Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Fall

I lie confused, disorientated. The mind is furiously trying to figure out where I am, how did I get here? Involuntary groans leave my body from the shock, pain and confusion racking me...

Gradually the thinking clears and I'm looking up. I see the outline of the 40m deep shaft I've just fallen down. A large gaping sphere of blackness in the middle of the light coming off my helmet light which is lying just behind my head somewhere.

Amongst the first coherent thoughts are 'I survived falling down that!?'. The next is the sudden awareness I'm at the edge of the rift that is the next pitch. Quickly my bloodied hands find the pitch rope and clip it into my chest ascender.

The next instinct is to establish what state I'm in. The years of cave rescue first aid training kick in and I do a quick self assessment. Remarkably head and back seem ok, but the left leg is broken, whilst the right leg knee cap is not where it should be.

Fortunately the right leg can still take weight and I crawl off to somewhere safer to tuck up and await rescue. Soon Pete is sliding down the rope to reach me and finds me sitting on the tackle bag on a ledge with my broken leg dangling over the edge to provide some traction. Remarkably I'm in a state worth rescuing...

Looking up the pitch I fell down...

There is little more I can now do other than keep the pysch in good shape. I'm broken and will need all the help my friends and the local rescue team and give me. To stay warm I snuggle into the bear of a man that is Pete and prepare to await the rescue. Fortunately we are not far from a road and I'm almost directly under the entrance which is around 80m above me, and there are no nasty crawls or tight rifts to negotiate!

Although I have little concept of time the rescue effort seems to take off remarkably quickly. In what seems a very short time a member of the French team appears along with my good friend Ali. The emotion of seeing each other hits home. I'm alive and talking - not a jellied lump. Tears easily flow as the enormity of surviving this fall suddenly becomes very clear.

From this point stuff continues to happen as more people appear. I sit tight and become a compliant casualty. A tent of tarps is put around me, oxygen applied, a paramedic appears and my clothing starts to be cut off. A cannula is inserted and some morphine applied, though I remember remarkably little pain.

The paramedic from the helicopter preparing me for some morphine.
 
Being prepared for rescue.

Looking down onto the 'tent' erected around me.

Pete keeps checking on me as I'm quite, but its just me trying to snuggle down and rest. Around me my rescuers are busy preparing to take me to safety. At some point Lisa appears who is one of our cave rescue doctors and also a French speaker so useful to the effort. Lisa has known me for years and taught me much of my first aid knowledge. She also checks me out, amazed at how intact I am considering the distance fallen. She reassures me – you're fixable, you'll be ok.

At some point the French are ready to haul. I'm guided into the back splint and then into the stretcher, being handled well all the way. When loaded the controller looks at me 'am I ready?'. 'Allez alllez allez' I reply. Then the words 'traction' and I'm off.

Its a single haul rope from the start of the first pitch down to me, no additional lifeline, with regular releasable deviations along the way. There is plenty of space so I'm hauled in a horizontal position (so much better than being hauled vertically), and the haul is carried out using a counterbalance system.

Within 30mins I'm at the top. The changeover for the entrance passage is swift and I'm soon out of the cave and being taken to the helicopter. From fall to rescue has taken less than 8 hours – much quicker than I was expecting.

Being carried to the helicopter

A Medicopter - my transport to hospital

The control wagon

On site catering for the rescuers!
I have to wait a short while in the helicopter as the paramedic that comes with it is the one in the cave and also has to be hauled out! However we're soon on our way to Montpelier University Hospital.

On landing I'm wheeled to A&E, where I'm quickly taken to Xray and the CT scanner to have my injuries assessed. My skull, backbone and pelvis get the all clear, but I've fractured the left femur, smashed up my left midfoot quite a bit, broken the right knee cap into three pieces and have substantial rope burns to both hands.

Those first few days are now a blur in the mind, but I remember the first night being long and slow. I was on 'nil by mouth' waiting for an operation and feeling desperately thirsty, but only being given wet tissue to suck on to wet the mouth.

