And so I went back to Cam Crag – if not quite in the circumstances I had hoped, then at least in much better conditions than my last visit. And I didn’t spend nine hours there this time.
I’d arranged with MB, a paramedic who volunteers with Keswick Mountain Rescue, that we would go up to the Crag and he’d show me where they found me. The rain put paid to those plans and then even to plans just to meet for a pint. The weather in the Lake District has been atrocious, really very bad. And not just the rain, with which I can cope, but oh, my word, the wind. A real pick-you-up-and-smash-you-into-the-topography kind of wind. And as you may know, I’ve already been smashed into the topography. It was quite traumatic. So I didn’t really get to the fell-tops this week.
But today dawned clear and, if not still, at least not murderous. So I find myself down at Stonethwaite, taking the track past the pub and the NT camp site. My right leg is still a little stiff, every pivot over that knee slightly awkward, any deviation from a normal stride an effort. I almost turn my good ankle on a loose stone a hundred metres from the road. I spend a minute inwardly cursing my clumsiness until the eye-watering ache fades. Slightly perturbed, I continue up through the old woodland until the valley reveals itself. Gosh, it’s beautiful.
In places, the track is several centimetres deep in standing water. I slosh through the short sections and go around the longer. The heave up to the Woof Stones is every bit as grim as I imagined and I have to use my trekking pole. So there it is – the first little tremor of what’s been sat in the back of my mind humming the music from Jaws: am I going to be strong enough to even get up to the start of the scramble, never mind back down again? I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I can’t do the full route. It’s too committing, I’m not fit enough, my right leg and left arm aren’t strong enough and the descent on the other side is, quite frankly, terrible. You must either go over Glaramara, which is fine but long, or take the rough route over Rosthwaite Fell, which is short but merciless.
Scrambling is one of my great joys. You don’t need loads of kit, it’s more of an adventure than a walk and more of a journey than a climb. The downside, as I discovered last year, is that it might kill you. Of course, rationally, I already knew that – it’s the risk that makes it exciting. Until you’ve heard your leg snap (loudest thing I’ve ever heard, like a gunshot but inside my body) and then listened to various bits inside you break as you rag doll down the mountainside then I don’t think you really understand that risk. Take it from me, it’s real. You can’t comprehend what it’s like to do that much damage to your body unless you’ve done that much damage to your body. And wear a helmet. No, seriously. We all think it won’t happen to us right up until it happens to us.
I digress. I’m standing here, looking at the gentle start to the scramble, wondering if I can do this, either physically or mentally. Still, only one way to find out. The rock is rough and incredibly grippy as I pinch-on and start to climb. I’m erring toward my right arm and left leg. To be honest, it’s what I would do at peak fitness because they’re strongest, but it’s more pronounced now. There’s some faffing as I shuffle my feet to achieve a stance where I can push off on my good leg. Further up, I have an awkward traverse where I make sure my right hand is clamped onto the surface of the world each time I shift my weight. This bottom section is 10 or 15 metres and I take my time with it, make sure of every move. It’s not vertical, so if anything does go awry then all I have to do is put my full body against the rock. It won’t feel very nice, but I will slide to the ground like Wile E. Coyote on sandpaper. Nonetheless, I feel incredibly vulnerable. Where once I focussed only on what was immediately beneath my hands and feet, now my mind is drawn to the open space below me. Soon I top out at the big slab above the Woof Stones. There’s an awkward mount onto the slab, which I don’t use. Instead, I go around the side and cross to the foot of the scramble proper.
Staring up at it, I don’t feel much of anything. What should I feel? No demons have been faced nor ghosts laid to rest. It’s not brave if you’re not scared of it in the first place – bravery is when you’re scared and do it anyway. Why am I here? Do I have something to prove? I don’t have any answers.
