My Pyrenees HRP Diary - Introduction

This blog was begun in 2015, to record my walk along the Pyrenees HRP from Hendaye to Banyuls. If you want to read about that, I suggest you start here.

But that is all in the past now, and I have expanded the blog a little to cover more recent events.. such as:

Snowdonia Way
Hebden Bridge
Equipment Reviews
North Downs Way
Andorra

and also, one day:

Pennine Way .. which I am due to walk for the third time in 2019, this time from N to S I think

I hope you will find something interesting. Please do provide a little feedback or comment, and if you are interested in something that I didn't say enough about, please let me know .. happy walking!



Jerry

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

My Trip to Andorra Falls Down the Hill Side...

Andorra is a steep, wild, hilly little country with an average height of very nearly 2,000m and a maximum height of 2,942m (9652ft). Its capital city, Andorra la Vella is the highest in Europe.

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:

Drum (765m)
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
Next time I am in this position - and frankly, I doubt if that will be any time soon - I will not try to descend the difficult rock chute. I will climb back up a few yards, find my way back across the ridge and look harder for the trodden path. Perhaps I would also phone Idwal Cottage and ask them very politely to go and tell my wife I am running late and invite her in for a tea. But overall I do not feel I was negligent, just a little hasty and a little unlucky.

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!











6 comments:

  1. A sobering tale for sure, Jerry. Glad you are now home and recuperating well. I have to say that I agree with you 100 percent about solo journeys, provided that you have prepared well beforehand, and you did. A shame you will not be able to get to Andorra this year, but never say never :-)

    Wishing you and your wife all the best!

    John from Ontario, Canada

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    1. Thank yoyu John.. I am feeling much more the thing now. I will get back to Andorra one day, but I am afraid I may have to be a little bit more careful in future, on the pointy bits!

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    2. I did put quite a long comment on your blog for this post after finding you on Mick and Gayle's blog - they are good friends of mine. I just wondered if my comment had vanished in the ether or perhaps you didn't want to publish it. Either way I would be grateful to know if it was received or not.

      Conrad Robinson - blogonym Sir Hugh - conradwalks.blogspot.com

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    3. Dear Jerry, what a traumatic experience. Luckly your phone was still working (and you still had it!)so you could make the emergency call. Good to hear that you are recovering, take time to get better and yes, be more careful with the pointy bits in future. The way you wrote the story is breathtaking - almost like "Touching the void" - are you the new John Simpson? A good analysis and lessons to be learned too. Some of the pictures show how difficult the terrain is(and beautifull too).
      Diny and I will be in the French Alps next two weeks. We will be careful and every now and then think about you when we hit a difficult passage. For now take care Jerry and get better, we hope we meet again somewhere in the Pyrenees or just at our or your place. Greetings to Sue - she has to keep up with a man with a dangerous hobby.


      Warm Regards,
      Hans en Diny

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  2. Wpw! Just picked this up from your comment on Mick and Gayle's blog - they are good friends. We met whilst both embarked on our respective Land's End John 'o Groats walks in 2008.

    You have my heartfelt sympathy, and also empathy, although you have suffered more than I did.

    In April last year I was walking my own plotted route from Berwick-upon-Teed to Castle Carey and descending into Weardale, like you, nearly at the end of the day I tripped over hidden wire in the grass from a dismantled fence, and broke my arm through the elbow joint. I managed to walk out to a farm and got a lift in a quad-bike down to the pub, four hour wait, ambulance and hospital.

    If you want to read of all the detail of my experiences in hospital, some funny, some serious, and some frustrating and some painful go to my blog conradwalks.blogspot.com from 16th April 2017 - I think this will get you there http://conradwalks.blogspot.com/2017/04/berwick-final.html
    Successive posts tell the story.

    Since then I returned to the walk only to have my second knee fail on me entering Hellefield ( the othere was renewed five years ago) and off I went for my second replacement knee at the end of November. I am now doing 9 mile walks and have just completed walking the Bronte Way with another friend - that was on five separate days - blog posts again tell the story. I am working up to returning to my Castle Carey walk but at the age of 78 it takes a little longer.

    I wish you the very best and hope that your recovery continues apace.

    Conrad Robinson (Nb my Blogonym is Sir Hugh)

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    1. Hello conrad .. and most humble apologies. fiddling with my blog today I found there are some comments awaiting moderation, including this one .. since I thought comments just magically appeared - and usually they do! - I have never looked here before. If you are still walking at 78 you will have coped with worse disappointments (I will look at the blog) but meantime,sorry again

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