I had an additional day and night of this waiting for the operation I needed to pin the femur and wire the knee cap back together. I'd never had an operation before and this became a surreal experience. The initial injections put you into a vaguely aware conscious state before being taken into theatre and going completely under.

Trying to wake from the operation also becomes surreal. You vaguely come to. Someone checks on you and then you fade out again. This seems to go on for a while, before becoming more aware in a small ward room and finding tubes everywhere. Cannula in the neck and arm, separate painkiller feeds to both legs, and drains coming out of the surgery sites. There is no sleep with this lot!

The French look after me well, but my lack of language skills makes communicating a challenge. Nights are the hardest. My mind is wired from the accident, the room is hot and its hard to find any comfort. By morning I'm shot, but the auxiliary nursing team come in, clean me, wipe my bottom, change the sheets and basically look after me, after which I feel much better. The sleepless nights continue and I'm becoming more emotionally shot. Sleep is needed and drugs are resorted to!

Staple line on my fixed knee cap

Staple line after the operation to plate the femur

Rope burns to the right hand.

Trying to dress the hand injuries was somewhat challenging!
After a week in hospital the French doctors agree I can travel and a few days later my insurance cover arranges an air ambulance to take me back to the UK. So begins my stay in the University Hospital Wales in Cardiff. Again I'm well looked after. The injuries are reX-rayed, consultants check the work of the French surgeons (which is apparently very good) and even the food proves to be pretty good!

However the repair work was yet to be completed. After a week in the UHW the consultants reviewed the damage in my left foot. I've mashed a few bones out of existence and it seems likely the foot will heal at an angle. Within 24 hours I'm back in the operating theatre having a plate fitted to stiffen the foot and an external frame to ensure it heals straight. All going well this has to stay in place for the next 6 weeks and effectively makes me wheelchair bound until the frame is removed. The plus side means I should be able to run again.

After the foot operation with the exofit frame in place.

As I write this I'm a couple weeks off getting the foot frame removed, and desperately looking forward to learning to walk again! I'm recovering steadily. The left leg seems to be fixing well, although the right kneecap is suffering with fluid build-up – a reaction to the metalwork in it. However the hands have healed and its now a case of doing the hand therapy to get full tendon movement back.

So where and how did this accident happen? Sadly almost at the start of our holiday in the Gorges du Tarn region of the Massif Central in France. A whole bunch of families and friends had started to meet up on a campsite in the region. Keen to start caving some of us decided to do the Aven de Hures, a fine pothole system reasonably near the camp site.


The cave was easy to find, situated near the road in a small village. The short entrance passage quickly led to the first pitch. Our information on the cave was out of date. Expecting to rig on spits we found the cave very well equipped with resin anchors. Dispensing with the hangers I set off to rig the cave.

The resin anchors were very plentiful and it was clear we wouldn't have enough rope and hangers to use them all, so I was trying to be sensible on what I used. Despite this I ran out of rope on the first pitch and had to tie in the next rope whilst still a few metres off the floor.

Keen to keep going I rigged the start of the traverse onto the second pitch, then dropped the rope down for it, before getting Pete to give me the rope for the 3rd pitch which I stuffed in my tackle bag. I then resume rigging the second pitch.

I don't remember why I initially slipped, but I remember prior to the incident stopping to assess my next steps and sort myself out a bit. I was trying to reduce the bolts I needed to rig into to save hangers and rope, and I remember thinking I was planning to clip the short cows-tail into the next rein anchor, and then from there I would be able to sort the rope hang down the pitch itself.

It seems as I went to move the short cows-tail I slipped from my stance, bringing me onto the long cows-tail which was still clipped into another of the resin anchors. That should have been it, but to my horror the snap gate carabineer had twisted round with the gate now lying in the danger position across the bolt. As my weight loaded onto the cows-tail the carabineer unclipped itself...

The click of that carabineer unclipping is still sharp in the memory. I know full well I'm about to fall 40 metres and there is little I can do about it. My shouts horrify my friends – its clear this is no dropped tackle bag.

