On the bright side 27/09/16

“Yeah…well…you know what Napoleon said: Give me a man who is lucky.”


So I’ve been cranking open my tibial break by 0.75mm a day since the 18th of August; by the end of this week my right leg should be the correct length. This is really quite a big deal. After that, it’s just a matter of how quickly I can fill a 30mm gap with bone tissue. I might be rid of this frame in January.  Anyway, I thought I’d try to write about the positive things that have emerged from all this horror.

Before I get to that, three caveats.

  • I haven’t coped with this all on my own – it’s been a team effort. Thank you so much to those who have helped me.
  • I have certainly wallowed in this, I’ve been selfish, used my injuries and medication as excuses, and I’ve let people down. I’m not trying to gloss over my multitude of flaws, but I do (for a change) want to focus on the good things about my flirtation with the infinite.
  • Everything is relative (except Newtonian physics – I ‘m pretty certain they’re absolute). There are people who have suffered much more than I have – I empathise with them, but I can only talk about my own experience.

Um…it seems like I’m pretty tough. Not in a ridiculous, macho way; more in a I’ve survived a lot and kept going kind of way. Surviving the fall was absolutely a matter of luck rather than physical prowess. Keeping it together for eight hours or so, though, is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I don’t really have the words to explain how grim that was. The genuine strangeness of the next week or so in intensive care is a close second. And then the tottering months following discharge, working my way back to some kind of fitness only to find that, no, there’s still more to come: more surgery, more pain, more dizzying medication, more struggling on crutches, more physiotherapy. And yet, here I am – head up, leg elevated (just now while I’m typing, not all the time; that would be impractical), looking at a point where I might be able to get back to doing the thing that nearly killed me. There’s no I in quit. No, wait, that’s gibberish – there is totally an I in quit. There’s no quit in me. Yes. I mean no. And first caveat notwithstanding, when I’ve been down at the bottom, when I’ve been riddled with doubt and, for that matter, physical pain, it’s really been me that’s soaked it up and got on. I did that.

Self discipline
I’ve absolutely stuck at it. I’ve seen a lot of people in physiotherapy who aren’t keeping up to their exercise regime between appointments. I’m not judging them because I don’t know their circumstances. I do know that the NHS, in as much as it has one, has waved its magic wand. The rest of this recovery is down to me. Only I can rebuild muscle, bone and the less concrete attributes like balance. I’m sticking to exercises I’ve been given and more generally doing what I can to regain strength. I’m getting to shops and back, on crutches, with shopping; to stop my toes curling under, I’m working on Adho Mukha Svanasana a little every day; to rebuild grip strength, I’m handing my bodyweight from my fingerboard every other day, gradually building to smaller and smaller holds.

Four of these nuts, 0.25mm a time, three times a day.

Four of these nuts, 0.25mm a time, three times a day.

No, you shut up. Seriously, managing medication on medication is quite a feat. Codeine really affects my grasp of how time is passing – when you’re on the limit of your daily paracetamol allowance for prolonged periods, you can’t afford any mistakes. In almost three months, I’ve only lost the thread twice; and I made the right choice – if you’re not sure whether you’ve taken them, assume that you have. Likewise, I’ve kept track of extending the frame: 0.25mm, three times a day, every day. The one time I got confused, I got myself back on track the following day. The admin is dull but by no means trivial.

Good people
More by luck than good judgement, I’ve surrounded myself with good people. My parents have helped me out hugely, caring for me for months after the accident and helping me out with shopping after my recent operations. Friends have visited me (with coffee) in hospital, raised money for Keswick MRT, put food in my freezer, changed my bedding, driven me around, helped me get to the shops and back, modified my clothing.  My employer has really looked after me – not just meeting its contractual obligations, but being really human about my rehabilitation. The members of my team have covered over the holes I’ve left in various rosters, picked up my slack, and sheltered me from cold, cold world outside.  So, caveating my caveat about my first caveat – thanks, everyone.

Look how majestic I am! disclaimer: actual majesty may vary.

Look how majestic I am! disclaimer: actual majesty may vary.

