When your legs are the crumple zone
By Ali Hull
A horrific fall of over 800 feet could have ended very differently for mountaineer Richard Tiplady.
Like many of us, and despite having played sport at school, visited gyms as a young man, coached junior football and so on, Richard Tiplady had allowed himself to get ‘lardy.’ Fifteen years of a few too many glasses of wine, coffee and cakes, had seen him slowly get bigger. ‘I tried everything I could to lose weight, apart from eating less, drinking less or doing more exercise’ he says.
Guilt and uneasiness didn’t work as motivating factors, but what finally drove him to do something about his weight was a prolonged period of workplace stress, that in turn caused a chronic pain condition. Having been put on painkillers, he was coping, but he knew that, long term, they were also addictive, and would not provide the solution. But then he discovered that brisk walking was recommended, and that half an hour or an hour’s walk around his local nature reserve meant a pain free night. ‘Then I climbed my first Munro. That resulted in three or four days, pain-free.’
Soon he was climbing more and more, and losing weight at a steady rate, plunging from over 16 stone to 12 stone 10 in two years, where he has remained for two more years. The pain condition is also completely under control. At over 6ft and at the age of 53, he is pleased with this.
So when he set out to climb Pillar, the 2927ft fell in the Lake District, on March 5 this year, he didn’t expect anything to go wrong. ‘It was a beautiful day, still, sunny, clear and cold, with no wind. I hadn’t been out climbing for a month, because of the horrible weather. It was due to cloud over around midday, which it did, but the snow was solid, not ice, and my crampons gripped well.’
At the top of the mountain, which he was climbing with a companion, he became unsure which way to go to do the final few metres. Dropping down from one option to try another, it was at this point, as he was descending, that he slipped, falling over two hundred metres down a rocky, snow-filled gully. As he careered down the mountain, bouncing from rock to rock, all his years of training, reading and rereading books on mountain-craft suddenly kicked in.
‘The brain knows what to do’ he says, ‘but I wasn’t expecting a good outcome. There was zero fear, no panic. I was focussed.’ He tried to use his ice axe to self-arrest – to dig it into the snow and stop his progress – but hitting one rock forced his arms up and the next rock knocked the ice axe out of his hands. ‘I was in freefall, sliding sideways, then head first, into a steep gully.’
The first thing he needed to do, having lost his ice axe and now travelling head first, was to turn around. ‘You know you are not going to stop yourself – something is going to stop you. You need to go down feet first – your legs are the crumple zone, your head isn’t. A good outcome from a situation like this is to end up with two broken legs.’ So how do you turn around, in those conditions? ‘You put one arm down hard in the snow, and that is enough to turn you. I was pressing my arms down into the snow to slow myself down– I ended up with amazing bruises on both arms. It is damage limitation. Stay feet first, and try to slow yourself down a bit - there is nothing else you can do… and the brain doesn’t want to focus on anything else. I was aware it was lasting a while – it wasn’t over in a flash. I am guessing it was about 20 to 30 seconds. I was aware it was a long slip, and I was bouncing off things.’
What finally stopped his rush down the mountain was not, however, his training. He came to a halt in a pile of debris from an avalanche that had fallen the day before, about twenty feet from the edge of a cliff. Not that we should think he experienced a soft landing into piles of gentle fluffy snow. ‘The debris was made up of rock-hard snowballs – each one football-sized or larger, firmly bonded into the snow. They are what do the damage if an avalanche hits you.’
What makes Richard’s story so remarkable – apart from the fact that he fell such a long way yet was relatively unscathed – was his presence of mind, and this did not desert him when he finally came to a halt. He knew he had things he had to do, and questions to ask. ‘Am I secure? Will this give way? No: my crampons were firmly embedded in one snowball and I was resting on another, almost cradled by them, face up. How injured was I? My right ankle was hurting, but there was no massive pain. The worst was from my shoulder and neck, and blood was pouring out of my head, covering one eye.’
Next, he calmly reached for his mobile phone, which had a signal: emergency calls only, but it was enough. ‘The next question was, where am I? I have the OS Locate App on my phone, and that gave me the 6-digit map reference. But before I called 999, I got my whistle out – best pound I ever spent. You’re supposed to give six short blasts, once a minute – that is the mountain distress signal – but it was much more than six a minute. Then I dialled 999, and asked for police and mountain rescue, saying what had happened, my injuries and giving them my map reference.’
Knowing that it might be hours before he was found, Richard dug out his survival bag and, despite his injuries, managed to get into it. ‘There is stuff to be done. You just do it. It hurts, but immediately it was on, I could feel my body heat being reflected back.’ The whistle had attracted his companion, John, who soon climbed down to him and did some First Aid on his face wounds – before asking if Richard was happy for him to film what happened next, to document the rescue. ‘And we sat back and waited.’
