By Mark McLean
I have always found it interesting to contemplate the End. While at college, I think I acquired a bit of a reputation for being at once indestructible, and yet still eventually doomed to meet a sticky end. (I have recently won my pint of (ghastly) IPA bitter, on a bet accepted early in the first year that I would go too far once too often before I had graduated). So in this article, I would like to record my thoughts and feelings on those times when That seemed pretty much to be That. And, as I write these musings, while lying in a bed in an Addenbrooke's ward, recovering from one of my closer shaves, I still maintain my thesis that everything in life is so bloody dangerous anyway that the extra risk involved in going climbing, caving and other taking part in any other so-called hazardous activity is quite negligible. Mind you, the danger inherent in travelling in the average caver's car is a different matter ...
I've never been terribly sensible. At school once, I was soundly told off for walking, tightrope style, across a narrow metal pipe which spanned a rocky gully fifteen feet below. Even then, I had an acute sense of what was dangerous, and the bad sense to completely ignore it. By the time I got to university, I had set my sights on higher things, (and deeper drops), so I joined both the caving and climbing clubs.
I've found that I always produce one of two responses in a dangerous situation: directed panic, or rational calmness. Let me illustrate, by means of some true tales:
I'd only been caving for six months, but I was definitely one of the keenest novices, and had been on every meet 'til then. I was doing Swildon's short round for the first time, with Julian Todd, Dave Fearon and Wookey. I'd already gone as far as and through sump 1 on an earlier Mendips trip, but had not done any ducks worthy of the name. We had been exploring Shatter and had confirmed that the rudest line in the CUCC's 'Wild Caver' was entirely accurate. Shatter is quite simply awful, with lots of muddy holes and lots of grovelling. On our way back, we had to bail the first duck for quite a while, before Julian pronounced it ok, and gurgled through. I followed, on my back, initially breathing easily, but then I lost track of where the narrow path of air lay. I carried on happily enough, holding my breath, my head now totally submerged. Next thing I knew, I had run up against something immovable. Unable to go on, and unable to breathe, I chose the option of panicking, and began to desperately fight my way on. So taken up was I with this futile exercise (shoulder-barging solid Mendip rock is never a good idea), that it never occurred to me to try and go back the way I had came. I was fortunately extricated from this mess by Julian, who was just able to reach me, and succeeded firstly in pushing me back into the path of the air gap, and secondly dragging me bodily out of the duck. The rest of the trip followed without incident, and I consoled myself with the thought that the escapade had taught me to have a healthy respect for ducks, and the value of a constant air supply.
My next notable close call came while climbing on a crag in the Chamonix valley. It had started to rain as Del Robinson, Juliette Kelly and Julian Haines were abseiling down a particular route, and they shouted up at me to follow them down, and take out a krab on the way down. I should really have gone across the top of the crag to where the krab was, and abbed directly down to it, but I didn't. Instead, I thought, it might be interesting to try and go down diagonally across the face. So there I was, abseiling along wet rock, at an angle of about 45°! I had nearly reached the gear, when my feet slipped, and I went whizzing across the crag. Its funny what goes through your mind at a time like this. The first thing I thought of was that I had recently read an article where Doug Scott described a similar sort of thing happening to hira, near the top of the Ogre. He had both his legs out in front of him, in preparation to take the impact, but he broke both of them. Nonetheless, I got my legs out in front of me, held tightly onto the dead rope, and waited. I didn't have to wait very long. I clipped a small projecting piece of rock and was spun around, to meet a larger slab with my head shoulders and elbow. Reeling from the blow, but hanging almost still, I looked down at the two pink strands of rope that led down to a wide ledge, Juliette, and comparative safety. Still a bit dazed, I partially released my grip on the rope, and whistled down to join her. From there, she lined me down another 25m abseil to the foot of the crag, where Del's car was conveniently waiting, and soon I was being stitched up in a Chamonix hospital. Later that day, I was back climbing again. And before you ask, no, I wasn't wearing a helmet, and no, there wasn't a knot at the end of the rope.