Some instinct to survive, however desperate, must have kicked in as I grabbed the pitch rope. Despite feeling the rope burning into the hands I must have clung on for a good few seconds. This probably saved me by pulling me against the side of the shaft. This meant I fell against the rock for some of the distance taking some energy out of the fall and keeping me upright, but I only have a single glimpse left in the memory of looking down as I fell...

So somehow I've survived this in an injured but fixable state. The road to full recovery will take a while but to have a second chance is truly remarkable. Why I fell on something technically so straight forward is something I ask a lot to myself. It shows accidents can happen, but I was also probably a bit tired and wired from a stressful period of work, and then the rushing to pack and travel to France. No doubt a combination of minor things added up to making me not as aware as I should have been.

Whatever the reasons there is much to take from this. The support from family and friends has been phenomenal, the superb efforts of the French rescue services, the support of Snowcard insurance and the excellent care and expertise of both the French and UK health services. Thankyou everyone! I owe a lot of beers...

Next to Pete being prepared for recue.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Wye oh Wye?

It is 100 miles from Glasbury to Chepstow if you follow the course of the River Wye. For some reason the idea of paddling this distance in one go forms an attractive challenge, and one discussed with my good friend Martin on our recent glacier adventures. With the idea formulated it was just a question of when....

So it happens that a weekend in late November is free for both of us There's reasonable water in the river, a good but cold weather forecast and Martins wonderful wife Krysia is happy to provide some support. Game on! Oh yes, I forgot to mention, we were also paddling a tandem sit-on-top kayak – not the fastest of craft – but very stable!
Sorting kit!

We decide to go for a midday(ish) start from Glasbury. This way we'd paddle through the night with the aim of getting to the tidal section of the river for high tide at about 1100 the following day. After the usual faff and kit fettle we are sorted. The boat is carried to the river and we're off... chased by Martins dog, Roxy, who's not happy to be left behind!
Almost in the water... (picture Krysia Groves)

Roxy not impressed at being left behind! (picture Krysia Groves)

We have a crisp, clear Autumns day and reasonable flow on the river. This section of the river has regular little rapid sections, and the river is full of bird life. Soon we settle into a rhythm and are keen to use the daylight hours to get as close to Hereford as possible so trundle along at close to 6mph.

Sadly night does overtake us before we hit Hereford, one of the few bits of urbanisation along this river. We land at the rowing club to refuel and get more clothes on. It's already below freezing and stopping proves to become a rapidly chilly process. Krysia is about an hour or so downstream from us at this point so we soon plough on.

It's a clear night and the night vision is good, although the (half) moon is still some hours away from rising. However mist is starting to rise from the river – is fog going to be a problem? We paddle on, increasingly visited by will'o'the wisps swirling in the mist rising off the river.

We meet Krysia at the Holme Lacy Bridge – 42 miles into the journey. We stop to brew up some soup and chocolate, but soon chill as the cold night starts to bite. I throw a jacket over the top of my kit as I can't face the strip down to put another layer on. Martin does similar and these add-ons remain with us for almost the rest of the journey!

The chill urges us to get going again so we push on, sending Krysia home to get a little sleep and arranging to see her when we reach Monmouth. So on we paddle on into the night, and gradually the half moon rises to join us on the journey.
Brewing up on a gravel bank somewhere in the middle of the night...

We try to land and have a quick break every hour, though finding a landing spot in the dark usually proves entertaining! Somewhere near Hoarwithy we break the half way mark. The journey becoming a little more surreal as we start to tire with the weak moonlight, and interspersed sections of thick mist adding to the atmosphere of the night.

Every so often we'd encounter large groups of geese or swans on the river. We'd try to paddle quietly past so as not to cause too much disturbance, but one would decide to flap and off the whole lot would go, breaking the solitude of the night. Gradually they'd work out we were moving in the same direction and start to break behind us and peace would reign again, until we encountered the next flock!

In the early hours we paddled through Ross on Wye – over 60 miles gone. Then Lydbrook – over 70 miles gone. At around 6am we arrived at Symonds Yat – the 3/4 point. Tired we stopped at the ferry landing to brew up and shake the ice off our clothing. My bowels start grumbling and fortunately the public loos are open – I make good use of them!

