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"The law of gravity is strictly enforced"

My near death experience in the mountains

I left the office of the Expedition Advisory Centre of the Royal Geographical Society with a heavy rucsac loaded with winter climbing gear. "Don't have an accident" teased my boss, "we don't want the RGS' expedition advisor to have to be rescued!" Less than 24 hours later I was laying face down in a boulder field with two broken legs and one of my nine lives definitely used up.

One of the downsides of living in London if you're a mountaineer is the distance from decent sized hills. If you have your eye on a weekend in the Highlands in the depths of winter, you're talking a long drive that eats up all of Friday night and the wee hours of Saturday. Thus it was that we laid in our sleeping bags for an hours rest next to the car at 6 a.m. on a Saturday after having driven through the night, before struggling up an hour later in a dull dawn for an early start on icy climbs in the Cairngorms. Tired and out of practice I managed to struggle up our chosen routes for the day and as we descended in the declining late afternoon light I felt the dangers of the day were all behind me. We were descending a steep, icy mountainside: steep enough that I started zigzagging to ease the strain on my calves. I had my ice axe on a wrist loop: I was a keen advocate of ensuring this all important brake in the event of a slip could not be accidentally dropped. Diligently, at every zig and zag, I swopped the ice axe into my new uphill hand, necessitating having to briefly slip the wrist leash off one wrist and on to the other. It was at this point that disaster struck.

I'm still not totally sure what happened: a moment's tired inattention, a too casual placing of my cramponed leading foot as I changed direction perhaps. But suddenly I was sliding feet first down the icy slope - without my ice axe. The only thing that could stop my motion, that I'd faithfully, heavily, lugged around for years for just such a contingency, was yanked from me.

It was a very icy slope. I had on Goretex overtrousers and a Goretex jacket: my coefficient of friction was pretty close to zero and I was picking up speed fast. My first annoyed thought of "Damn! You stupid idiot!" changed to the realisation that I was well padded and not being hurt by my high speed careen and that maybe I would come out of this all right. I then glanced down to see where I was going to land, several hundred feet below me. It was a boulder field: a spread of angular rocky detritus, each block being several feet across. My last conscious thought was "Oh. Now that might be a problem."  And then, nothing.

Apparently at that point I started tumbling down the mountain. My cramponed feet, which I'd tried to keep above the icy surface, had suddenly bitten into it and my feet instantly came to a stop....but the rest of me simply carried on going with its forward momentum and I was now in an uncontrollable fall according to witnesses. I had no idea what was going on as the violence had rendered me unconscious.

I came to face down in the snow, pressed into it like a cartoon character who has fallen off a cliff and made a body shaped crater in the ground, and with my limbs spreadeagled in a star. "Wow! I'm alive and I can't feel any pain." After a few seconds, rational thought intruded and pointed out I couldn't have got away Scott free and maybe I'd better take an inventory. I started it by slowly trying to move my head. I could do so with no pain. Result. I then wiggled the fingers of my extended left arm. All well. Then of my right hand. All good there too. Then I tried to move my left leg. "Aaaaah!" OK, I thought, I've got a problem there. I tried to move my right leg. "Aaaah, jeez...". I let the weight of my head press my face back into the snow. It seemed I wasn't going to be walking away from this. And I still had yet to discover how much worse it could have been, and how much more pain I was going to endure.

(to be continued...)

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