None of my injuries were, in and of themselves, life threatening. In combination with one another and hypothermia, I have gazed in awe on my own death and been returned. It’s gradually given me a slightly different perspective on life. I’m not saying I’ve got that all the time, and silly things still get under my skin. But when I’m there, it’s odd and refreshing to be staring back into the world from death’s grey kingdom. Hello, you



An age of marvels, 07/08/16

“This shouldn’t hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort.”

The Hold Steady, A Slight Discomfort

So, the district nurse bottles removing my stitches two weeks running – they’ve been in for four weeks now. I make an appointment with my GP practice nurses. They are hesitant when they see my frame but as soon as they hear the district nurse baulked at it, there’s no stopping them. It takes two nurses 45 minutes to get them out and they have to have a time-out in the middle. They are heroic, though, and I salute them. The following day, my leg aches just from tensing up for so long. And it is quite the picture.


Air-drying is not the only way in which my leg resembles a ham…

I’m physically competent enough to shower now, which is a relief. No more flannel baths for Marquis. I have to pull a bin liner up over my right leg and strap it in place above my knee (to prevent infection, not oxidation – titanium doesn’t rust). Once a week, when the pin site dressings are changed, I can shower fully. I strip out all the dressings and then let the pin sites air-dry until the dressings are replaced.

The appointment with my consultant arrives and I am x-rayed to see whether the tibia has sufficiently healed for it to be re-broken. Normally, they would crack the bone when they fit the cage. Because they also had to remove an intramedullary nail, my leg swelled up too much to take all that punishment at once. The surgeon is pleased with how I have healed, which means that he can now drill a series of holes across my tibia and then put a chisel through it. Then I use the frame to crank the gap open by 1mm a day – my bone will grow into the ever-widening crack until I’ve got back the missing 3cm. What, as they say, a time to be alive. For all the incoming brutality, it’s a massive relief. I’ve had 20 months of no-growth in my tibia and it’s a huge weight off my mind that my skeleton is back in the game. Crikey.


Good news, Lyndon – we can now put a chisel through your tibia.

I return to physiotherapy at St. Luke’s. I’ve spent so much time here over the past year and half that it’s a sort of homecoming. Unexpectedly, they have me working on some quite heavy equipment on the first session. I keep going until my leg is shaking with the effort. Repeat on every session.

I meet a young woman at physiotherapy who had an Ilizarov frame fitted by my surgeon. She was told she’d need to wear the frame for a year, and yet had it removed after 3 months. She’s 20 years south of me, so I imagine she heals more quickly, but it’s good to hear some  positive affirmation of the process. She warned me that the first time I put my weight on the new break, it’s going to feel really alarming. It’s going to feel like something terrible has happened but that the medical staff aren’t going to alert me to that. I was grateful that she took the time to share her experience of the procedure with me. One of the positives out of all this is the camaraderie among the patients; those that have already trod the path coming back to show me the way. Thanks, HB, if you’re reading this.

It’s been an emotionally overwrought month. I’ve cried at two episodes of Castle now, and a Lie to Me. Good grief. They were all episodes where characters were being physically rescued. Feeling impaired has set me pondering what a profound experience it is to be rescued. I don’t think that, even after all this time, I’m quite over that huge crest of relief when the cavalry showed up for me. Gosh, it was a colossal moment, such a huge heart-shaking thing to experience that sudden reprieve from the infinite. Forgive my lack of clarity here – it is difficult to articulate because I’m not entirely sure what I’m feeling. To physically damage yourself to the extent that you will die unless somebody steps into save you; to absolutely understand that in that moment; to be saved amidst the certainty of your own death – it is a big thing to process, and I’m still in the middle of it. Which is fine. It is what it is, but I need to acknowledge what it is and that it is affecting me.

And while I’m on the subject of danger, it’s time for a sweeping generalisation. I know I shouldn’t speak for everyone who’s been to the brink, but I just need to get this off my chest. If you have a loved one who’s survived a life-threatening  ordeal, please think twice before you utter the words “it could have been worse”. It is a thing you say to comfort yourself* and not to comfort them. The notion that they might have suffered more than they did will in no way mitigate the suffering they have endured. And, believe me, they already have an iron grasp of the fragility of human life without your insight. If they’re like me, they’ve already devoted a lot of time to thinking about how much worse it could have been. My favourite scenario is where one of my seven broken ribs punctures my left lung and then I drown in my own blood; I’ve spent hours rolling that one back and forth behind my eyes. They get to say “it could have been worse” and you get to listen – that’s the deal for this. If something dreadful happens to you (and I genuinely hope that it does not) they will return the favour. And because they themselves have spent some time lost at the bottom of the world, they won’t try your patience with platitudes.

