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).


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

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.


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

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.




A good walk spoiled (but not by golf), 08/11/15

So I’m in the Lake District for a week and it’s quite an important week for me. In two days it will be a year since I almost died up here. I’ve been limping out and about in the Yorkshire Dales, and made a couple of visits to the Lakes, but not made it out onto the fells. Last year’s date with gravity happened on the Monday of my week up here so my plans for blogging some routes went awry. In fact all my plans for the next year went  awry. I’m excited to be here then, and anxious to get up and get something down in (digital) print – I’ve just joined Outdoor Bloggers and I’m hoping to make some new friends who share a sense of wonder. Yesterday, I had a quick whip up and round Barrow just to get warmed up. Today, I have the majestic (if knobbly) Causey Pike in my sights. I’ve some kit to put put through its paces and I want to see how fit I am for the longer walks.


Weather forecast for the Lake District from metoffice.gov.uk

It’s showery out and the wind looks a bit blustery. I’m trying out some Montane gear – the Extreme smock I reviewed earlier this year and Terra Guide pants – and a new pair of boots – Scarpa Rebel Lite (terrible name, great boot). The clothes are weatherproof but not waterproof and I’ve decided to see what their limits are in this pretty dismal weather. I’ve also got my MacPac Pitch rucksack with me this week, for its first real adventures after my accident. It bounced 30-40 metres down the mountainside with me and the only damage was a snapped buckle – a shame the same could not be said for me. At least the rucksack didn’t go on about it ad infinitum on Twitter.

I go south through Braithwaite village and take the Swinside road, turning off it and over the cattle grid for the farm track to Braithwaite Lodge. Behind the lodge, a path runs around the eastern flank of Barrow. A stand of commercial (it looks to me) pine affords me some shelter from the weather before I drop back down to the road. My right leg is stiff but reasonably co-operative and I have hopes that I’ll make it up over Causey Pike and down through Sail Pass to Barrow Door. I take the little bridge over Stoneycroft Gill and leave the road there. Heaving up through the bracken on a good track, I aim for Rowling End – the steep prow of Causey Pike.

If (for some reason) never-ending, gradual ascents are your thing then you can cut along the side of Rowling End toward Sleet Hause. You’re clearly wrong, of course, but who am I to judge? I barrel breathlessly up the side of the End, my feet stuttering on the wet slate. Or it could be shale. It’s metamorphic and built up in thin layers anyway. Whatever it is, it’s a bit slippery and a reminder that my fitness is not yet where it was. Soon, though, I’m looking at the Lone Tree of Causey Pike. It’s not the only tree on the Pike; there are dozens of them, but this one stands on the ridge, proud and lonesome and visible from the road. You have to admire its tenacity. I bet the other trees hate it.


The Lone Tree of Causey Pike

From the top of Rowling End, the ridge runs long and level to the foot of the summit. The path is narrow and flanked by knee high bracken. My trousers have stood up to the wind driven showers reasonably well so far, but this is a bit much for them. The cold clasp of sodden ferns sees them off – 150 metres or so of soaking vegetation is just a bit much. So that answers that question then. The wind is a bit fearsome on this section, blowing straight from the south. This part of the ridge is a pretty broad and I’m pretty much in the middle of it – no cause for alarm so far, but the approach to the summit may be another matter.

At the foot of the summit ridge, I pause for coffee and cake. Since you ask, it was a Moroccan almond and orange cake. My mum made it. It was very good. Refreshed but slightly intimidated by the strengthening wind, I retrieve my trekking pole from my pack and sally forth and upwards. I’ve climbed perhaps 20 metres when a sudden gust rocks me sideways and I am forced to brace myself against the ground with the pole. For perhaps 20 seconds I hold position in the wind’s teeth until it slackens. Perhaps 15 years ago, I was forced to cling, with all four limbs, to Grisedale Pike in similar conditions. It was frightening then and it’s frightening now; at my fittest, I know I would be backing off from this. As I feel I’ve already imposed on Keswick MRT enough for one lifetime, I take the opportunity of the lull to turn back.

I love steep ascents and gradual descents – that’s why I’ve gone at the walk in this direction. Still, best laid plans and such…Downhill is my right leg’s least favourite thing and steep downhill even less so. At Sleet Hause, I drop off the side of the ridge to get out of the wind and start the big hobble down under the side of Rowling End. It’s less fun than I’d imagined it would be, and I’d imagined something fairly miserable. Still, pretty soon I’m back down at the bridge. Despite some pretty shocking weather, the smock has kept me comfortable (the hood is excellent) and although my legs are wet, they are warm. The boots have been really very good – just the right level of stiffness (given that they’ll take a crampon) and a great fit for my narrow feet. The only downside is that as the trousers are not waterproof, rain has run down the inside of them and into the boots. I squelch back along the road toward the Braithwaite Lodge path. As a bonus for the grimness, I see a mottled, brown shape sculling up from the bracken to my left: a woodcock (no laughing at the back) – only the third I’ve ever seen.


Causey Pike summit from the flank of Rowling End. Yes, yes it does look a bit dreich…

Ultimately, I knew that Causey Pike would be there another day (after all, it’s not the first time I’ve been up it) and it was the right decision to turn round. Whether I should have set off in the first place is a different question. I had a weather forecast before I set off so I knew that I was heading into some difficult conditions. I’d chosen a route I knew well so that navigation wouldn’t be a concern even if the cloud came right down, and I was well wrapped up. So yes, I think it was a reasonable decision to set off too. In less familiar surroundings, I’d have chosen a low level route. Or a pub.



