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Never Back Down (Unless You’re Trad Climbing)

Turns out trad isn’t the same as sport climbing.

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Photo illustration by Randall Levensaler, photos by John Bunney.
Photo illustration by Randall Levensaler, photos by John Bunney.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 245 (October 2017).

Hot. Sweating. STOP sweating, goddammit. When is the U.K. ever this hot? Chalk. O.K., wires. Which size? That one—gold. There, that fits. I’d give it six out of 10. Let’s get another one. Oh, shit! How many did I just drop? They’re goners; the sea will eat them up. Ollie’s gonna be pissed about that. Bit embarrassing. Never mind. Control the pump. Don’t back down. Let’s go out trying.

I wake from a dream of falling. The jolt shoots down my fractured spine like lightning. Impulsively I clench my fist to grab an imaginary rope. My broken wrist is not yet in a cast. Agony.

What ward is this? What is the connection between the occupants of the other beds and myself?

I press the button for the nurse. More morphine, please. The worst thing about morphine is that it makes you constipated. The best thing is that they squirt the pain-numbing syrup into your mouth with a syringe. Sweet nectar.

I am a hummingbird, collecting nectar.

The second-worst thing about morphine is that it can make you delirious.

Earlier that August day glorious sunshine had painted the bucolic fields of Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales, while the Irish Sea had masqueraded as the Mediterranean. Limestone cliffs rose proudly above the fractured sea-cut platform, towering over waves that threw salt spray into the air.

How often is the weather in Britain this good? I had thought. Psyched.

The week before, James had recommended I try Barbarella, an E5 crack.

“Pffft, no way, man, way too fierce,” I had said. “Think I’ll take it easy, consolidate my grades.”

Yet there I was anyway, at the start of Barbarella, looking up at the initial 25-foot groove. Thin, flaring cracks spread like veins, snaking down the side of a smooth off-white shield. From there up to the crack the rock seemed bare. That’s gonna be a big move.

“Good pro in the crack, huh?” I thought aloud.

Twenty minutes later I was high in the groove.

How many days climbing have we done so far? Four days straight. No wonder I’m tired. Good thing I’m a good sport climber, means I can hang on, know how to rest. That’s what I’ll do, just shake out until I’ve regained enough to move on.

My god, I’m pumped though. When has it ever been this hot in the U.K.? Feel like I’m in Spain. Hope Ollie isn’t too annoyed about those wires I just dropped. Where’s the crack? Good pro up there. Just got to get to that ledge. Got three wires in, Ollie’s there. Onsighting this is gonna feel so good. Impressive. Very cool… God, I’m tired, though. Maybe I don’t care that much? But got to try hard, be ballsy, brave. Throw for it, even if failure is inevitable. Throw for it.

Then I was on the ground. Did Ollie drop me? No, I had felt the gear rip, the tug at my harness. I remembered falling. Eyes closed. No sound.

“Don’t move.” Ollie’s voice carried from above.

“I bit my tongue,” I mumbled thickly, mouth full of metallic marshmallow.

“I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

Panic then. I’ve just decked from 25 feet. Can I feel my legs? Jesus, Ollie, come back and help me figure out if I can feel my toes! Oh, wait, he’s calling for help. O.K., carry on. I’m so glad he knows what to do.

Wiggle, wiggle: my toes moved. Relief surged, a tidal wave. There was blood from somewhere. Smeared on the boulder to my left.

The Lifeboat crew arrived. A large man in an all-in-one yellow waterproof and rubber boots asked where I fell from.

“Hello, yes, I fell from up there,” I said, with almost inappropriate gaiety. Must be useful and polite. Quite an inconvenience to their day, I’m sure.

“O.K., let’s get you out of this harness,” the yellow-rubber man said, brandishing oversized scissors. “How long have you been a climber?”

This is nice, I thought. They’re keeping me talking, keeping my mind off the pain. Rather like when the gynecologist tries to make small talk to distract you from the fact that they’re six inches away from your privates. Be polite, charming. Maybe even try to be witty.

“Oh, a few years, but obviously still have some things to learn!”

Nailed it.

“Lovely, and what do you do for work, Harriet?”

Well, this is embarrassing. I am 27 years old and have a Ph.D. but I live at home with my parents and have a part-time job that wouldn’t challenge a 15-year-old. Is the point of this exercise for me to be truthful, or just to keep me distracted?

Concern permeated the air. Clouds filled Ollie’s face. There, there. I smiled, trying to reassure him. Everything’s O.K. I can wiggle my toes!

The helicopter arrived. A Sea King. A female pilot, I was told. The chopper whipped salted marine grit into the air; bodies sheltered me. How is it so hot? Most unusual for the U.K.

“Hello, Harriet, I’m Andy,” said the chopper paramedic. “I hear you took a fall?”

“Yes, Andy, most unfortunate. Bit bust up down here.”

“Don’t move your head. Do you need some pain relief?” Andy asked, rummaging in his gigantic first-aid kit.

“No, no, I’m fine,” I replied. That’s right, folks. High pain threshold, fucking hero.

Andy looked at me. “Don’t move your head. Shock’s a funny thing. You let me know when the adrenaline wears off and you need pain meds.”

They wrapped an inflatable splint around my wrist, another around my hips. My back was setting cement. Four people lifted me onto a stretcher. The chopper was back, lowering its winch.

Andy took my hand, and I suddenly wanted to cry.

In the helicopter there were yet more people to meet and be polite to: “Hello!” “Yes, silly accident!” “Lovely helicopter you have here!”

“Don’t move your head,” Andy said.

Arriving at the hospital, I was the trauma of the day. Lots of people to be polite to: doctors, nurses, radiographers and orderlies. “Very hot today, isn’t it?”

So here I am at 2:00 a.m. in Swansea Hospital Misfits Ward, compression fractures in my lumbar vertebrae and a broken wrist, imploring a night nurse to squirt opiates into my mouth with a plastic syringe. My lower back has morphed into a featureless slab of purple swelling and my insides are thick. The shock has worn off; I don’t feel light-hearted anymore. Ollie is asleep in the parking lot. He called my parents for me, tried to make it all sound fine. Pretty sure they didn’t believe him.

Quite a day. Really makes you think, what if? Turns out trad isn’t the same as sport climbing. Morphine floods my senses. Next time, I’ll back down.

Harriet Ridley is an Editorial Fellow at Rock and Ice and is fully recovered and back to trad climbing. Albeit more cautiously.