*this is a legitimate need – you’ve had a terrible fright – but it needs to be kept separate from their need

Learning to live with Ilizarov, 21/07/16

So, it’s now twenty three days since I woke up with my lower right leg in an Ilizarov frame, and I think it’s starting to settle. It’s genuinely the oddest thing, and I’ve no idea how to explain to you how it feels. There was a moment where I clattered my left leg with the frame that’s pretty vivid and easy to describe: it was like both legs had been simultaneously dipped in ice-cold water and set on fire. Behind the inner howl, I could hear a very clear voice saying “we are never doing that again.” It’s been right so far.

What else? Hmmmm, on the Sunday after I was discharged I had a bit of a meltdown. The frame felt cold and I started imagining I could feel that cold in my bones and then panicked that I might never be free of it. There may have been some tears. Possibly snot. I perked right up after I ate something so perhaps it was low blood-sugar.

And the sleeping, oh, mother of grief weeping on the shores of sorrow, the sleeping. I’m not sure how much the frame weighs but it’s really pretty big. I naturally prefer to sleep on my side, and I’ve had to find a way to support all this metal so that I can get off my back in comfort. In fits and starts, I’m getting around 6 hours a night. I realise that, to many, this is a lot of sleep. I normally do 9 hours at a stretch, and I really need my sleep at the moment. I’m up, out of bed and downstairs before 07:00 every day. It’s strange.

They did a pretty decent job of tidying the frame in theatre, but there are still twenty sharp titanium ends ever so slightly proud of the rings, and they catch on everything. I’ve got two old pillows, two bedspreads and a mattress-topper to protect my furniture from the scratches and gouges.

Toenails. Oh, toenails. They’re still covered in blood and a gosh-awful long way away. And


Blood? Where was your right foot on the night of the murder?

long, so long. They’re talons. I wish I’d cut them before the operation. With some huffing and pain and quite a lot of profanity, I clip and clean them. Touching my swollen foot is still a very odd sensation, so the blood between my toes is staying there until I sweat it off. Oh, the glamour.


Medication time! Medication time!

I’m summoned to see the consultant at a day’s notice. It’s taken me 6 months to get an appointment before, so this a novel and alarming development. Apparently my blood tests show that there may be an infection in the bone. I have to take a course of antibiotics. The prescription is faxed over to the hospital pharmacy and I’m left waiting around 40 minutes for it. When it arrives, I understand why – it’s actually a carrier bag full of antibiotics. If you need clindamycin for anything in the near future, I’m sorry – I have all of it. I’ve got 504 capsules to get through, on top of my pain control medication, calcium supplement and vitamin D. Gosh, I’ve got a lot of pills.

The first time the pin site dressings are changed, it takes two districts nurses over an hour (this isn’t a complaint – there are forty pads to replace). The second time, we’ve got a system going. I strip the old pads off while they cut up new ones and clean the pin sites, then they re-dress with new pads. We’re down to 45 minutes. They say they’ll take my four sets of stitches out on the next visit. It’s a completely different nurse on the third visit and she bottles it on the stitches. To be fair, if you’re not confident with it, I don’t want you down there with a stitch ripper and tweezers. If I get my dynamic duo back next visit, then they’ll take them out. Failing that, I’ve a clinic appointment with the surgeon the following day and they can go then.


That’s where they took out the intramedullary nail.

My first visit to physiotherapy gets me prodded and poked a bit, and I get some exercises to build up mobility in my ankle. I’m not using crutches in the house any more, and then I’m getting up and down stairs without crutches and then I’m going up the stairs with a reciprocal gait (still leading with the bad leg on the way down). At my next visit, they have me working like a (lame) mule. Damn them, they can look right into me and see the bit that wants their approval, and they exploit it  It’s like I’m caught in some strange, therapeutic Stockholm syndrome. It works, mind you. The next day I walk into Bingley and back. It’s a 1km loop – it takes me 50 minutes. My ribs are aching from using crutches for so long. It’s a massive thing, though, a huge weight off my mind. If I can get to Bingley then I’m on my way back to independence. A small triumph but a triumph nonetheless.


