So some physical preparation for my visit beyond what Kent could provide seemed wise, and I thought I would go back to Snowdonia. I completed the Snowdonia Way last year but there were several interesting bits left to do, including a full sweep of the Carneddau, a Glyder or two, the Rhinogs and full ascent of Cadair Idris. I drew up some likely-looking routes and on Sunday 22 May Sue & I drove up to Conwy to check in to the excellent Castlebank Hotel. We had a nice dinner in Alfredo's Restaurant, and I was eager to get started mopping up those bits of snowdonia left over from last time. Little did I know what lay in store!
The following morning, I set off from Conwy to walk along the Carneddau, and then down the steep track from Pen yr Ole Wen down into the Ogwen Valley. Sue was to meet me with the car, at the Idwal Cottage youth Hostel and drive me back to Conwy.
The weather was wonderful, warm, sunny and still. I had a lovely day, wandering over the range picking off successive peaks:
Foel Fras (942m)
Carnedd Gwenllian (926m)
Carnedd Llewelyn (1064m)
Carnedd Dafydd (1044m)
At 1064m (3,491ft), Carnedd Llewelyn is a proper mountain, the second highest in all of England & Wales by most definitions. It is rocky, wild and wonderful terrain and I loved the Carneddau.
By the time I got to the top of Carnedd Dafydd it was gone 5pm. Sue was due to meet me around 6pm in the car down in the Ogwen Valley at Idwal Cottage, so I headed off over the final high point, Pen yr Ole Wen (978m) to pick up the path down the steep hillside to the valley bottom, Llyn Ogwen and Idwal cottage. It was slow going and by 6.30pm I was still about 700m up, perhaps half way down the path, descending a nearly vertical chute between large boulders when I put my weight on a stone that promptly rolled away. I slid gracefully about 2 or 3ft down to another stone that did not move, pitched forward and then I was off, head over heels down the mountainside. I fell roughly 50ft, bouncing several times, before I came to rest a little precariously on what was still a very steep slope.
I sat for a minute to assess the situation. I did manage to stand up but felt very ill and unstable, so promptly sat down again. My left wrist hurt and looked broken. My lower back hurt. There was some blood, on my head mainly. I still had both walking poles and my rucksack was still on, but the contents of all the exterior pockets had completely disappeared, including a fleece, a new and rather expensive waterproof/windproof, spare glasses (the ones I was wearing had smashed into bits and disappeared), all my water bottles and so forth. There is a lesson to learn here. Keep some survival kit inside the rucksack!
I decided I needed help and tried to phone Sue, but could not get through. Her mobile had no signal and mine was poor. So I dialled 999 and asked for mountain rescue. I got straight through to a calm, reassuring voice and we established my position, grid reference and altitude. They mobilised a rescue team but it so happened that there was a Coastguard helicopter already in the valley, so they asked it to come and pick me up, which it duly did. I raised my arms in approved fashion, and flashed a torch at it. It spotted me pretty quickly and hovered nearby, the downdraught was extremely powerful and I was glad I had been warned to secure all loose items. The paramedic was winched down to the ridge a few yards from me, and scrambled across to me. A quick poke and a prod and a few questions later he got me up on my feet and we scrambled back to the ridge and the helicopter. He attached a harness which is basically just two loops, one under your knees and one under your arms, clipped us onto the cable and whoosh! off we went. One second on the ground, the next 700m up above Llyn Ogwen. It was exhilarating, but it did take my stomach a while to catch up! Once airborne we were winched up and flopped into the helicopter. They managed to get me into a seat and off we went to Bangor University hospital. The hospital has a roof helipad, but the Coastguard Sea King is too big and heavy to use it, so landed in the grounds where an ambulance waited to transport me into A&E.
By now it was about 7.30pm so still less than an hour I think, since the accident. I should mention here that when I first spoke to the mountain rescue, I had told them about Sue waiting outside Idwal Cottage in the car and they had promised to go and find her and explain what was going on. Their headquarters is only a mile or so away along the Ogwen valley, but it obviously took them a little time to reach her. Meanwhile Sue was getting a bit concerned about not hearing from me. Unable to phone, she went into the Youth Hostel and they let her use their landline, which did get through. We then had a surreal conversation where I thought she was au fait with the situation, whereas in fact she knew nothing: "So, is everything OK your end?" "Oh yes, not doing too badly thanks. Only lost consciousness for a moment, and the rescue helicopter should be here any minute" .. you get the picture. It was a traumatic evening for her as well as for me, but the Rescue people were very good, they came and found her, took her back to their headquarters, brought her up to date with events and showed her how to get to Bangor hospital.
My arrival at hospital was like a scene from Casualty or Holby City, me being wheeled along on a trolley with a little cloud of doctors and nurses fussing around connecting things and taking measurements and samples. I had been shivering uncontrollably since the accident and they were not sure if it might be hypothermia or shock, but I spent some time under a snug electric blanket. The staff in Resus really knew their stuff and I soon started to feel better. They wasted no time trying to remove my clothes gently, out came the shears and they cut off several hundred ££ of rather nice Rohan kit. I had a CT scan and some x-rays and a total of six fractures was identified: comminuted fracture of left distal radius (smashed bone in wrist joint), fractured sacrum (back part of the pelvis) and four fractures in the three lowest vertebrae. By about 4am I was considered stabilised and was transferred to Ogwen Ward, (slightly ironically) where I spent the next week.