My next spot of serious excitement came 250m underground in Austria, where the Burble crawl leaves Yapate. We wanted to find a bypass route for this passage, as it is a bloody awful slog, and an aven above the entrance looked promising. Andy Atkinson and I placed a ring bolt in to protect the climb. Basically, all that had to be done was to clip the bolt with a long cows-tail, traverse a few steps left above a 20 metre drop, and then make an awkward heel-hooking mantleshelf move onto a wide ledge above.
All went well until with one welly boot up beside my ear I lunged for the wide ledge and my cows-tail became tight. Reversing a heel-hook being a pretty desperate measure, I was in the classic position of being stuck in the middle: unable to go up, unable to go down, with an additional spice of excitement being that I couldn't hang on for much longer. I screamed at Andy to unclip me, and happily he reacted quickly, unclipped me, and I was able to complete the move. Several minutes later, I was still shaking. Of course, the ledge went nowhere, so Andy tossed me a rope and I abbed down, and we headed out.
The last two incidents I related occurred during the summer of my first year. Nothing of the same magnitude happened again until my third year. I put this lack of adrenaline inducing events down to my being under the influence of a good woman. (Indeed, when our time together ended, Juliette commented to me 'Don't worry, it'll mean you'll have more time for climbing!')
One sunny Sunday, I was climbing on Birchen's Edge with a carload of fellow enthusiasts. On Saturday, we had been to Frogatt where I had led some VS climbs with reasonable competence, so there was nothing very unusual about me soloing a Severe. Unfortunately, me and Porthole Direct didn't get on. There was an awkward mantleshelf about twenty feet up, which I moved up to try, but I decided that I didn't like the look of it and I began to move back down to consider the problem.
Unfortunately, as I progressed down, my fingers seemed to lose all the adhesiveness, and 'came free'. I spun round, facing out from the crag, and began accelerating downwards. A large block came rushing up to meet me, I hit it squarely, feet first, bounced off it, and landed, feet first again, on a scree of rocks. I was hyperventilating quite impressively at this stage, but remarkably was able to get up and hobble away.
I hopped back to the Robin Hood car park with Pete Lord, to find that some miserable git had broken into my car and nicked my tool-kit (the day was getting better by the minute). Anyhow, back in Cambridge, I took myself of to Addenbrooke's, where I was assured that I must have broken my ankle, until X-rays arrived and showed otherwise. Presumably the fact that the fall was not one twenty feet, but two each of ten feet, in rapid succession, saved me this time. I was cycling by Tuesday, walking without crutches by Friday, and back caving again eight days after this.
I could tell quite a few 'near miss' tales about ice climbing. An avalanche narrowly missed me on only my second outing, and I gave myself a severe fright slithering backwards down a grade II/III climb on Snowdon. But, for supreme stupidity, my attempt at demonstrating ice-axe braking half way down the Goat Track in Coire an t-Sneachda takes some beating. The previous time I'd been there, Julian Haines tried to glissade down it, and had fallen all the way to the bottom. Must be something in the clear air... I had thought that the slope would be suitable for practising ice-axe braking on, but just to make sure, jumped off myself first. I got my axe in straight away. Unfortunately, the snow surface turned out to be a thin hard crust over a softer layer beneath. The crust gave low friction, and the layer beneath gave no axe purchase. It wasn't too long before I was moving fairly fast, far too fast to get the shaft of the axe in. I wasn't too worried yet - I could get more braking using the adze. As I pulled the pick out, though, I snagged a crampon point in the snow, and began to spin and tumble as I fell.
I struggled to regain some control over my fall, and eventually got the adze in. Things didn't seem to get any better. I continued to whiz downwards until the slope eased a little bit. But then I hit a couple of boulders, somersaulted over them, and landed in a heap. But, as ever, I was able to get up unharmed, and it was only my ego that was bruised as I plodded my way back up the slope to join my highly amused mates.
By now, the Easter holidays had ended, finals were approaching, and there was an urgent need to find something other than revision to do. The Battlewagon had been flagging a little in recent months, and it had been some time since I had been able to persuade it to do over the ton on the flat. The sceptics said that this was because the handling was so bad that I didn't dare push it that far, but in my defence I have to say that I got it doing over a hundred on hills.