Back down the rabbit hole, 07/07/16

“Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, Sister Morphine
When are you coming round again?”

The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine


Well, here I am on the far side of surgery, tender, tired and swollen. No, my leg. And when I say swollen, oh my word, but it’s swollen. And crusted with dried gore. But I am, nevertheless, still very much here, bloodied but unbowed (if a bit hunched when I’m stood up on crutches).

“What’s new, Llama?” I’m glad you asked. Even though they’ve removed the tibial nail, I’ve got some more titanium: five rings of it round my calf, all connected by nuts and bolts. Each ring supports two rigid wires. The wires – and this never gets any less strange to me – pass completely through my leg. As each wire makes an entry and an exit hole and there are ten of them, that’s twenty holes in my leg. Twenty little scars when the frame has gone. For the rest – removing the nail, cutting out the dead bone – the surgeon went in through old scars, which is a relief. Scar tissue clings to bone like tar, impeding movement, and I’m glad he’s made no more than he has to.

I was under the anaesthetic for about five hours, I think, and came to in the strangeness of the recovery room. It’s full of baffled people on hospital gurneys all blinking and looking confused. A bit like we’re all waking up in the Matrix, but none of us know kung fu.

After the consultant rounds the next day, I peel back the cotton wool curtain and take my first look at the frame. It’s huge, much bigger than I was expecting. And it’s here for a good long while. On the positive side, they had to take out only half as much bone as expected, so I shouldn’t have the frame on for as long as I first feared. They’ve shunted the two halves up together so my leg is one inch shorter than before. It looks more swollen than it is because the muscles are slack around my shortened skeleton. I have to come back when the break has set; they’ll re-break my leg and stretch the inch back in. I’ll have to crank the new break open with the frame 1mm a day and bone will grow into the gap as it heals. What a time to be alive!


First view of my Ilizarov frame. They appear to have grafted the Chunnel to my leg.

The following night, the pads on my pin sites are changed. Twenty holes, remember, and two pads per hole so that’s forty pads. I’m not doing all this myself – not yet – and I’m glad of this. Under the pads, there is still a lot of gauze stuck in blood dried on to the hair on my very tender leg. As the nurses remove the dressings, I howl soundlessly (and sometimes soundfully) at the ceiling. Occasionally (alright, frequently) I swear and (in the most British way possible) I apologise (I’m so sorry, that’s not directed at you, please forgive me). When they are done, I think about how sore it was and how I’ll have to do it once a week, and how I don’t know if I’m up to it. I sit on my own in the dark, crusted in my own blood, and weep just a little. And, to be perfectly honest, the opiate constipation isn’t helping.

Because I hallucinate horribly on morphine, I’m on a synthetic opioid called oxycodone. Your body breaks it down differently to the way it metabolises morphine so you don’t get those side effects. On the other hand, it can provoke a side effect where it feels like your skin has been filled with ants. What’s got two thumbs and gets that that side effect? It’s calmed down with antihistamines but I am soon shifted to my old friend, dihydrocodeine, and exactly that much is right in the world.

A nurse arrives with my evening medication. “I’ve got to inject you with this to stop you getting DVT” – tinzaparin, another old friend – “do you want it in your arm or your abdomen?” “Just pass it here, I’ll do it myself” “Ooh, champion, you can come again.”


It is a thing of strange beauty…

Let’s not get into detail, but let’s say the constipation has been dealt with. For this relief, much thanks (Hamlet, 1.1.10). I’m making my way hither and yon around the ward on a zimmer frame. I’m wearing my own clothes. My cleverly altered underpants have made such a difference to getting dressed – I cannot thank you enough, LB. Those of you who know me will understand what a huge part coffee plays in my life. Hospital coffee has no part in my life, and a succession of friends bring me good coffee from the outside world on a daily basis. Thanks, NT, LB, MR, JB, EM.

