Let’s Cut to the Chase…I could have Died

Let’s cut to the chase…I could have died, and all for a photograph. It’s that simple.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you might have seen I recently posted a few images of my legs from my hospital bed, one that shows me with a relatively normal leg and one that is swollen to about twice the size, the other photo showing that swollen leg in plaster. I’d ruptured my Patellar Tendon on my right knee. The rupture in this case was a complete detachment of the tendon from the Tibia (the larger of the two lower leg bones). The function of this singular tendon is to attach your Tibia to your Patellar (your kneecap). Your Kneecap kind of just floats there in front of your Tibia and Femur (Thigh Bone). The Kneecap is then attached from above by another Tendon to your Quadriceps (those big thigh muscles). You use this whole mechanism to straighten your leg, walk up or down stairs or kick a ball, etc. Essentially it enables you to walk. However, your Quads are extremely powerful muscles and they’re being held to your lower leg by this singular Patellar Tendon, but let’s just call that little fella Pete from now on. Therefore, now that Pete had been completely torn away from my Tibia, it meant my Kneecap was a reasonable distance up my thigh, the quads having pulled it out of place. Nasty.

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The more typical injury you see from your kneecap is a dislocation. It sounds and looks quite horrible, it’s also incredibly painful. Your kneecap is effectively pulled out of place, always to the outside of your leg with your leg bent. If it happens to you, you can either sit there in pain and wait for rescue or an ambulance, or you can fix it yourself. How the hell do you do that? Well, it’s easier if there is someone there, but you can do it yourself. You need to grab your lower leg that is bent back and with your other hand to the side of the dislocated kneecap, guide/push it back whilst simultaneously straightening your bottom leg…and ‘pop’, it’ll go back…pain gone instantly…relatively speaking. You’ll probably want to get yourself to hospital fairly quickly thereafter, but for all intents and purposes, you’ll be fine. On Friday 16th August in a fairly remote area of Snowdonia, this is what I thought I had done, and straighten my leg in the manner above I did…except the pain didn’t stop. Bugger. How do I know how to re-seat a dislocated kneecap? Because only the day before I learned how to as part of an Outdoor First Aid course run by Katherine Wills of Active First Aid in Llanberis in preparation for my Mountain Leader Assessment in November…bloody typical.

Before we get to how my injury happened, why I could have died and what happened next, let’s wind back the clock a bit.

I’m a big guy, I’ve always been on the heavy side, but recently I’ve been eating more. Back in April, my wife Lisa, Monty (our dog) and I were travelling along the NC500 route in the far North of Scotland in our campervan when Lisa got a phonecall from her dad to say her mum had collapsed, had had several seizures and been taken to hospital. She’d had a CT and unfortunately they had found a Brain Tumour. Lisa immediately returned to Nottingham whilst Monty and I slowly made our way back in the van. Unfortunately the prognosis for the tumour was terminal. So, from then until now, Lisa has been spending most of her time in Nottingham caring for her mum, whilst Monty and I have been leading a virtual ‘Bachelor’ lifestyle back in Solihull. Put it simply, I’ve been eating crap. I’ve been Monty’s chief walker of course and still been going to the gym, but ultimately, during the traditional low summer period for Landscape Photography, I wasn’t exercising enough to justify the intake and the pounds were clocking up. A few weeks ago I got a really bad sore throat which meant I could hardly eat for a few days…that was a kickstarter to eat less. The flipside to that was it was a bit of a shock to the system and I was feeling the effects of slightly low blood sugar occasionally, which can impede decision making a little. On the day of the accident I’d taken in approx 500kcals before I set off. This was supposed to be a short hop up a hill and back in a couple of hours, three at the most. I was already looking forward to a decent meal in Porthmadog afterwards.

