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Mountain guide Paul Besley gives a matter-of-fact recollection of a near-fatal fall in the English Lake District. Words and photographs by Paul Besley.
The first foray in to the Lake District of the season brought me to Coniston and a night at the Holly How youth hostel. I planned to walk a circular route from the youth hostel via Dow Crags and the Old Man, returning to the hostel by the coppermines track the following day. So a nice curry and drink took me to bed and an early rise next morning. There was still snow about and I had brought crampons and ice axe ready for an assault on the South Rake of Dow Crags, so I was eager to get going. A breakfast with fellow roommate was the first mistake, as talk delayed the set off by 30 minutes, so I was on the back foot already. I left a route card with the hostel manager and walked down the track behind the hostel, leading towards Coppermine youth hostel. The day was clear; snow had largely cleared in the valley, but still clung to the tops. I followed the track bearing left at the bridge, and eventually reached the Walna Scar road. The walk was easy going and I was making good time to make my check point that would lead me to Goats Water. I met a few people on the way, including a family with small children. I always make a point of talking to people on my walks. One, it’s polite and sociable, and more importantly, ranger training has taught me to ask in a friendly way where people are going to, so that if any mishaps happen, I may have a clue as to their whereabouts. Such a question brought disdain from the family mother and a grunt of “mind your own business”. A sad way, I think, to conduct a walk with small children in such an environment.
Carrying on I walked up the track to Goats Water, and then took the left path towards Dow Crags. Plenty of snow was still evident on the South Rake and I made my way up with care, sometimes waist deep. There were footsteps already frozen in place so I was not the first, nor I suspect the last. After around 40 minutes I suddenly popped out onto the top with Buck Pike to my left and a roaring wind ahead of me. The crampons had done well, giving confidence and support where needed. Lunch was had crouched behind rocks, away from the wind, and then a walk over to the Old Man on a mixture of snow and ice brought me to the cairn and trig point. A couple who had walked up Brown Pike struggled along behind me, the female having no crampons was struggling with the icy surface, but carried on gamely.
My intention was to descend via Levers Hause to Levers Water, but on reaching the turning point a snow crevice forced me to backtrack and descend a little further south to regain the path. And that really is the last I remember, until I came around some 30 minutes later, a hundred feet below where I was previously, with blood pouring from my head and my rucksack laying a few feet below me. I had obviously taken a bad tumble somehow, and was now in some state of distress to say the least. The rucksack had become separated from my body in the fall, but luckily had landed only a few feet away from me. I managed to reach the rucksack and take out my ‘phone, which fortunately had survived the fall. Amazingly I had a good signal and dialled 112. Soon I was talking to a controller at RAF Kinloss, who immediately scrambled a helicopter and alerted the local Coniston Mountain Rescue Team. He also had my grid reference, which he had me check with my own map. After five minutes I could hear a siren, which I thought would be from the MRT vehicle coming up the coppermines track. It was now 4:30pm, by 5:15 it would be dark and the cold was starting to envelope me. I dug out my survival bag and spare clothing and tried to make myself comfortable and warm. I always save a few cups of warm tea in my flask for the end of the day and these were very welcome in the dropping temperature. Blood was still pouring from my head, and my chest and leg hurt, so I knew I was in a bad way. A ‘phone call from Caroline of the Coniston MRT reassured me they were closing in, and I was able to give further details of my position so that soon they appeared at the head of Levers Water a few hundred feet below me. At the same time the helicopter appeared from the direction of Coniston. There is no better sight than that of the rescue teams heading towards you. Soon Caroline was with me and I was being questioned and examined to assess the extent of my injuries. It was by no means the end of the ordeal though. Due to the poor weather conditions and the fading light rescue was difficult, and it took over three hours to stabilise me and lift me off the mountainside. 17 people from Coniston MRT were involved in my rescue, three air crew and even the manager at Holly How youth hostel had raised the alarm when I did not return.
I was taken to Carlisle Hospital where I was treated for a broken ankle and leg, eight broken ribs, severe head wound as well as various other bumps and bruises. An operation spliced my foot and leg back together with nuts bolts and plates, 12 stitches put my head back together, X-ray and MRI scans surveyed the damage and confirmed nothing more was wrong. Days in hospital gradually brought me back to some semblance of oneness. I am only here at all thanks to the skill of the rescue teams, nurses, surgeons and physiotherapists.
What went wrong on that mountainside? I have no idea what happened. I can only assume that I stepped on to what I thought was firm ground and as I transferred my weight the ground gave way and I careered down the mountain, eventually coming to rest as my foot hit a boulder that prevented further progress. What happened after that was a complete loss of consciousness for about 30 minutes. I know this because I know what time I came round, and can remember what time I last looked at my watch, as I was aware that the day was starting to close in and descent was in order. The fact that I had survival gear with me I think helped my cause and prevented hypothermia from developing more quickly, though it did become a problem later on. Spare clothing and drink was also a godsend, as was that all-important ‘phone reception. If the signal had not been there, then the route card left with the youth hostel manager with an indication of return time should (and did) alert him to a problem and he did raise the alarm.
So what do I take from the incident?
Always leave a route card and time of return with someone who knows what to do. Always carry survival gear, spare clothing and food and drink. Carry the ‘phone on my person and not in the rucksack. Metal drink containers survive a fall better than plastic bottles (my Sigg bottle is heavily dented but did survive and still held the contents). Keep calm and await rescue.
Perhaps I could have chosen a different route down, but there was no sign that the route I had chosen would be problematic. At the end of the day this was an accident, one that could have been deadly, but one which I survived with the help of my training and the expertise, courage and dedication of the Royal Air Force, and the Coniston Mountain Rescue Team.
Fortunately Paul is now fully recovered from his injuries, though the incident did nothing to dent his enthusiasm for the fells. He runs Rock and Fell, which provides guided walks in the Peak District National Park – see www.rockandfell.com or follow @rockandfell on Twitter.
Paul is particularly grateful to the men and women of the Coniston Mountain Rescue Team, one of hundreds of groups around the world devoted to ensuring our safety in the mountains. Like many such teams, Coniston MRT relies on donations to be able to continue its good work. For more details visit their web site, www.conistonmountainrescue.co.uk