Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Going Down.

Have you ever truly thought that you might not see the end of the day? Found yourself in a situation, however briefly, that you thought you might be about to become nothing more than a fading memory in the minds of your family and a few friends?

Here's one of mine.

It was several years ago (I think around January 2001) and I was out in the hills around Snowdonia with a good friend of mine. We'd started off in clear but cold conditions at sunrise with the intent of climbing three peaks on a circular route, with a couple of exposed ridges along the way for entertainment. We made good time and were sitting on our second summit by lunchtime. Teeth chattering from the cold, muscles burning from the strain of the climb I sat on a rock eating my customary squished cheese & tomato sandwich and Marsbar, looking out across the jagged country below us and watching the high altitude clouds cut across the clear blue of the sharp midwinter skies. All was good. We finished our lunch and dug out the map, plotted our course for the final ridge and peak. My buddy pointed out a useful emergency route off the mountain, should we need it, and I laughed at him for being such an old fart. We shouldered our packs and headed off.

We got to the tail end of the ridge (it's the one in the picture) about an hour later as the weather turned really bad. High winds and snow had come in quickly and the cloudbase had dropped below our altitude, making navigation very difficult. Once this had happened I came to realise that the distinction between 'old fart' and 'experienced' is a fine, but important, line and after a couple of minute's huddled conversation behind a rock we made the decision to use the emergency route.

Unfortunately the wind, snow, low temperatures and poor visibility, combined with our tiredness, lack of GPS and map-reading ineptitude led us to miscalculate our position. We thought that we were at the head of our emergency route down and not, as was about to become frighteningly obvious, the head of a steep gulley.

I was leading down, I remember the snow underfoot being extremely slippery and thinking that the ground was a lot steeper than I was expecting it to be. I had my doubts that we were in the right place and I turned to tell my mate that I thought we'd got it wrong and should go back up to flatter ground to recheck. As I turned my feet went from under me and faster than I could blink I was sliding down the gulley, speed increasing rapidly as gravity did its thing. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as thoughts flashed through my mind. I thought of the shiney new ice axe that was sitting in my garage at home and how useful it would would have been at that point. I thought about buying crampons. I thought about how GPS units didn't seem so expensive now.

Then, with the thought of the airy ridge we'd just crossed fresh in my mind, I thought about how it might feel to suddenly find myself being spat from the edge of a rockface and to be in freefall. It's fair to say this concentrated my mind fairly well on the problem in hand*.

I started jamming heels and elbows hard into the snow in an effort to slow down. I hit a rock and that slowed me enough that I could stop myself. Breathing and harsh ragged gasps I shuffled myself slowly and carefully towards a clump of grass sticking out of the snow, grabbed it like my life depended upon it and started to gather my thoughts, get myself together.

After a few seconds I heard my buddy calling me from further up the gulley. He'd watched me disappear down the slope at alarming speed and out of sight into the cloud. He'd been calling me for a couple of minutes without response and was turning his thoughts to how he should break it to my girlfriend of the time that I was now no more than a large stain at the bottom of a cliff when I finally responded. To my undying gratitude he climbed down after me, called me a twat, and we then set about climbing down via numerous waterfalls and scrambles to safer ground.

After we'd walked around a mile and a half back to the car, he broke the news about my leg. The rock that I'd hit had taken quite a chunk out of my waterproofs, trousers and leg. There was an impressive amount of blood and, now I was aware of it, an equally impressive amount of pain. My mate told me that if I made a mess of the upholstery in his car he'd give me some more injuries to worry about.

And then we were at the car. Once we were there I started laughing hysterically - I'd been in a few oh-my-god-this-is-it moments before, but this one was different because even after the initial drama was over we were still quite comprehensively in the shit and not really sure how the situation was going to pan out. Keeping it together for the couple of hours getting back to the car seemed to intensify the sense of relief and joy.

Since then I've become an older and wiser dog. I always take not just a map and compass, but also a GPS and spare batteries with me. The axe is no longer shiney (even though it hasn't been used in a few years now) and I have a much better pair of boots.

I still like a squished cheese sandwich and a marsbar though and my walking buddy is still equally cantankerous.

Happy days.


* - Even now, when I think of that moment, my palms get a bit clammy.....


  1. Lots of thoughts on this Andy....and the words go .....exciting/scary/idiot/mars bar/crisp clean snow/bad leg/close shave/pissed pants?
    ps.If it was anybody else that had an axe in the garage I'd advise AG to sleep with one eye open..just sayin........

  2. Into the void...nearly...that must have given you a new perspective on all sorts of things, least of all the Snow and Rock catalogue..

  3. Have you seen 'Touching the Void'? Just wondering if you too had 'Brown Girl in the Ring' running through your head at that time of crisis like Joe Simpson? (Ps, if you haven't seen the film, that comment will make no sense whatsoever)

  4. Libby - I'd agree with all the words apart from the last. Re the axe, no need to worry. It's in another attic now :)

    NB - All part of the learning experience.

    CQ - It's my favourite book and the film is pretty good too. Not that my minor tumble is even close to what Joe & Simon went through.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. You and Betts should do more of this stuff, drinking wine with me in the conservatory is not very exciting... but don't die, you haven't finished tiling the bathroom or even started on building the wardrobes, I could go on but people would think I was nagging you

  7. One of my very favourite things in the world is drinking wine and chatting with you (as I said, I'm older and wiser). Although I'm a bit worried that things you'd miss would be tiling and wardrobes.