Getting back in the saddle

A few years after I started climbing, I had an accident. Took a 30 foot groundfall. I was lucky(ish) and walked – or at least hobbled – away from the fall without serious injuries. However, the injuries I did sustain (damaged ligaments of the lower back, and bits of internal organ rearrangement) eventually meant I had to give up climbing (and indeed anything remotely physically strenuous) for several years.

Eventually, though, my body recovered enough to resume “doing stuff”. The stuff I was most keen to do was (obviously) climbing. I got back into it via the indoor route first, at the “Sunrise rock gym” in Livermore, in the Bay area of California (I was working out there for a while). After several months of indoor climbing, and with summer on the horizon, and back in my native north east of England, it was time to get back on the saddle and once again venture into the Great Outdoors.

My wife (and climbing partner) Jeanette was a bit reluctant for us to just throw ourselves back into it after several years off. Even though I insisted it was like “riding a bike” she was a bit more worried about “falling off the bike” (no doubt remembering what had happened the last time we went out) . Fortunately, succour was at hand in a guy called Bart who had been advertising “get out on rock” sessions at our local climbing gym. We signed up for the next weekend, and looked forward to a chance to regain some of our previous confidence, and to be reaquainted with the techniques involved with existing safely in a vertical world.

Saturday arrived and we drove out to a well know sandstone edge called “Bowden Doors” just south of the border between England and Scotland – a frequent haunt of ours from the past, and which we knew well. We met up with Bart and another three or four budding climbers. We did a bit of low level bouldering to loosen up and get a feel for the rock. Then Bart racked up ready to give a demonstration of how to climb a route whilst placing protection.

He chose a Bowden Doors classic “Back and Tan” (S, 5.6) – which involves sketchy moves off the deck to a flake about 15 foot off the ground, where the first gear can be placed. I belayed our instructor as he set off and climbed briskly up to the flake where he selected a cam and placed it behind the flake describing the process to his attentive acolytes. Having done so, he called down to me: “watch me now, I’m just going to lean back on the cam to show how solid it is”. “If you’re sure….” I replied (I didn’t really share his optimism of the holding power of not especially large, soft standstone flakes, but I guess he knew what he was doing). “Yup” he said then leaned back on the rope with a “look no hands” kind of flourish. All was well for about three seconds, then came a snapping sound as the cam blew out the part of the soft standstone it had been wedged behind. 9 . There was just enough time for Bart to look puzzled and alarmed at the same time before his moment of inertia was overcome and he came back down to earth with a bit of a “poff” onto the (thankfully) grassy ground (just missing me – also thankfully). Everyone looked a bit stunned at this – especially Bart.

“Shit” was Bart’s first reaction to the unexpected turn of events. Followed by a bit of moaning sound as the initial adrenaline boost started to subside. bart tried to rise, but Jeanette (experienced critical care nurse) gently stopped him and suggested we try to assess any injuries first. It quickly became apparent that he had hurt his pelvis quite badly. Jeanette thought possible fracture – no way he should be trying to rise under his own steam. A call to the emergency services seemed to be in order, so I ran back and forth across the hill-side searching for a cellular signal whilst Jeanette made Bart as comfortable as she could, The rest of the team stood around, in a mild state of shock. Bart also called his wife and (rather sheepishly) explained what had happened. It took me about 20 minutes to find somewhere I could make the 999 call, and about 45 mintues for the ambulance people to turn up. Bart’s wife arrived at the same time. She must have driven like the proverbial “bat out of hell” to make the normal 80 minute journey from Newcastle in under an hour. Everyone chipped in to help the ambulance guys stretcher Bart the 400m to the waiting ambulance.

And so ended our day of re-introduction to climbing. Didn’t really turn out quite how we expected, and didn’t do much to increase Jeanette’s confidence (or mine) in the general climbing process. Still, I guess it didn’t put us off as we’re still at it best part of twenty years later, although we’ve taken typical the old-guys path and mostly focus on (relatively) safe sport climbing. Bart didn’t have a broken pelvis, but did have severely strained ligaments and spent a few days in hospital. He did refund half the day’s fee, and I guess he did teach us something…..

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