A young man is admitted to our ward on Saturday evening. He’s be in a motorbike accident on a motocross circuit somewhere to the east. He’s taken a jump too hard and he’s come off his ‘bike and then the ‘bike behind him has run over his back and he’s still broken less* bones than I did. Slacker. So there’s that – competing over who’s had the worst injuries. Gallows humour or not, here I am dragging around the least constructive traits of masculinity. I don’t know what to do about that right at the moment except acknowledge that it’s happening.

Soon I am up on crutches and then I’m going up and down stairs on crutches and then I’m being discharged and then I’m at home, going up and down stairs on crutches just to get better at it. It has its moments, this self-discipline, it has its place. It’s been holding me up and not blinking in the glare for about 20 months now, but there’s not much tenderness in it, not much comfort, not much room to soothe the wide-eyed, frightened child.

My GP practice arranges for a doctor to call me to discuss pain-control medication. The doctor asks how I am, and I start to explain a poor night’s sleep and how I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. She stops me to tell me that I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself, that I’ve been out of hospital for less than a week and that the operation was pretty savage. And this is all true. The accident was brutal, the surgery that followed it was brutal and this surgery was brutal. There’s more to come – they still have to re-break my leg. But I don’t have to face this unflinching, all day and every day. So this week, I am going to feel a bit sorry for myself, and not feel bad about that. Next week, I’m going over the top but for now, I can crouch in the trench and stay out of harm’s way.

*Yes, it has been pointed out that this should be fewer. This is correct. I was on a lot of codeine when I wrote this.




Llama at bay, 20/06/16

“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another.”

Charles Portis, True Grit

What do you do with an outdoor blog when you can’t really do much in the outdoors for about 10 months? Well, let’s start typing and see what happens, eh? If you’ve been following me on Twitter or on this blog then you cannot have failed to notice that this happened. It was painful and frightening and humbling, but with enough sheer bloody-mindedness I would surely bounce back (although you’d think that after 130 feet of bouncing, I’d have earned some respite). Well, yes and no. I held up my head as high as I could and I did what the physiotherapists told me to do but it seems that was not and never could be enough. So here, by way of an introduction to the the medium term future of this blog, are some things I have found out through surgical consultations, physiotherapy and psychotherapy. Sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. And I may ramble.


Not an exit wound…

So, when I smashed my skeleton out through my musculature, the bone took the path of least resistance. I had thought the thing that looked like a small shark bite was the exit wound but it was not; that was the donor site for the tissue graft they took to pad over the repair job on my tibia. The almost-not-there scar that I had wondered about for ages was in fact where my hard infrastructure was exposed to the  atmosphere.

When you break a bone and then introduce it to the air, apparently it starts dying. My tibia was out meeting and greeting for 8 or 9 hours. The end of a bone cannot start regrowing from dead tissue. There’s still quite a lot of dead bone in there and so I’m going to have another operation. The surgeon is going to drill into the top of my tibia and remove the intramedullary nail. Then he is going to trim (I’ve no idea with what) 5cm of bone out of my tibia . Then he’s going to re-break it. Then he’s going to fit an Ilizarov frame to my leg – that’s an external cage that’s screwed into my skeleton. As the bone regrows from the new break, the frame will be used to winch it up the inside of my leg* until it meets the other side of the old break. The frame will take my weight so that I can remain mobile while I grow a new shin, and the muscle will not atrophy as it would in a cast. This will take around 10 months.


That‘s going to leave a mark.

I’ve no idea how I’m going to react to this. Will I be self-conscious about it? Will I feel clumsy? How much will it hurt? I’m hoping that I will not react to morphine as I did before, given that the circumstances of our meeting will be less traumatic. I’ve bought a kilt so that I don’t have to try to wrestle trousers over the frame. A friend is putting velcro side seams into some underpants for the same reason (thanks, LB). I’ll be like half a male stripper. Tragic Mike, if you will.

And after the physiology, there’s the stuff that I’ve been ignoring for months – where, as Black Francis asked, is my mind? The bit where I was found by dogs? I wasn’t. When I was recording for the Listening Project, I discovered that I’d imagined that. Oh, there were dogs alright, but they showed up 25 minutes after I was found. Those slackers. My mind has just re-ordered things, presumably for a more satisfying narrative.