NC500 VLOG

On the day there was a huge weather front that dumped a hell of a lot of rain on Snowdonia. I was working out of the back of the van that day (tethering my phone to my laptop so I could access my work network, reply to emails and answer or make calls), I had no intention of doing any photography because of the weather, and anyway, I was meeting James Burns on Saturday morning to spend the day on the hill with him. However, late in the afternoon I checked the latest radar and satellite images and noted the front and rain would clear towards sunset with clear sky behind and suddenly I thought “ooh, good chance of epic light with a stormy sky backdrop if I head to a western location and shoot east”. After a bit of thinking, I thought I needed a heather shot for my Snowdonia project and also a shot of Cnicht. I could kill two birds with one stone. I figured a shot from Yr Arrdu might just work. I could either park at Croesor and cross rough ground, or I could park at the parking place at Coed Caeddafydd in the Nanmor valley and follow the path up from there. A path I’d never been up. It looked shorter than the Croesor route so I went for it. Before I got there the heavens truly opened. Parking up at the parking place, I sat in the van for a good hour in a deluge and waited. The prospect of the hike wasn’t thrilling me at this point and when the rain finally stopped I reluctantly packed my bag…or rather unpacked it to lighten it…and prepared to set off on what was supposed to be a very short jaunt.

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Having done Mountain Leader training and also the first aid course, you learn there are certain things you should carry always and certain things you might not. Of course the list changes on the situation and your chosen activity. You don’t always have to carry a confidence rope for example, total overkill. As a minimum though, heading out for this type of walk, I should have been carrying the following as a minimum:

  • Map
  • Compass*
  • Whistle*
  • 2 Man Bothy
  • Headtorch*
  • Snacks and/or energy gel/s
  • Phone*
  • First Aid Kit, including a trauma bandage and over the counter painkillers (stored separately)

* Items that I actually was carrying.

On a full on mountain day, there are a few other items I would consider taking, and now, having had this experience, one more, which I’ll detail later.

After less than five minutes I encountered my first obstacle and seriously considered going back…I wish I’d listened to my 6th sense. At the top of a field beyond a gate the gradient increased significantly. However, the whole path and hillside was obscured by some of the tallest, thickest bracken I’ve ever seen. I guess this summer of long warm periods and cooler very wet periods has created perfect growing conditions for plantlife. I couldn’t see the path at all and had to guess my way through. No one seemed to have passed this way in a very long time. I was relieved when I made it through the bracken into the edge of a woodland and the path became obvious. Although good, the path was narrow, steep and the ground loose. Eventually I reached a stile and went over. There was a significant amount of water running off the hill, creating new streams. I took what I thought was the path but was actually a small stream, I was just making bad decisions. I got very wet and recognising I was just making mistakes made a mental note I was not coming back this way under any circumstances. If I made it to the top I was going to walk out the long way along a route I’ve done before where I know the path is good. It would mean a lengthy road walk but it was much more preferable to this. Eventually the terrain flattened and knowing that the official path on the map (which I was reading off GPS on my phone) went through the adjacent woodland, I crossed extremely waterlogged ground, sinking in water above my gaiters at times, to reach the woodland at the North-Eastern corner. I could see that if I followed the wall South I would intercept the path. The ground was drier but the atmosphere was thick with hill fog and it was very dark in the wood. I walked generally South hoping to intercept the path and then make a decision what to do next. Eventually I came upon a ruined building. I must have walked straight over the path! Pacing was very difficult because of the terrain, some bog and downed trees. At the building I decided with two hours of daylight left, that I had to get out of there. I started heading downhill in a Northerly direction and after about 5 minutes found ‘a’ path, very faint but obviously not an animal track as it zig-zagged down the hill very close to a stream (now in spate). There were some lovely deciduous trees on the way down, amongst the pine, which I stopped to try and photograph, but nothing was working for me. I was tired, wet and hungry anyway, and my main mission was over. If there was great light later, I’d watch it from the pub with a beer in my hand. I’ve included a couple of iphone photos below to give you a sense of the environment.

