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.


  1. Excellent piece Jules. Hope the recovery is still going well. Home must be better than that madhouse ward you were on in UHW ;-)

  2. Jane and I were enormously relieved to hear you were OK. Those rope burns look horrendous, but I guess that's what saved your life. Good luck with the recovery!

  3. Thanks Chris - hands have repaired remarkably well. Injuries have healed already. Now doing lots of hand therapy to get the tendons working properly again. Legs going to need a little longer alas, but gradually fixing!

  4. Récit émouvant !
    J'ai rencontré une personne très courageuse au bas de cette chute.
    Je te souhaite une guérison rapide.