds existed outside of the plastic world of indoor climbing walls?) The grades seem fair though and, perhaps more importantly, we’re climbing in t-shirts; it actually almost feels too hot after lunchtime!

Climbing in the evening sun, Murla

Scratching the surface

The next few days see us drive to different crags in the area, exploring Pego, Alcalali, Font D’Axia, Murla and Sierra de Toix. All of these are no longer than an hour’s drive from our base in Benigembla, so we find that we’re about to rack up 5 to 7 climbs each day, all the while still allowing plenty of time to stop for easy peeler breaks and good chats. At the end of each day we leave our chosen crag invariably thinking we could happily come back to the same spot the next day. You could revisit the same spot here, same sector of a crag even, dozens of times and not get bored but, equipped with a guidebook hundreds of pages long, we move on each day to a new area.

“And that’s just what’s in the guidebook.”

Whilst most of the climbers here seem to have the same Rockfax guidebook that we do, some of the old timers have moved on to apps and online logs, seeking out the new routes and even newly developed crags that are being pioneered as we speak. And it’s not hard to see how there is a lot of untapped potential here. On walking around near a given crag, we often passed by multiple other spots that would be honeypots if they were in the Lake District or north Wales. Yet here, given how much high quality climbing there is, they have gone unnoticed. It’s exciting to think how many more new routes there might be here if we were to revisit in the future, not to mention all of the areas we haven’t yet explored.

Font D’Axia

The big mountain day

After four days of cragging, the big mountain day is upon us. Since the first drive in from the airport, the Espolon Central route has been at the forefront of my thoughts. Preparation starts the night before: bags are packed, rations for the day distributed and coffee put in the filter ready for the morning brew. Come the morning of the climb we wake with that glorious mix of tiredness, intrepidation and excitement for the adventure to come. The Espolon Central route is a HS multi-pitch route; whilst it shouldn’t throw any technical challenges at us, it’s long (9 to 12 pitches depending on which guide you look at). Furthermore, having only just learned to trad lead climb, placing the correct gear and securing the pitches safely will perhaps be a bigger challenge.

Walking in at dawn, we arrive at the base of the climb as the lead party; two other groups would pass us later on, but it’s always nice to be the first ones to get started. With not a cloud in the sky and the route now clear in all its splendour ahead of us, the excitement mounts.

The first few pitches fly by, not without a good bit of faff due mainly to my inexperience leading trad routes, and soon we find ourselves counting down the pitches to the ‘lunch ledge’ (any route with a named ‘lunch ledge’ in a guide book is surely a route worth doing.) After wolfing down a few easy peelers each and some other nourishment, we push on, climbing higher, and gaining ever more panoramic views of the Benidorm skyline. The views you get from routes like this are one of the things multi-pitch climbing has over single pitch stuff, coupled with the fact that your vantage point is often a rugged ledge that is invisible to the average person. Furthermore, it is that feeling of accomplishment when you get to the top and look down or, conversely, get back to the bottom and look up at what you’ve just climbed. It’s a pretty special, invigorating feeling.

After reaching the top of the final pitch it is that invigoration that we now feel in abundance. Luckily for us, it’s not over just yet, as to descend back to the base of the climb we first have to traverse along using some rather rickety-looking via ferrata, and then clamber our way down a scree-filled gulley. By the time we reach the parking lot, we are well and truly spent, in that deeply fulfilling way that only long mountain days seem to be able to deliver.

Top of Espolon Central

First of many 

We leave after six days of cracking climbing with a glowing feeling of not only being happy with what we achieved during the week, but perhaps even more due to the excitement from the trips that will follow in the future. With so much climbing in such a small area, all of it super easy and affordable to reach from the UK, the question is when, not if we will be back.