A little spot of bother

Andy PolhillFebruary 23, 2023

Since moving down South I've always missed the hills and mountains of the North. A couple of times a year I make the pilgrimage to walk, climb, scramble and enjoy the solitude of the wild open places. Last year was no different, and on this particular trip I was meeting up with a few old friends in North Wales. We met at the legendary Idwal Cottage which would be our base for the trip. We are a group of mixed ability, with me generally having a more climbing focus. In the past we have split the group, I would recruit a willing second to take on a more technical objective. My focus recently has been on longer but less technical routes like some of the classic Grade 3 scrambles.

The weather forecast for the 23rd September 2022 was looking pretty good. A wet morning that would eventually dry out. Nothing too concerning to take on a nice scramble. We spent the night before cooking up a plan. I had always had the Clogwyn Y Person arête as a target, and a quiet Friday with an early start seemed like the perfect day for it. We decided to split into two groups. I would take one other up the scramble, the other pair would take on the Crib Goch route from Pen-y-pas. We would all meet up somewhere on the Crib Goch ridge line. Joe was happy to exclude himself from the climb, having the least appetite for exposure. Edd and Jack opted for a coin toss to see who would join me. Edd won the coin toss, an outcome that he would later regret.

Edd and I have spent close to a quarter of a century getting up to mischief in the mountains of the UK and beyond. I have generally been the climber of the pair, but Edd is a reliable mountain goat, always able to second anything that I would have the confidence to lead. I've always prided myself on being a reliable lead, keeping safe, knowing my limits and knowing when to back down. I was looking forward to renewing our partnership with a good day out.

The morning weather was as forecast and everything looked good. We had a hearty breakfast and parted ways along the road with Edd driving us to the layby in the Llanberis pass. After a bit of initial route finding we took the upwards yet picturesque slog to Cwm Glas. We followed the directions in the guidebook until we eventually reached the head of the Cwm. From here the route finding was slightly unclear, so we decided to follow the guidebook in the hope it would become clear.

"Continue by the west bank of the stream and ascend rocky slopes into Upper Cwm Glas"

This eventually led us to a significant band of rock. We had the option to tackle the rock band directly or to cross the stream and carve a route up the other side. After some discussion we decided to stick to the guide book and take on the rock. It looked like a pleasant scramble and some more exciting terrain than the previous slog. We found what looked like a suitable cleft in the rock and agreed to move up. We didn't rope up. We have scrambled similar terrain many times in the past, sometimes with more significant consequences than what we were facing here.

The scrambled started fairly easy. It felt good to be on rock, I felt the familiar calmness and confidence which I get when moving in this way. There were a few damper sections on the west facing rocks where the sun hadn't quite dried them yet, but overall the conditions were quite sound. The cleft eventually led to a slightly bolder move where it shifted sideways to an exposed pull out onto a decent ledge. The sideways shift positioned the move over a slab with a significant drop. The hand and foot holds were a notch harder than the previous moves but I was able to pull up safely. Edd and I discussed protecting the move but he first decided to take a look. Edd took the position and was about to pull up, and then time stood still.

The next second was a second that would replay over and over in my mind for days, and still does to this day. The first few nights it was all I could see when I shut my eyes. Edd slipped and slid, all I could do was watch and hope that he would somehow miraculously find a hold. He didn't, I saw him slide down the slab and eventually fall out of sight when the slab gave way to a steeper drop down to the base of the rocks.

I called down but heard no response. At this point I had to control the urge to panic. I decided not to downclimb the way we had come up. If I was to fall as well it would make a bad situation worse. I stemmed the panic and carefully traversed across the ledge to the stream, from there I was able to down climb safely. The whole way shouting "I'm on my way, but I have to move carefully!". Hoping that Edd didn't think I'd abandoned him, it took a while to get down.

As I reached the base of the rocks I moved along to the bottom of the line we had followed, not sure what I was going to see when I got there. I was relieved to see Edd sitting up and conscious, he had a lot of blood pouring from his head but was communicative and making sense. His leg was in a poor way. It had a clear break above the cuff of the boot and the bone was visible. The leg was bleeding and slowly filling his boot. He'd also lost his glasses which was a problem.

I'm not renowned for my constitution when it comes to blood and gore. Fortunately the adrenalin was keeping most of those concerns at bay. I had a minimal first aid kit but not enough to do much in these circumstances. The bleeding was slowing and the head injury, although messy, seemed mostly superficial. I did what I could to make Edd more comfortable, including some paracetamol to "take the edge off it".

It was quite clear that we wouldn't be able to self-rescue from this situation. We hadn't seen anyone else since setting off in the morning, and the chance of any passers by was unlikely. I was fortunately able to find a patch of phone reception not too far away, from there I was able to phone 999 and ask for mountain rescue. I also texted Joe and Jack in a message that simplified the situation somewhat.

"Edd fell off, broken ankle, banged head, waiting for rescue"

I missed a call back from the mountain rescue coordinator but was eventually able to get into contact with them. They sent me an SMS with a unique URL, this was able to track our location and send it to the team. Now we just had to wait, for how long we weren't sure. At this stage all I could really do was try and keep Edd comfortable and keep him talking. Considering the state he was in he was fairing extremely well. We had some quite bizarre conversations but I can't recall what. After about 40 minutes we received a text from Joe on the other side of the mountains to say they could hear the helicopter arriving.

It was a surreal yet welcoming sight to have a Sea King helicopter hovering above you. The helicopter checked for a suitable place to lower the winchman. The noise and downdraft it created was extreme, I did my best to hold everything down and shield Edd from the dirt and wind it kicked up. The winchman landed safely and help was with us. As the helicopter moved away we were able to hear each other. Edd was administered with an impressive mix of painkillers, from morphine to gas and air and other things in between, nothing really seemed to have much effect though.

Eventually the helicopter came back and this time it landed lower down in the Cwm. The cavalry had arrived in the form of the Llanberis MRT (Mountain Rescue Team). The team included an experienced doctor who was able to assess the situation and decide the best location to take Edd. Given the severity of the break, Stoke hospital was the best option. The doctor and winchman prepared Edd for the journey by cutting away the boot and clothing around the wound (amusingly Edd had borrowed my shorts and long johns for the day). They then reset the bone, I did look away for that part, but it seemed to relieve some of the pain.

While this was occuring the rest of the MRT team had arrived on foot. They went about setting up a belay so that Edd and the winchman could be winched up without triggering the infamous puke spiral. With everything set up, I grabbed Edds car keys and off he went. I didn't take any photos throughout this incident, it didn't really feel appropriate, however the MTR team encouraged me to at least film this part. It isn't everyday you get a ride in a chopper. With everyone safely aboard, the helicopter went off in the direction of Stoke.

Silence returned and I was left with the MRT team and a walk back down the mountain. I was so grateful for the team with the way they treated us that day. There was no judgement, there was warmth, kindness and even some well needed humour. We parted ways at the bottom of the mountain. I had nothing to offer except a simple "thank you", which frankly didn't seem enough given the help they gave us.

It can be hard to rationalise the risks that we take in life. Many better writers than me have tackled this subject. Some things I know for sure. The concentration it takes to move on rock gives a sense of clarity that is hard to find elsewhere. The feeling after a good day in the mountains can keep my soul fueled for months. We took some risks that day. We were experienced, within our limits and we had the right equipment, at the end of the day we made a bad judgement call and paid the price. After a 3 week stay in hospital and numerous rounds of surgery Edd is thankfully on the lengthy road to recovery. If it wasn't for the help of the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team our situation would have been much worse.


© Copyright , Andy Polhill