I spent a long time here last November, although I only remember snatches of it. I’m comfortable with that, to be honest. It was pretty distressing, but I’ve tucked that round the corner and out of sight. Apparently I entirely imagined the bit where I was saved by dogs. My mind has done a lot of staring at the fall since, pondering all the ways it really could have gone worse for me. I could have severed my spinal nerve when I was shifting myself about. I could have broken my femur instead of my tibia and the sheared bone could have opened my femoral artery. My helmet might have come loose earlier in the fall (or I might not have been wearing it) and I could have brain damage. One of my broken ribs might have punctured a kidney or a lung. I might have had less insulation with me and copped to hypothermia. I could have snapped my neck. Yes, I really have thought about this a lot. None of that happened, though, and it’s beautiful here, really beautiful.
I look around but recognise neither the spot from which I fell nor the location where I was found. Cam Crag rises up in a series of terraces and for all I know, I could have been further up when it all unravelled. I turn round and make my way back down, skirting round the short section of scramble I ascended. The slope is steep, studded with rocks and thick with bracken. It’s hard going, much harder than the ascent, but I make it almost to the vally floor without incident. As I near Langstrath Beck, I put my left foot on a patch of something slippery sat on top of something else slippery. My leg swoops out from under me and I land on my backside in a great blossom of muddy water. At least nobody saw this. I return to Grunty without incident and head back up Borrowdale.
It’s been a hard year and I’ve had to learn a lot about patience and resilience, about frustration, and about getting up (on crutches) and keeping going. I’ve had a lot of support; my family, friends and employer have all been brilliant. There have been people at work whose names I don’t even know coming to tell me how pleased they are to see me back and it’s impossible not to be touched by that. I’m actually filling up just thinking about it. The follow-up care at St. Luke’s Hospital, in Bradford, has been tremendous and I am humbled by the patience of the team there dealing with someone as cantankerous as I. But there is a point where you really just have yourself to haul you back up. The nights have been hardest, especially in the early stages of my rehabilitation. However much having a visit in hospital cheers you up (and it does) when night comes, it’s just you in the fight. Just you trapped in the body you shattered yourself, delirious on morphine, unable to get comfortable, worrying whether you’ll ever use your left arm again, desperate for rest but scared to sleep because of the opiate dreams. That eventually recedes and you start making progress, quite rapidly at first, and then more slowly. I’d like to be able to give you some great life lessons, something positive limping out of all this horror, but I’ve got nothing. At the time of writing, I’ve discovered that my tibia hasn’t regrown around the intramedullary nail, and I may need more surgery. I am, I must confess, discouraged. My reluctance to have more surgery is not because surgery itself daunts me (although it certainly does). I spent around nine hours last year with death giving me the long stare; it’s taken me a year to get this far and I’m still only at about three quarters healed. There’s no way I can take more surgery without it setting my body back. However keyhole they can make it, it’s going to mean more scar tissue clinging to my skeleton like tar, impeding mobility. So all I’ve really got by way of philosophy is that, if you can find a way to do it, it’s better to live with fear than in fear. There really is nothing to do about it but hold up your head, and hold up your head, and hold up your head, and hold up your head. Eventually, your head will stay up on its own. And there’s this, from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war memoir “If I Die in a Combat Zone”. Please don’t think I’m comparing my situation to that of somebody trapped in combat, I’m not – this man simply writes about fear beautifully.
“And those who are neither cowards nor heroes, those men sweating beads of pearly fear, failing and whimpering and trying again – the mass of men in Alpha Company – even they may be redeemable. The easy aphorisms hold no hope for the middle man, the man who wants to try but has already died more than once, squirming under the bullets, going through the act of death and coming through embarrassingly alive. The bullets stop. As in slow motion, physical things gleam. Noise dissolves. You tentatively peek up, wondering if it is the end. Then you look at the other men, reading your own caved in belly in their eyes. The fright dies the same way novocaine wears off in the dentist’s chair. You promise, almost moving your lips, to do better next time; that by itself is a kind of courage.” Tim O’Brien, “If I Die in a Combat Zone”, Chapter 16: Wise Endurance
Oh, and wear a helmet.