Anyway, I took the head off, re-ground the valves, cleaned out the muck and then waited for the next weekend's caving trip to see the effects of my fettling. This sound and sensible plan was well and truly scuppered by my insuring a certain Sarah Robinson to drive the 'Wagon. As four of us, plus mounds of gear, trundled up the A604 towards Yorkshire, Sarah decided that it was time to carry out new tests on the top speed. I was sitting beside her in the passenger seat and should have seen the inevitable coming, but I didn't. Pretty soon we were doing 95mph. We came to a gentle bend' Sarah over steered, then she overcorrected, and suddenly the car was in charge. I tried to help, but from the passenger seat it was impossible to hold the steering wheeL rigidly enough. After a few oscillations, we were going from nearly hittlng the central reservation crash barrier, to having one wheel on the verge. We made this cross-road trip several times before the tyres finally gave up, and we did a 180° skid.
The world literally spun around us, and then there was a brief moment of perfect stillness. I looked through the windscreen, and all I could see for a while was clouds of black smoke from the tyres. It suddenly dawned on me that we were still travelling, and fast, and backwards, but at least the car seemed to be handling better in that direction. Steering from the passenger seat, I managed to manoeuvre a path between the crash barrier and the ditch, while Sarah helped by keeping the footbrake on hard. She also was holding the clutch in, not really the right thing to do, but at least it saved the backward rotating wheels from coming into contact with the forward rotating engine.
Bumping over the verge, we eventually ground to a halt, in a lay-by. We actually ended up being parked quite neatly, albeit facing in the wrong direction.
Not long after this, I began to experience problems due to some stones in my salivary ducts. In due course it became clear that I would have to have my salivary gland removed, and a few weeks later, I went into hospital. Late on the afternoon after going in, I was given a general anaesthetic, (a very strange experience), and had the gland removed via an incision in the underside of my lower jaw.
When I 'came to' all seemed well, but a little later I awoke to find myself in a pool of blood. The nurses cleared it up, and I went back to sleep. Sometime later still, it happened again, but this time I found that there was also some considerable swelling, and I seemed to be having trouble breathing.
From picking up what people around me were saying, it seemed that the wound was bleeding internally. Pretty soon I was being given oxygen, as my breathing was getting more and more laboured.
Then, still in my ward bed, I was rushed off down seemingiy interminable corridors, going I knew not where. Now without oxygen, I had to concentrate hard on breathing. Somewhere along the corridors, we met my consultant, who did much to reassure me by the way he was running around saying 'I need an anaesthetist; this man is dying!'. It was vital that I didn't breathe too hard and give myself a stitch, but without sufficient regular oxygen, panic would set in.
Soon we arrived at the ante-room of the operating theatre. Someone gave me oxygen, helpfully shoving the mask half way down my throat, thus further restricting my breathing until it occurred to me to use my nose. Then we went into the theatre, where the ceiling seemed covered by lights. Now my competent consultant couldn't find a stitch cutter. By now, my legs were shaking violently, from adrenaline and fear. Without an anaesthetic, the consultant reopened the wound, and inserted a suction tube. I felt only the sensation - no pain. The relief was immediate, the oxygen flowing freely in and out of my lungs 'That's much, much, much better' I gasped, as the pressure on my windpipe was removed.
They pumped up my ward bed to the level of the operating table and got me to wriggle across onto it. Up to my left, an ECG machine was producing a reassuringly steady waveform on its display. Someone stuck a needle into my hand, and the next thing I knew I was back in the ward, waking up with a tracheotomy tube in my neck.
This second operation was a success; It wasn't long before I was back on my feet, caving and climbing again. It remains to be seen whether all the close shaves and near misses of the last few years have been effective in knocking sense into me. I would hope, though, that as long as I'm still active, I'll continue to do the things that I enjoy, in the way that I enjoy, and take my chances as they come. By my reckoning, I still have six lives left...