Just let me shut my eyes. Please just let me shut my eyes, and when I wake up none of this will have happened. I was so desperate. I was so scared. I wanted it to not be true, but I knew instantly what was wrong. As I lay in the dirt, tangled in debris, I knew that my life would never be the same. Please God, just let this be a dream…
It was a gorgeous Saturday, clear skies, and nothing but sun. As Matt and I made the short trip to our climbing spot for the day, the World’s End quarry near Llangollen, I felt a sense of relief. In the days and weeks leading up to today, I’d been quite stressed, and quite anxious. I was about to leave a well-paid and respectable job, and to embark upon an unpaid year of teacher training with a local Secondary School. Was I making the right decision? I didn’t know. Getting out into the mountains always gave me the chance to be alone with my thoughts, or at least to distract myself from the concerns of that particular moment. Unbeknown to me, the events of August 6th would play a pivotal role in defining my immediate future.
As we looked for one final climb that day, I found an enticing but equally challenging vertical crack on the middle tier of the cliff. The climb was initially about six metres (20 ft.) to a small ledge, with another three metres (10 ft.) to the belay point at the top. I liked to think of my climbing style as ‘all heart’, I was certainly not up there with the best climbers in the mountaineering club, but I gave every climb my all. After a quick check, rejig, and sort of the kit on my harness, I set off. It took maybe two or three attempts to get the correct positioning and balance to properly start the climb, but then I was off. The rock was bone dry, the sun was hot, and the climbing was hard. The muscles in my forearms and shoulders quickly started to strain as I slowly worked my way up the initial section, taking extra time and effort to place as much gear into the rock as possible for added protection. At times I was able to ‘lay back’ on the rock by jamming my feet into the fist width crack and stretching out through my shoulders, giving me a few moments to look down at Matt, to exchange wry smiles of contentment, and to puff out my cheeks in exhaustion. By the time I made it to the small grassy ledge, my hands were battered and I took the opportunity for a brief rest on the precarious ledge. As I looked up, there was a tricky section, about two to three metres, in between me and the finish. It wasn’t pretty, and I paid my weight in sweat, but I made it. Standing at the top of the climb, I felt like I had conquered the world, albeit a 30ft section of it.
For the next few minutes I hurried about setting up a position from which I could belay, and took the opportunity to talk briefly with two other climbers attempting a route on the upper tier. A few moments later I was standing back at the top of the climb, looking down at Matt, shouting some words of friendly encouragement about the date he had lined up that night. Matt began the climb, and made a good start, but found the angle of the crack hard to manage – as had I. After a little while we knew that we were running out of time and agreed to call it a day. I knew that I had to retrieve my kit from the cliff, so set about setting up an anchor point from which I could abseil back down the face. I looked down to where Matt was standing and slowly leant back to test the anchor… everything was okay, everything worked as it should. A few seconds later, I committed myself to the abseil and put my weight on the rope.
DROP! Something went wrong, something took me by utterly by surprise. It must have only taken a fraction of a second, but in that split moment my reflex reaction was to try to re-grab the live end of the rope, the end that I needed to hold on to for dear life. In that instant, I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. I knew something horrible was about to happen. As I fell, all I could hear was the sound of the rope zipping through my belay device. I dropped violently back down to the grassy ledge three metres below, but somehow I landed on my feet…I thought I was okay! But, as I allowed myself to dream, I realised that my body was slowly and unstoppably pulling me backwards from the ledge, my feet had slipped from underneath me. With each millisecond my reaching grasp fell further away from the cliff face. I don’t know exactly how long the next fall lasted, but I remember screaming Matt’s name three times…” MATT MATT MATT!”, I just had to warn him that I was hurtling back down towards him. For as long as the fall lasted, I remember being scared. I was petrified that this was it, so scared that I would never see the people I loved again. My eyes struggled to comprehend the rapid speed of the tumble down. My eyes tried to focus as the world flew by at break neck speed. In the last moment of the fall, I was looking directly at the sky. THUD! I landed flat on my back. As soon as I hit the dirt, I started to roll uncontrollably downhill, towards the next section of cliff a matter of feet away. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I had completely lost control of my body. I continued to fall, until seconds later, Matt threw himself on top of me, sending a searing pain through my back. I knew I was in a bad way.