Just ahead of us is the only notable rapid of the journey at a proper grade 2. Although straight forward, we're tired and we definitely don't want to get wet at this stage so I opt to inspect before going through. However the area on the right is flowing quite nicely so we just paddled through on this side instead!

As daylight forms we arrive at Monmouth and find Krysia waiting with hot soup, coffee and Bacon rolls – fantastic! We stop to refuel and up the caffeine in our bodies. Over 80 miles now done....
Distant light in the dawn - approaching Monmouth at daybreak (Krysia Groves)
Landing at Monmouth for food and coffee! (Krysia Groves)

Despite being knackered we enjoy the superb scenery of this section of the Wye. We arrive at Tintern at around the turning point of the tide. We had hoped to have got out here for a break, but with no proper public landing area, and very soft tidal slime covering the river banks, we opt to paddle on.
Leaving Tintern - only 6.5miles to go!

This section proves terribly slow. The tide is yet to make its mind up which way to flow and we end up slogging along at a very slow rate. In need of a leg stretch we eventually find a spot where some quarry rubble and blocks form the river edge and provide a point where we can clamber out. Suddenly the tide has obviously turned and is dropping fast... time to paddle!

Now with some obvious downstream flow we start to regain some pace. Despite our tired and knackered states we still take time to enjoy the place we are in, trying to find the entrance to Otters Hole and spotting the classic routes on Wintours Leap.

At the final bend we officially break 100 miles. Ahead is the grand sight of Chepstow Castle and our journeys end. Krysia is waiting on the road bridge and guides us in. There is no decent slipway at Chepstow so we make use of a bit of fixed ladder to gain a landing before making our way up the gluppy mud of the river bank. The boat is hauled out using the throw line rope, and then its over... 100 miles done! Roxy was very pleased to be reunited with Martin!!
Looking for somewhere to land at Chepstow! (Krysia Groves)

Sorting the boat out for hauling up the bank (Krysia Groves)

Finished - Roxy pleased to have Martin back on dry land! (Krysia Groves)

A big thanks to Krysia for the brilliant support and driving us home!

And finally at the time of writing, Krysia considered the misery to be worthy of some sponsorship and has been using it to raise funds for a disaster charity operating in the Philippines, Relief International. If you feel the effort worthy of a bit of cash towards this charity (and the donation site is still live) then visit http://www.justgiving.com/Krysia-Groves1 - Diolch yn Fawr, Jules.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gorner Glacier explorations 2013


Back to the Gorner Glacier, Zermatt, to once again explore the 'moulins' or sink holes in the glacier. I wasn't sure if I could make the trip this year but literally at the last minute managed to steal a week and join good chums Martin Groves and Gareth Davies on the second week of this years trip to the Gorner Glacier.

Arriving in Zermatt on a damp Saturday evening I had unfortunately missed the last train up the mountain. In addition the useful shops had already shut... So it was either back down the valley to Tasch to a campsite, or try and find some over priced bed in Zermatt, or start walking. I opted to start walking.

What daylight had been left was gone by the time I entered the trails in the forest. One of those damp but muggy nights which made the steep lug up the track very sweaty, especially with a big pack. The idea was to bivvy down somewhere on route, but a nice flat spot just wasn't appearing in the gloom as I slowly stomped up the mountain.

Rather surreally I arrived at one of the higher stations for the mountain train and was suddenly in the grounds of a luxury hotel! Definitely out of my price bracket but also felt very wrong. I walked past to escape the opulence and noise.

The map suggests a possible good spot. Flatter contours and a small stream - a little alpine meadow. The rain and mist reveal enough to suggest this is the case and I quickly set up the tent and can escape the damp. Sadly I have no stove - the boys have enough with them and it saved trying to find fuel the other end of the flight - but sadly this meant no hot brew or food. Just water and some breakfast biscuits. Somehow this didn't matter - I was alone in my small spot on the mountain.

Morning arrives and I lounge in the sleeping bag not terribly keen to get up! But sticking my head out of the tent and glimpsing the Matterhorn through breaks in the cloud spurs me to get the back side in gear. I pack as the first mountain trains make their way up the mountain.
Morning with the Matterhorn pocking out of the clouds.
 