And you know what? It didn’t hurt as much as you might think. By the time I peeled, the panic already had me over the shock horizon and still accelerating. Don’t get me wrong, it hurt plenty, just not as much as the as the list of fractures would suggest. But the sheer intimacy of death’s presence – oh my word, the weight of that terror, pressing me into the Earth’s crust as firmly as gravity had pulled me there. And it just went on and on and on and on and on. I would not wish it on the worst of us.

But that, after all, is the bargain I made. My stubbornness and me against as much risk as I could handle. Or couldn’t handle, as it turns out, because I lost. And the loss isn’t just the injury, it’s everything that follows; the genuine strangeness of hospital; the slow return to work, struggling with tasks that would once have taken moments; the inability to enjoy the pursuits that got me here in the first place; and now the shuffle back, the regression – you thought you were here but really you’re back here. And that’s all there is for that. This was a leisure activity; I didn’t need to be doing it. So now I have to accept the consequences of my actions, soak up the surgery and try not to moan about it. Next stop – hand tools and my tibia.

Disclaimer: I might moan about it. A bit.

*this is an imperfect understanding of the process


Pen-y-ghent and Plover Hill, 27/02/16, 13.2km

The hills:
Pen-y-ghent (694m) is the runt of the three peaks litter, but probably my favourite. I must have hoofed up it over a dozen times. It’s got some cracking views, there are plenty of options if you want to extend your day out but doable in 2.5 hours if you don’t. Plover Hill (680m) is a boggy trot along the summit ridge unless you do it when the ground is frozen. Which it was. A top tip for you, right there. No gaiters today. Which is lucky because I couldn’t find them.


Weather forecast for the Dales from met office.gov.uk

The walk:
It’s £2 to park all day at the Golden Lion in Horton in Ribblesdale (other pubs are available but not with that deal on parking). From there we head back out of the village, with the churchyard on our left. We cross the Ribble and immediately turn up the lane toward the school. In the event that the tops are going to be capped in snow, I have a pair of B2 boots on and crampons in my pack. It’s been a while since I’ve worn boots this stiff but they’re actually pretty comfortable even on tarmac. Why I didn’t just leave the crampons in the car is anyone’s guess. I’m also trying a pair of pertex and pile salopettes for the first time.

At Brackenbottom, we leave the road and head uphill, Gandalfing a party of three who stop every 10m for selfies (what a time to be alive). Still, as a rather knackered, vain 40-something  about to have some fairly serious surgery, it is pleasing not to be the slowest on the hill. I open the side zips on my salopettes to avoid overheating at this precarious velocity. The draft is welcome though I suspect others may find the sight of my thighs less so. It’s a long, steady pull roughly east northeast through two well grazed outcrops of limestone pavement, and we soon outdistance the threesome. Somebody has spent some time and money on the path surface we are climbing – slabs from (I think) a mill floor have been used above the limestone. We are soon sat enjoying a hot drink where the Brackenbottom path meets the Pennine Way. I crank all the zips back down while I’m stationary and stay toasty warm. The crisp winter air affords us lovely views across to Fountain’s Fell and whatever-the-knobbly-summit-above-Stainforth-is-called (it’s off the edge of the map and I haven’t got OS 297).


Pen-y-ghent looming over the track.

The selfie group overtakes us at rest and then immediately stops for more selfies. The route turns due north and heads around the eastern flank of the summit mound. We’re above the limestone here (I think) and onto gritstone. It is polished smooth by generations of walkers and, even when dry, you need to be paying attention to your feet. In the wet, it can be entirely too entertaining. A brief clamber see us onto a flat ledge below tumbled boulders and scree, staring up at a steep ascent to the summit plateau. We overtake the photographers and plough upwards. This, for me, is the only way up – a short, sharp haul and then a long, slow descent back to Horton. I cannot fathom those who go in the opposite direction (especially in icy conditions). Who am I to judge, though? There’s about 3m under the lip of the plateau where we need to use our hands and then we’re barreling along mill floors to the summit. From here you can see Ingleborough, Whernside, Buckden Pike and Great Whernside. Ingleborough is still capped with snow and looks (if you squint) like a table-topped Mount Fuji.