I won't go into that week in detail, much of it was quite tedious, with occasional moments of considerable interest (have you ever had a catheter inserted?!). My wrist was operated on, another CT scan and more x-rays, and a lengthy interchange took place between Bangor and Stoke Major Trauma Centre, the upshot of which was that my spinal injuries were determined to be stable which meant that no surgery would be needed. I developed a respect for the doctors' knowledge and professional abilities, and an even greater respect for the cheerful dedication of the nursing staff. They had a lot to put up with, but I never heard one of them complain, or lose their temper or even snap. No job was too dirty or too mundane for them. Very, very impressive, they were; whatever they get paid, they are worth more.
From the moment I dialled 999 on, I felt I was in safe hands. Both the Mountain rescue and the helicopter crew were great. People love to criticise the NHS, but I have no fault to find, they certainly did a top class job for me. I have written thank-you letters, and I have made a donation to the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue, which is a voluntary organisation and a registered charity. With up to 150 call-outs a year (I was no. 65, they are up to 71 now, end of May, including two fatalities) they must be one of Britain's busiest, and I reckoned they would be able to put the money to best use.
I was discharged from Bangor on Sunday 27 May, and spent the Bank Holiday Monday being driven cautiously back to Kent. The 300 mile trip took us nine hours, with stops each hour for stretching and walking around. Since then I have stayed at home, weak as a kitten but getting a little better each day. In addition to the fractures, I have trauma damage to my liver, kidneys, prostate and large intestine which should heal themselves in due course, but meantime can make going to the lavatory a frustrating experience!
I have written enough.. I have put some photos below, and then two more sections, entitled "How did it happen?" and "Was I lucky or unlucky?" Finally I would like to pay a heartfelt tribute to my wife Sue. She must have been seriously worried for quite some time, not to mention coping on her own a long way from home, but she never let it show and spent long periods at the hospital, keeping me company and doing whatever she could to help. Henrique and Jo, owners of the Castlebank Hotel, were also wonderfully supportive and we are both very grateful to them. If you go to Conwy - which is a lovely, walled and fortified medieval town, definitely worth a visit - do stay at the Castlebank!
|Castlebank Hotel, Conwy|
|One of several stone circles around the Carneddau|
|I think this is Foel-fras .. we are over 3,000ft already and the terrain is rocky and difficult. More Carneddau in the distance|
|Carnedd Gwenllian, with peaks including Snowdon in the distance..|
|Carnedd Llewelyn, high point of the Carneddau. Spectacular views from here|
|This is a view from Carnedd Dafydd|
|Left centre is Tryfan, across the Ogwen valley, with the Glyders behind. At right is Pen yr Ole Wen, which I fell off...|
|My tracklog for the day.. first walking, then in the helicopter. You can see how nearly I got to Idwal Cottage|
How Did it Happen?
Accidents can happen to anyone I suppose, and this was my first serious fall in thirty years of walking. But still, experienced mountain walkers are not supposed to fall off mountains. As usual, it was a combination of several factors that caused the fall and with 20/20 hindsight, like most accidents it could have been avoided:
- This was quite a challenging walk for a first day in the hills and I must have been a little tired, towards the end, though I was not particularly conscious of it
- I was nearly at the end, my destination in sight, and late for a rendezvous. Pressing on a little too enthusiastically, perhaps
- There is a marked path down Pen yr Ole Wen and although it looked steep, I just assumed I would be able to follow it. It is not an easy route however and, I would say, rather easier to climb than to descend. Perhaps I underestimated it a little
- I had strayed a few yards off the marked route. There is a sharp ridge and the marked path is a few yards to the left of it, I was a few yards to the right. I knew this, but I decided to continue anyway because I could see a flatter bit below which I figured I could reach and get back to the proper path from
Was I lucky or unlucky?
Hmm. It felt strange, lying flat on my back in hospital with six fractures, trauma damage to my prostate, liver, kidney and large intestine, and more cuts, abrasions and bruises than I thought one body could have, to conclude that I had been lucky. But so I have, very lucky:
- looking at the hill side I was on, it would have been much easier to fall 500ft or more than it was to fall 50ft and then stop. A lady died very close to that spot, only two weeks earlier
- I had two large contusions on my head, either one of which could have caused a skull fracture or worse, but didn't
- my phone was not damaged in the fall and I was able to summon help, which arrived pretty quickly. My wife knew where I was and would have summoned help in due course anyway, but it would have taken longer and they would have had to search for me
- before I fell I reckoned myself pretty well-equipped, but a lot of stuff was lost in the fall including all my water, a windproof and my thicker fleece. Fortunately I had a second fleece inside the rucksack that I was able to don, and it was a warm (for Snowdonia!) evening
A surprising number of people have asked me "Were you on your own?" in that manner that means I shouldn't have been, in their opinion. Frankly I rather resent the question. Walking in the mountains is entirely different, if you are on your own. You become one with the environment, you become a part of it. You experience it in a way that no party of two or more ever can because they take their own little bubble with them, and peer out from it at the landscape. I will strongly defend the right of a well prepared and properly equipped adult to go into the mountains unaccompanied - most of those I saw in the Carneddau that day were unaccompanied - and although obviously almost any activity carried out unaccompanied carries a risk, it would not in fact have helped me at all in this particular case, and could well have made things worse. For example I might have asked a companion to find a way back to the proper path and help me to get to it, which would not have been a good idea at all, as it turned out. Or I might have landed on them and taken them down with me.. So, feel free to ask me that question, but be prepared to receive a lengthy response!
Enough. This has been a life-changing experience for me, and has caused me to rethink my whole approach to steep, rocky pointy bits. For now I will continue to rest and heal. I will post here again when I am fully recovered, which may be a while yet. I will not be going to Andorra this year, maybe not ever - we shall see!