For the first few seconds, I just laid there. I was in shock. My arm was in agony, a long laceration ran the length of my arm. I had managed to fall through a thorn bush on the way down. To make matters worse, I had somehow managed to land in an ants’ nest, and I was getting attacked by the disrupted fury of the colony. What were the chances?! As I gathered my thoughts and came back round, the first thing I tried to do was stand up. As I lifted through my shoulders, it felt as if the whole world pivoted through the middle of my back. I couldn’t move my legs, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t move them. God, I couldn’t move any part of my body below the chest. I felt sick. My mind started to race. I thought of my girlfriend Ellie. I felt an immediate sense of guilt for knowing what I was about to put her through. I was so scared that this meant the end of our adventures together, that I would lose her. Matt did his best to reassure me that I was just in shock, and that I shouldn’t move until help arrived. As he shouted up to the climbers above and signalled for help, I told Matt that I had a searing pain in my back. I could feel something digging in. Matt carefully slid his hand under my back, and gently pulled out a number of metal climbing nuts. I had fallen directly onto them.
With Matt taking control of the situation as I lay bleeding in the dirt, it was another 30 minutes or so elapsed until a HM Coastguard helicopter arrived on scene. It had been the slowest 30 minutes of my life. It was at this stage that I made a commitment to myself. I would not let this beat me. Whatever it took, whatever it meant, I would not let this beat me! I had to prove to myself, and to my loved ones, that I could overcome this hurdle. A few moments later, the coastguard winchman arrived on the scene. I remember trying my best to mask the severity of the situation by talking to him as if I had everything under control. But, as the adrenaline began to subside, I was in an increasing amount of pain. Mercifully, the first contingent of the Mountain Rescue team arrived containing Dave, the team’s Doctor. I remember Dave asking what my pain score was out of 10, to which I replied “7”. He paused, laughed, and told me that they had just rescued someone with a broken finger who had said 9. To which I replied, “okay 10”. Within moments Dave had administered a dose of morphine, which instantly took an edge off the pain, but left me in a semi-hazed state. As I lay there immobile, the team busied themselves above me, moving me onto a spinal board, and debating which hospital I needed to be flown to. It was at this point I kept asking to be taken to Shrewsbury Hospital, as I knew that Ellie was on shift that day. At one point I remember saying to Dave, “please take me to Shrewsbury, Ellie will fix me, she is a Doctor there”. As I looked up, I saw the Merlin helicopter fly off into the distance. What? It had left my behind! I was told that it needed to refuel if it was to make the journey to the regional trauma centre at Stoke Hospital. My hopes for a quick extraction from this nightmare had been scuppered.
Flat on my back, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, it felt like an eternity before the faint drone of the returning helicopter came into ear shot. The torturous wait for evacuation was coming to an end. As the helicopter hovered perilously close to the cliff above, the team on the ground moved me onto a cocooned air bed that inflated around my body, rendering me motionless. Matt came over and protected me from the downwash of the helicopter as it prepared to winch me up. Matt and I said our goodbyes, and seconds later I was airborne, and heading towards the open flight door of the helicopter.
Passing in and out of consciousness, the flight to Stoke seemed to take only a matter of minutes. Before I knew it, I was being loaded into the back of an ambulance, and driven the short distance to A&E. Staring up at the bright fluorescent lights as I entered A&E, I was immediately referred for a number of scans including x-rays and an MRI. It wasn’t until I was lying in the doughnut shaped MRI scanner, engulfed by the sounds of whirring and beeping, that the seriousness of my situation began to dawn on me. My fears were confirmed when Dr Ed stressed that I had sustained a “significant” injury to my spine, and to the spinal cord itself. The word “significant” played over and over again in my head. I remember asking whether I would ever walk again, the answer, “this is a significant injury”. By this point I was fighting to remain strong, to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. As the minutes and hours rolled by in a morphine induced blur, I remember seeing my Mum. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to be her little boy again, I wanted her to take care of me. She held my hand and told me that everything would be okay. As I faded in and out of consciousness, the next thing I can remember seeing was Ellie walking across the bay to me. As I lay there holding her hand, I struggled to see her so emotional, particularly as there was nothing I was able to do to make the situation better, or to make up for what had happened.
That night in A&E passed in a blur. I was made aware that I was to undergo a major operation to stabilise my spine first thing in the morning. Slowly but surely, that time came. As I looked up into the bright lights of the surgery staging room, I remember talking to the anaesthetist about the operation. A few moments later, he had me counting down as I was put under anaesthetic. “3”, “2”, …
The journey starts here.