Yockenthwaite Moor, 12/10/15, 14.4km

The hills:

Looming over the head of Wharfedale and the mouth of Langstrothdale, Yockenthwaite Moor (643m) is an imposing lump of Yorkshire. We’re out of the limestone Dales and here be gritstone and therefore bog. I’ve been taking a trekking pole on walks since my accident for confidence on descents. It was invaluable on this jaunt for balance and for gauging the firmness (and depth) of the terrain. And you’ll want to be wearing gaiters. Oh my word, yes…

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

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

The walk:

I start from the YDNPA carpark in Buckden and head up Buckden Rake, a broad track curling around the west flank of Buckden Pike. The double buttress of Yockenthwaite Moor awaits on the far side of Cray Gill. I’m too busy thinking about my bad leg to really take in my surroundings, but judging by the photograph, there’s a lot of hawthorn about and also some birch. The Rake levels out out and takes me past Cray to join the B6160. I follow the road round a steep almost-hairpin and leave it again at Causeway Moss. Looking back, I am rewarded with a splendid view of Buckden Pike from an angle at which I’ve never seen it before.

Yockenthwaite Moor from Buckden Rake.

Yockenthwaite Moor from Buckden Rake.

The track over the Moss is a Byway Open to All Traffic (BOAT), so watch out for 4x4s and trial bikes – it’s steep but metalled and easy going. As I climb, the sun shreds the earlier clouds and I find myself squinting in the brightness. I simply can’t be bothered to stop to get my sunglasses from my pack so I plod onwards with narrowed eyes. I’d set off half an hour later than I’d anticipated, but the going has been so easy and swift that I’m making that time back up. My leg feels surprisingly strong – 10 months of physiotherapy have been worth all the graft.

As the track reaches a plateau, I check the map frequently in search of my turning off point. The terrain up here is pretty much of a muchness and my contour interpretation isn’t quite up to it – I certainly wouldn’t be doing this in low visibility. My altimeter is useful navigational aid – I know that I need to start handrailing the first fence on my left after the 550m contour. To be honest, that’s navigationally pretty lazy, but as I say, in poor visibility I would just have abandoned this – the Moor will be there another day and I feel I’ve troubled Mountain Rescue enough for one lifetime.

If following a fence sounds easy from a navigational point of view, it’s topographically challenging. The terrain is crisscrossed with bogs and peat hags and I am constantly watching my tread. Here and there, old fenceposts have been laid flat across the ground to provide a support on the wetter stretches. They are no guarantee of firm footing, though, and each must be tested before I commit any weight to it. Any and every deviation from normal stride becomes a decision about whether to lead with my bad leg or my good leg. I don’t think I can break my bad leg because it’s titanium, but pulling soft tissue could a) undo months of physiotherapy and b) leave me on my backside waiting for the cavalry again. I start to think about my last experience of waiting for Mountain Rescue and whether I’m about to go through that again. It’s not committing like the Hinterstoisser traverse, but it feels slightly beyond my comfort zone. I ponder retracing my steps but should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er (just to be clear, though, at no point have I murdered the king of Scotland). I can gauge roughly where I am along the fence by checking altitude. Where another fence joins from the north, I am able to simply step over it without putting any weight on it and I have my notion of my location confirmed by the appearance of South Grain Tarn. For some reason, it becomes an article of faith that I will not have food or drink or blow my nose until I get to the summit. I continue to climb and finally reach the 643m trig point, tired, hungry, thirsty and sniffing roughly every two seconds. To the west, the three peaks are stretched across the horizon. It’s been a tremendous slog, but what a fantastic vista. It’s eaten hours though; I’ve lost the time I made up and then some and, based on my original timings, have only half an hour to get back to my start point. I’m only half way.

Fed, watered and snot-free, I aim for the valley. Oddly, I find some ‘phone signal as I drop down toward Langstrothdale and I call my folks to tell them not to summon the cavalry for at least another 90 minutes. In the short time I’m stationary for the call, my right leg stiffens right up. It’s just as well I’m not going to have to go steeply downhill. Oh, wait. Damn. At least the precipitous descent is on lovely soft turf instead of bog and my progress down to Top Farm at Yockenthwaite is swift if uncomfortable and foul-mouthed. There’s a degree of internal argument about why I left the painkillers in the car and anyway, even if I’d brought them, I’d have nothing with which to swallow them as I didn’t bring enough fluid. Oh how I laughed. Horse Head Moor in autumn colours makes up for it though – it’s absolutely beautiful.

Horse Head Moor from Yockenthwaite Moor.

Horse Head Moor from Yockenthwaite Moor.

As I drop past a field barn, an English blue grey regards me with bovine solemnity. The Wharfe  and easier going is just below me now, so I snatch a picture of her and get on my way. I turn southeast at the river and follow its gentle descent to Hubberholme. Here you can take the road on either side of the Wharfe back to Buckden. Back at the car, I find that my socks have slipped below my gaiters and the upper cuff of my right gaiter has worn a groove into my skin graft. So that was nice.

Kit List:

In my pack (a Macpac Amp 25): Rab Demand pullover, Rab Bergan pants, Montane Flux jacket, OS OL Sheet 30, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Marmot XT gloves, Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headtorch, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, coffee, sandwiches, Leki Makalu trekking pole (an old one, mind, like from the 90s. It’s probably not even titanium. I am, though). I wore Garmont Vetta Mnt boots, Montane Super Terra pants, Klättermusen Vidblåin smock, Montane Vortex gaiters, Lowe Alpine mountain cap and some old Berghaus long-sleeved base-layer . I really struggle to get excited about base-layers if I’m honest.