Ingleborough from the summit shelter.

J and I consume further coffee. I eat a pork pie. The group that takes selfies arrives and takes more selfies. One of them takes a ‘phone call, just to mix things up a bit. I’m sure you can imagine my face. We elect to try out Plover Hill. The ridge’s gritstone cap means that, generally, once you drop into the trough between the two summits, you are in a world of peat bog. Although the distance between the two isn’t that great, the constant diversions around mire eat time and stamina. It’s 2°C and the turf hasn’t thawed out from its overnight freeze. This is the best time to make for Plover Hill (the only other good option is when everything is under half a metre of really hard snow).

Handrailing the drystone wall that cuts down the middle of the ridge, we head north, taking care as we depend the frozen turf. The wall is in very good order – it looks as though it’s been rebuilt comparatively recently. As we drop down between the two summits, there is a frequent thok-thok as  we test the peat and mud for solidity with our trekking poles. The path curls around to the northeast as we rise toward Plover Hill, making far swifter progress than our last jaunt up here (I think it took us about a hour in really poor visibility. It was miserable). Soon we have crossed the strange, drystone compound that encompasses Plover Hill summit and we’re dropping down toward the head waters of Foxup Beck. In this weather it’s all easy going, but I’ve had to do this on compass bearings and pace-counting before now.

The descent is steep and curves round some awkward little drops and steps. It’s nowhere directly dangerous, but there are a couple of points where you wouldn’t want to lose your footing. As we drop down to the limestone, my left foot slides in mud sat on top of frozen earth. I have to catch my whole bodyweight on my bad leg and my right knee does a little, internal squeal. Oh, how I laughed. It’s an odd thing, scar tissue – that feeling the not-feeling in a part of your body. Odd. And not that pleasant. We pause for more coffee and I faff with my left sock to stop the seam rubbing my little toe. The path from hereon is easy going on gently rolling, well drained turf. But I’m tired, I’m in stiff boots, humping kit I don’t need, the temperature is rising and I’m dressed for Arctic. I am a sour-puss and grumpy-face.

As we trudge southwestward, a buzzard hangs over our route, turning in slow, lazy circles, flap-flap, glide, flap-flap, glide. It’s the first I’ve seen this year but it does little to sweeten my sour-puss. I know that once we return to the Pennine Way, there’s about 2.5km on metalled track to get to Horton and my feet (especially the left one) are already having a big sulk. We make swift progress though, and the crenellated flank of the ridge is spectacular company in the low winter sun. Slate grey clouds, heavy with snow, roil in the sky behind us. I can’t help wishing some of it would come our way and get the temperature back down. Finally, a chill creeps into the wind, as we hove past Hull Pot, and I am once more comfortable. Well, my core is; my feet are still sulking.

We join the the Pennine Way and I hobble and scowl the last stretch back down into Horton in Ribblesdale. There is much I have mismanaged today. I should have perhaps put some more flexible boots in the car in case I would not need crampons. Having seen that the fell tops were clear of snow, I should have left crampons in the car. I should have managed hydration better – a pint of black coffee is a fine thing but not thirst quenching. I should have eaten the second pork pie. SI should have brought painkillers. Still, I am glad to have done it. In the next couple of months or so, a surgeon will trim 5cm of bone out of my right tibia and then I’ll have to wear an Ilizarov cage for 10 months while I grow a new shin. The amount of energy I invest in fretting about this will make no difference to the outcome but it is difficult not to worry. At least I will be heading into surgery with a level of fitness that should help me out through the far side.

Kit list:
My pack (a Macpac Pitch 35) contained: Paramo Torres belay jacket, OS OL Sheet 2, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Black Diamond Enforcer gloves, Petzl Vasak crampons, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headtorch, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, coffee, two pork pies, Leki trekking pole, a Buff. I wore Scarpa Charmoz boots, Montane Extreme smock, Montane Extreme Salopettes, Rab Latok gloves.


Return of the llama, 12/11/15

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.


Looking south into Langstrath

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.


Cam Crag, in the flesh. Well, stone. I fell from somewhere up there.

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.

Version 2

Looking north from Cam Crag, back towards Borrowdale. It really is very lovely.

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.