IMG_1713Steep Ground, Very Dark

IMG_1715A Clearing Showing Generally Mossy Woodland Floor

There were some difficulties and the soil was loose but I was using poles and it was fine, I just wanted to get down. After I slipped and slid a few feet I decided to take it easier. I then got a sense of impending doom. I can’t describe it, it was just a feeling. My thoughts changed to the things we discussed on the First Aid course just the day before. I remember thinking this would be a bad place to dislocate a knee or worse. I checked my phone. No signal. I had GPS so double checked my location, I was about 250 metres horizontal distance and 120 metres in altitude from my van. Not far. About 10-15 minutes walk on this terrain. I stopped to look down and could see a clearing with lots of very large downed pine trees which would be difficult to navigate if they had fallen across the path. I must have walked about 10 feet, there was a small step down, about 6 inches. I placed my poles ahead, applied some body weight, put my right foot out and down…and my foot slid forward and down on the mud. WHACK!

A bit dazed by what had just happened, I was on the ground on my left side. My right lower leg was bent back behind me. I thought I had hit my knee on a branch I hadn’t seen as I stepped down. There was no branch. It had felt like someone had swung a baseball bat at my knee. There was a brief moment of nothing and then I could feel it, the pain, sickening pain coming from my right knee. Instantly I thought it was a dislocation. I went into auto-pilot, remembering if I could get it straight, it would ‘pop’ back into place and the pain would go instantly or thereabouts. With my left hand I reached around to my waterproof trousers on my lower right leg, grabbed some material and with my right hand felt my knee…it was lumpy. I could definitely feel it wasn’t right. The kneecap wasn’t quite where it should be with a dislocation, but I couldn’t really tell, the pain was blinding. I took one deep breath and pulled my right leg straight whilst at the same time with my right hand, pushed the lumpy bit on my knee back towards where my kneecap should be. Agony. I had to lay back and get my breath. Nothing felt right…and the agonising pain was still there. Hoping it was just a dislocation, I stood up with my good leg, grabbed my poles to support myself and took a step…bang, down I went again. More pain. I had to take a minute.

On the Mountain Leader course you learn and discuss many things, including what to do in an emergency, how to contact Mountain Rescue, how to pinpoint your location, things you can do and use amongst those in your party to aid others in the group, etc. All of that ran through my mind at lightning speed. I thought about the first aid course. This wasn’t a catastrophic bleed, I was still breathing, I definitely didn’t need a Defibrillator. I did for some reason check my own pulse, haha. All I can tell you is it was strong and fast. Adrenalin had kicked in. I was shaking. I re-arranged my legs in front of me so they were straight out in front and I was sitting in a safe position. I took off my rucksack and checked the time. It was 6.50pm. Sunset was at about 8.30pm. I checked what was in my rucksack and took out my whistle, putting it around my neck. I looked for painkillers. I normally carry Ibuprofen, Paracetamol and Asprin. I had none. They had been with my first aid kit that I had TAKEN OUT of the pack before I left the van. I had wanted to travel as light as possible that day. Serious error of judgement. I thought about what to do and thought I could fashion a splint for my leg with one of the poles. A splint would need 3 lengths of rope, or cord, or tape, or even a bandage to tie around my leg to hold it in place. All I could find that would work was my belt. A splint wasn’t going to work. I checked my phone. No signal. The day before I had downloaded the 3words App. I knew my friend Jake Turner had recommended it the day before on Twitter, and so figured if I could send the three words of my location (the App uses three unique combinations of words per every 3 metre x 3 metre grid on Earth) along with the words “Send help, bad fall, knee broken?” to Jake, he was the one person I absolutely knew would understand and he could alert Mountain Rescue. Texts often work even when it appears you have no signal, much more so than calls. I sent the text. “Message Send Failure”. I tried dialling 999 because maybe there was a signal on another network. An emergency call will work on any available network, whether you are on that network or not. Nothing, “Call Failure”. I was on my own. A mere 250 metres from my van and the road. Fear set in. I could die here. I started to blow on my whistle. Six short blasts followed by one minute and then another six short blasts. Rinse repeat. I also shouted at the top of my lungs for help. The rivers were in spate and were as loud as a jet engine. No-one more than a few metres away was going to hear me. But you have to keep trying. I knew the area I had parked is popular with the odd dog walker. I just hoped one was taking a late evening walk with their dog after the rain. Maybe, just maybe they might hear me. But, I couldn’t just wait and hope. It was going to get dark, I was wet through, I didn’t have my bothy for shelter and warmth, I had no way to signal for help above the noise of the river. Crucially, I hadn’t left a route card in the window of my van, detailing where I was going and when I expected to be back etc. It wouldn’t be until I was a no-show for James at 7.30am the next morning that ANYONE would know I was missing. I hadn’t told anyone where I was (HUGE mistake that I look back on now and think to myself, why?). Even if James alerted anyone, a search probably wouldn’t begin until the afternoon and they certainly wouldn’t find my van until at least Sunday. They’d probably start with the more popular areas and go from there. I was in a not very popular place. So, I was faced with the prospect of being there, in a lot of pain and with god knows what injury for 36-48 hours at least. No food. One bottle of water. I’d almost certainly have become hypothermic over the first night and if I’d managed to last until the following night, starting from a much weaker status of health, I didn’t fancy my prospects of making it to Sunday. I had to get out of there myself. I gathered my things. Arranged my clothing so that all my zips were fastened, put my rucksack back on and began to slide feet first, not easy with a leg that doesn’t work anymore.