A steep stomp brings me to the next station on the mountain railway. Here I take advantage of a civilized toilet and the sale of some coffee! I move on keen to find the others on the glacier.

A few hours later I'm at the camp on the glacier. The day sees a changeover - and effectively seven is reduced to four. The tent is soon set up and before long it's off to explore an ice cave. Martin is keen to do more science and wants to go survey a site called the 'Balrog'.
Camp by the glacier - scarily somewhat reduced in just two years.........

Normally descending these holes is left to the night when temperatures drop, water levels reduce and the metal work doesn't melt out of the ice! However as the day was cloudy Martin thought it would be worth looking at descending into the Balrog. The original choice of route was quickly abandoned by the very large boulder on the lip of the ice shaft held in place by a melting step of ice... hmmm. Instead we descended an open canyon in the ice and climbed into another entrance rigging the rope off ice screws deep in a melt hole and down in the good ice, a traditional ice bollard and some additional icescrews placed after hacking away the poor ice, and then recovering the screws with the displaced ice!
Placing icescrews out of the sun!

Entering the Balrog

Inside the 'Balrog' was very atmospheric with the large open entrance we had entered by, and the light from the shaft we had wisely decided to avoid! Progress was soon halted by a lake, and we set about surveying and placing in markers to allow for future monitoring of the site. However the Balrog started rumbling and we decided it was time to leave!





Midnight and its little rest. Three of us are up and away - me, Martin and pro photographer Robbie Shone. A thick mist is down making navigation necessary. We head off for 'Son of Monster' Moulin. Monster Moulin had been an epic two years ago but was now a former shadow of itself. Instead 'Son' was forming behind. I was given the task of rigging. The entrance was the normal severe ice hack to find good ice, but once in the hole the ice was soon superb. The shaft was a superb fluted rift, rigged with regular rebelays to allow a descent along the rift. At the bottom a false ice floor would have resulted in very wet feet except I was wearing canoe dry pants which proved to be a great be of kit choice! I pushed along the bottom rift, down a short pitch and gained the stream... but then it just got too tight. That was it. We headed out. Martin surveyed and held the flash gun, while I posed and Robbie took some very cool piccies! We exit the hole to the first hints of the dawn.
Martin ascending 'son of monster' moulin

..with Robbie ahead taking some proper pictures!
A misty walk back.

...which clears as we arrive at camp
The weather deteriorates, and the next couple of days proved a little vexing for getting down ice holes, but does mean some sleep! The plan was to go back to the same area as 'Son' and explore some of the other holes. We ended up doing a morning daylight trip. Results were mixed. Water was too high in some, although myself and Gareth revisited a hole we'd be in two years go. It was still recognisable, but bigger and we could get further. With water levels getting noticeably higher, and icescrews getter looser we head for home!
Gareth rigging

Martin on the descent

Surveying the hole

Robbie heading up hoping to get some piccies!
Exploring canyons on the glacier on a wet day
Sadly mid way through the week we said good bye to Robbie, giving him a hand getting his kit to the mountain rail station, whilst stashing some of our extra kit on the way.

With a cold night promised by the forecast we had our next Moulin in sight - the 'Growler'. This looked ominous in the day with water thundering down. So with some trepidation the three of use set off to explore. Martin started the rig. The cave proved to be a superb trip in the end. A 10m pitch dropped into a fine meandering canyon in clean white ice. Deep pools required traversing, and Martin set me the task of rigging as I could wade straight through them!

Another fine pitch was descended and we explored a little further, but with ice screws running out we opted to started the survey out, ascending to a cold and clear night.








All that remained now was to pack up a ridiculous amount of kit and head home! We got up very early again and started the first kit shuttle, exploring some contact caves on the way.
Contact cave with stream

Ice shapes

Monster bag man

Gareth with very big bag!

Ascending from camp

Some of our kit!
All in all an excellent and tough trip - cheers chaps!

And to finish some random pictures of pretty flowers and other nice shots...






Three stooges at dawn