And it happened fast; less than an hour after his call, ‘We heard a helicopter, and we were waving, but it flew past. You are not as visible as you think you are. I had a head torch in my bag, and I should have got it out ready – anyway, it has a flashing light, so when the helicopter flew past again, ten minutes later, I pointed it at it and it came straight towards us. It hovered opposite us, the door opened, they did a visual assessment – and then they flew off again. That bit didn’t feel great, but we knew what they were doing.’
The helicopter was off to get the help Richard was going to need to get him off the mountain. He was not in an easily accessible place, and the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team had to be taken, by the helicopter, from the valley floor up to the top of the fell, before they could abseil down to him. ‘There were 22 of them involved in the rescue, some on the mountain, some climbing up from below, some with the team Land Rovers. The first one to reach me was a builder, the MRT leader Andy McNeill, who introduced himself as Macca.’
At this point, Richard could, finally, stop being pragmatic. ‘That was when I sobbed. I realised I didn’t have to hold it together any longer, I could finally be the casualty. I just had to let them get on with it, and not get in the way.’ What moved him further was when a team member told him ‘”Two of us here are in the Mountain Rescue Team because we got rescued ourselves.” You have no idea how important that was. Of all the things they did, that felt like one of the most meaningful. They were completely non-judgemental.’ Because, despite being an experienced mountaineer, well-trained and equipped, Richard still felt he was at fault.
‘I was angry with myself for the first week. I slipped. Because I was going with someone else, who was more experienced, I hadn’t checked the route as carefully as perhaps I should have done, in full detail. I’m not sure it would have made any difference though … my crampons may have caught on a rock, I don’t know. The moment when I slipped is a real blur now. I’ve been told that 80% of all accidents are on descents – gravity is not your friend, at that point. You are going faster, and you are not working against gravity. You can do everything right and it can still go wrong – particularly in winter conditions.’
The extent of his injuries was not initially clear. When he got to the hospital, the A&E staff commented that he looked like he had been attacked by a mountain lion, with three deep parallel gashes on his forehead and scalp, that took 60 stitches to repair. He also had a broken neck; a broken elbow and he had broken his ankle in two places. Transferred from hospital in Carlisle, he needed to have an operation in Newcastle to join his neck bone to its neighbour with a titanium plate before he could go home to recuperate in Scotland.
As this article is being written, the accident is still only a couple of weeks in the past, but Richard has been thinking about it a lot since. It was described in the newspapers as miraculous, but this is not a word he himself has used, even though he is a committed Christian. ‘I felt protected’ he says. ‘But by whom? God? The mountain? Not the mountain – it didn’t care. It wasn’t trying to hurt me, and it wasn’t trying to help me. It’s just a big lump of rock. But I felt protected. So, I’m kind of thankful to God.’
He has also been reflecting on what he did, or didn’t, do wrong. So did the training help, or was it simply the debris from the avalanche that saved him? ‘I don’t know. The ice axe was never going to work, not in those conditions, because of the hard frozen snow and the rocks. But being feet-first limited the damage to my head. And if I had been going faster, the avalanche debris might not have stopped me. It’s a bit like stopping distances when you brake when driving a car. I could simply have gone over the 200-foot precipice, which was over a waterfall. That would have been it.’
He has also started thinking about recovery – and getting out on the hills again. Having done 112 Munros, there are another 170 to go. ‘I’m wearing a moonboot at the moment, and it will take some months to get my fitness back, initially just by walking, back to the nature reserve. However, at some point, I am going to want to go back up a hill.’ And it is at this point, perhaps, that the psychological scars may appear. Clearly, an accident such as the one Richard had can leave a lot of ‘What if?’ questions behind it but, so far, these have not been an issue for him. Well, almost. While in hospital, the physiotherapists were keen to get him walking again, and to climb stairs. ‘We live in a three-story house… so they walked me down the corridor, out to the stairwell, one set of stairs going up, one set going down… and that really caught me out, that view of a descent. I had to stop. The physios were fine, and suggested we tried going up first. So, we climbed one flight of stairs, turned around and came down. No problem.’
He is already planning his first walk, for when he does leave the flatlands, and the hill he will start with. ‘There is one not far from where I live, Ben Ledi, it is just under 3000 ft, and I have climbed it eight times. I plan to go out, sometime in the summer, with my mate Neil, who does mountain rescue, and it is very safe, with a good path. But walking in winter conditions? I will cross that bridge when I come to it. If my wife, Irene, is uneasy, then I won’t do it.’
But it is clear that he wants to, and he wants to be able to walk alone as well. ‘You’re a different person in the mountains. It is a weird thing, but when you have been up on the tops for a while, the descent into reality is a bittersweet moment.’