After about 10 metres I encountered my first obstacle, a downed tree. I had to go over it. I hauled my bad leg up and over and then my good leg, arched my back and pushed up with my arms, so I was lying over the tree on my back, I let myself slide over. I continued to slide feet first, and then, the path inexplicably turned right and started going back up! I got on my front and crawled with my arms upwards a short distance until the path turned again, this time left and back downhill. I slid on my backside again. Then I encountered the second obstacle, a large tree with big roots. The only way past was through a small gap between the trunk and a mishmash of old wire fence and thorny bush. Great. I squeezed through, trying not to get caught up but catching my hand on the many thorns. The path then head straight downhill alongside a fence, passing close to downed trees. About halfway down I could just see the van and what appeared to be a Land Rover parked next to it! Someone was around. I was continuing to blow my whistle. Eventually the gradient eased and flattened out. I was still about 50 metres from the van. I turned and began to crawl again, but I was getting tired now. I wondered if I could stand as the ground was relatively flat. If I used the poles a bit like crutches, maybe I could hop the rest of the way. I stood bolt upright on my good and bad leg. The bad leg stayed locked out. Eureka! I could at least stand on this flattish ground. From that point I hobbled back to the van, over a few trees, soaking wet, covered in mud, my clothing was a bit shredded. I got alongside the Land Rover and saw movement inside. Someone was there! It was a young couple who were camping in the back of their converted Land Rover. Even better, they were doctors! They lept into action.

It was now after 8pm, it had taken me well over an hour to slide and drag myself those 250 metres. The couple hadn’t heard my cries or whistle at all. I’m not surprised they didn’t, the noise from the water even here was loud. After initially making me comfortable, they quickly checked my knee which was now very swollen and we decided that he would drive me in my van with me in the back, a makeshift ambulance, to the hospital at Bangor, whilst she would follow in their Land Rover. It would take about an hour. After getting me into A&E, they waited with me until I went for triage and then left. I don’t remember their names. I think he was called Ben, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t really thinking straight. Anyway, if they ever read this, I want to thank them, thank them for being there and looking after me until the doctors and nurses at A&E took over. Thank you.

