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When a Rescue Needed a Rescue

The pilot transmitted a mayday moments before ditching in the open ocean. Frank, wrapped in Ken's pullover and new windproofs, was still lashed semi-conscious to the stretcher. Sugar couldn't swim.

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This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 238 (November 2016).

A narrow splinter of granite less than three miles long and walled by 400-foot cliffs, the isle of Lundy lies far out in the Bristol Channel between North Devon and South Wales. The island boasts a handful of permanent residents, a medieval castle, a church, three lighthouses and a tavern. Its history is rich, with 216 known shipwrecks, including that of a 1906 Dreadnought battleship, surrounding its shores. It’s also a rock climber’s paradise.

In the summer of 1971, lured by the undeveloped Lundy crags, and by way of a holiday after our attempt on Everest’s South Face, Odd Eliassen from Norway and I joined a group of close chums aiming to climb a few new routes. The party included the leading Southwest sea-cliff pioneers Pete Biven and Frank Cannings, with Ken Wilson of Mountain magazine there to record the fun. A spirit of friendly rivalry arose as Frank and Ken prospected new routes on a virgin crag.

“My line’ll go!” Frank shouted across to Ken.

“I’m first! Come on, youth, you’ve got to second me.”

Frank started scrambling, unroped, down the steep, loose, exposed gully to the cliff bottom. The rest of us heard a shout, a rattle of falling stones and
then silence.

We found Frank lying twisted and semi-conscious among the boulders at the head of the deep zawn.

“Jeez!” Biven gasped. “He must have bounced over a hundred feet!”

“Look at his back!” someone said. “It might be broken.”

“Hey, I’ve still got my Everest morphine,” offered Odd. “Shall I give him a shot?”

“Go right ahead,” I said.

While Ken climbed back up for help, Odd administered his morphine, and we wrapped Frank in spare pullovers and Ken’s expensive new windproof jacket.

The lighthouse workers phoned the police (who coordinate rescue in the U.K.), and they called for an RAF air/sea rescue helicopter from the mainland. As luck would have it, help was nearer at hand as well. A mainland cricket team visiting Lundy to play against the lighthouse men included a doctor.

“I’m no climber,” he said when summoned, “and I’ve left my black bag at home, but I’ll do what I can. Just get me down there somehow.” We talked him down on a very tight rope into the zawn, where, aided by Frank’s distraught wife, Sugar, who was camping with us, he stabilized the casualty, binding up a bleeding scalp wound with a torn T-shirt. Frank’s back, he thought, was probably intact.

Eventually a chopper appeared and located us. But the zawn was deep and narrow, the downdrafts fierce, and time and again the pilot was unable to reach a position from which his winch cable could reach us from above. The cable was too short, geared only to pluck sailors from the open sea.

Finally a crewman was winched down onto the cliff top, and we climbed up to join him.

“You’ll have to get him up the cliff yourselves,” he said. “We can take him from there. But with due respect to you chaps, I’m afraid regulations forbid
us relying on unofficial equipment or helpers.” The crew could not help us haul.

From bitter experience I knew that a man-haul without proper gear would be an extremely strenuous operation, especially as the doctor insisted that Frank must be kept level. Gingerly we lashed Frank into the ancient stretcher from the lighthouse, and on the cliff top Biven organized all of the climbers, cricketers and lighthouse workers on the ropes. My task was as barrow boy, steering the stretcher and fighting to keep Frank level.

Progress was fraught and very slow, and it must have been nearly an hour later that we reached the cliff top, from where Frank was swiftly winched up into the still-hovering aircraft.

“Tell them he’s had morphine!” Odd reminded Sugar, a feisty slip of a girl, as she was herself winched up, and the chopper set off out to sea.

By now the chopper had been in the air for several hours, and when it was halfway back to the mainland the engine cut out. The pilot transmitted a mayday moments before ditching in the open ocean. Frank, wrapped in Ken’s pullover and new windproofs, was still lashed semi-conscious to the stretcher. Sugar couldn’t swim.

The chopper turned over and sank swiftly, but the winchman threw Sugar out and by superhuman efforts the three aircrew managed to extricate the helpless Frank from the cabin before he drowned, dragging him onto the life raft where the shocked Sugar clung onto the side. Thankfully it was high summer and the sea calm.

Surprisingly quickly another chopper appeared, performed a routine rescue, and deposited Frank safely in the hospital.

As it turned out, Frank sustained only a cracked pelvis and soon recovered, while in due course the sunken helicopter was raised, and Ken’s pullover and expensive new windproofs, not in the best of condition, were returned to him.

The RAF at a Court of Enquiry refuted any suggestion of running out of fuel, while Biven and I remained silent, sure that was what had happened. For our part, we recommended that in coastal regions where cliff rescue might be necessary, rescue helicopters should carry longer winch cables, as are used in RAF mountain-rescue choppers. In those days, sea-cliff climbing was not yet popular, and such rescues had been rare.

The sequel came some 30 years later when the BBC made a TV program about the adventure. They reconstructed the event, and at the jolly preview party we were joined by the now long-retired aircrew, who could only reiterate the official verdict, while we all had a smile.

John Cleare of Wiltshire, England, is a photographer, filmmaker, author, climber and wilderness traveller.