The rest? Well, the rest is a tale of surgery and the prospect of 6-18 months of physio before I can even contemplate adventures in upland areas again. Photography? Well, we’ll see. As I sit here typing this, the thought of running around the countryside with a little black box trying to capture photos only for them to be lost in a sea of mediocrity and ‘likes’ in an artificial online world seems…profoundly quaint. Time is a healer of course.

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Red Dot is approx location of accident

Red Line is approx route travelled back to Van

Green Dot is the Van

LESSONS LEARNED

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from my experience, both practical and theoretical. The obvious have been repeated before, time immemorial, but here are some again:

  • Always, always let someone know where you are going
  • Always leave a route card in your vehicle windscreen detailing your contact details, emergency contact, how many are in your party, your intended route and your expected return time
  • Never walk solo in an unfamiliar area unless you have means to raise alarm (don’t rely on a mobile)
  • Always ensure you have adequate food and water including something extra to cater for unforeseen events
  • If in doubt, turn back, there will be other days, the hills will still be there

Now, I consider myself quite experienced in the outdoors, I was a lover of the mountains a long time before I ever got into Photography. I’ve witnessed incidents of people falling off ridges (the speed at which this happens is frightening…no, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to reach out and stop yourself, you’ll be falling before your brain registers it), and others becoming ‘cragfast’ and terrified. I’ve guided lost souls to safety in atrocious weather, and seen the most beautiful and calm days turn into unexpected stormy nightmares in less than hour. I’ve also experienced the curious sensation of exhaustion myself, when you just want to ‘give up’ physically, and how mental resilience is so important in such circumstances, not only for yourself but also those you are with. Although I’ve never come anywhere close to the tales you hear of people just sitting down near the summit of Everest and allowing themselves to die, I can totally appreciate how that can happen. I’ve taught myself some of the skills necessary to survive falls in winter, and more importantly practiced them whenever I’ve had the chance. I’ve led large groups on a volunteer basis over some of the most exposed terrain in the UK, and I’ve learned from the odd mistake I made when doing so. Most recently I’ve undergone the training necessary to achieve my Mountain Leader qualification (something I should have done many years ago if I’m being honest) and only the day before my accident, completed a 2 day specific Outdoor First Aid qualification. I consider myself extremely cautious with regards to safety, in fact this is one of the reasons I decided to cease doing photography workshops. Despite all of the experience I had gained over the years, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with leading groups without more training and more experience. Yet, despite all of that, on Friday 16th August I made numerous mistakes and bad judgement calls that eventually landed me in hot water…and I was only 250 metres from a road. I may as well have been in the middle of the Sahara.

I mention all of this to emphasise to fellow hillwalkers and most specifically to fellow landscape photographers that disaster can strike at any time and to anyone. In addition, if you are joining a photographer on a workshop or you are unfamiliar with the terrain, it would be worth checking the background of the leader in question, whether they know the area well themselves, what qualifications they hold, do they have appropriate insurances and what is their general level of competence at leading people in potentially hazardous locations. Never join anyone purely on the basis of popularity, because the potential consequences are deadly.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m done with solo exploring. The experience of the accident above has taught me not to take my own mortality for granted. That feeling of necessity to overcome pain and disability to somehow save yourself with virtually no hope of assistance is enough to make me realise that, you know what, the photograph just isn’t worth it. If all goes well I’ll be able to walk in the mountains again in roughly 12 months time, but this time I’ll either be in areas that I know well, or I’ll ensure I am with someone else. However, just in case, I’ll be investing in something like a Garmin InReach Mini that works off the Iridium network of satellites to send a distress signal with GPS co-ordinates and/or text for help…all for an extra 100g’s of weight and a fairly reasonable monthly subscription (think of it as an insurance policy). It may prove to be invaluable one day.

Oh, the photography? I’m still not sure about that, give me a few months and I may get the desire back, but right now, Pete needs to heal and get stronger and I couldn’t care less if I’ve taken my last photograph.

Take care of yourselves, the outdoors can, and occasionally do, bite back.