Monday, December 19, 2011

Tales from the sharp end

This is an article I put together after a climbing accident in the Middle East. It's a full account of what happened and my feelings and reactions to a situation you never think you'll be in. Enjoy.

Every climber dreams of climbing a particular route or in a certain part of the world. It might be a climb that is steeped in history or a ground breaking ascent for the era.
6 months ago that dream for me, was Jebal Misht in Oman.

It all began when I graduated university in May 2011 with a degree in something which I had no interest in. See, during Uni I discovered climbing and the only thing that was ever on my mind was that! So when it came to becoming independent for the first time and getting a (REAL) job, all I could think about was how awesome it would be to work in the climbing world.

I looked for jobs online and before long I got a one as a guide in Oman. Now I had never really known where Oman was let alone if there was any decent climbing there, and after a short amount of studying I was wowed by the rock I discovered. Oman is located in the Middle East just below the UAE and is country more or less made up of 50% desert and 50% mountains, one of them being a 1000m big wall called Jebal Misht.

It was first climbed back in 1979 by Raymond Renaud in a "besiege" style using fixed ropes and even tactical helicopter supply drops. The remains of this ground breaking ascent can still be seen to this day, much like a hanging history of climbing with old karabiners, ropes and pitons on ledges along the route. There is rumour that after their ascent in which they covered more than 2 kilometres of climbing they were airlift from the summit to the sultan’s palace to celebrate.

So now I was hooked on climbing this mountain. I had studied all the established routes up the mountain and had started reading up about big wall climbing and the techniques needed to climb such huge faces. I started practicing my hauling techniques and training every day. I knew that if I was to do this big wall I wanted to do it in one push, 1000m ground to summit in 24 hours.

I decided to get some practice by climbing some of the smaller routes that were established around the country to get a feel for the rock and how to climb it. I started with a climb called Zizanne on another large rock outcrop called Al Hamra Towers to the south of Muscat where I was staying. The route we climbed was graded VII+ 5c and of this I understood little of what to expect. Being from the UK I was a custom with the E number grading system and but had never climbed anything graded with the international grades. The route went smoothly and after 300m of ascent and 5 hours later we summated. This was great opportunity to learn the characteristics of the rock and more importantly understand how quick I would need to climb to summit Misht in a day.

The next time I had time off I travelled down the coast to a beautiful place called Wadi Tiwi. This place boasted giant routes from 200m - 500m and had an amazing back drop of quiet villages that looked lost in time with their donkeys and chickens running amok. I decided I would lead every pitch on this climb so that I could build some stamina for Misht and also get the head space needed for climbing continuously overrun out ground. The route we chose was Juliette Jauffret, 6b+ td+ my good friends Larry and Hamza had climbed it previously and highly recommended it. The route was climbed many years back by a French team who "retro bolted" the route. This in reality meant that it was a sport route with bolts every 10m-20m and bolted belays. I took Trad gear but found this of little help in a rock type that seems to dislike modern protection.

After 6 hours we summated and were on the ground 2 hours later. I knew after this I was ready! I had climbed close to 500m of run out climbing in the heat and had some idea of how I would feel while climbing Jebal Misht and with this I began to plan my ascent.

I had a few good friends that had already made hard ascents on Misht like the notoriously difficult "Icarus" route and thought they would be a great choice of climbing partner. A friend called Hamza Zidoum joined up with me for this ascent and having already climbed some big routes together we knew we'd be a good team.

Hamza mentioned a new route he had tried before on the East face which tackled a giant overhang but they had not managed to climb past it. This was it, we had found our line. Hamza sent over some pictures with markings of where they had got to on the wall and we decided on how to tackle the roof and where we would head once we had overcome it.

Everything had been planned for except what was to actually happen. We arrived at our base camp around 6pm after navigating the harsh river bottoms of the Wadi that run to the foot of the mountain. We set up a small camp, Hamza had brought a small tent and I preferring the "light and fast" approach brought a bivi bag. We had a cup of tea and looked at our route on the wall while basking in the evening sun. By the time dark had come we had racked our equipment, filled our camel backs and had a bite to eat in preparation for the 2 hour hike to the foot of the route the next day.

We woke early around 3.30am and after a cup of tea and a small breakfast we got are packs together and began hiking up to the bottom of the face. We could not see where we were heading on the way up but we had a rough idea of the direction we should be heading in. At 6.30am we were at the bottom of the route looking up at the great roof while also enjoying the beautiful desert sunrise and a snack to eat. After short and well deserved rest we got our gear together and began our climb. We decided to run the first pitch together as the climbing was relatively easy. We come to a large ledge where we decided we would start the first belay.

Hamza went first still having the whole rack attached to him and reached another ledge some 50m up. I came up to meet him and realised we should have also run that pitch together as he hadn't placed any protection and the climbing was fairly steady. We went up another pitch of relatively steady climbing and it came to Hamza’s lead again. I had anchored myself to a small ledge some 6m up from a much wider one and Hamza lead up. He had placed a few pieces of protection along the way and had just slung a rock and clipped into it when all hell broke loose!

While he had been attaching himself to the rock, the ropes had caught under a sizable chunk of rock about the size of a football and it had dislodge and fallen down to where I had been standing. I heard the un-forgettable chink on the wall of the rock bouncing down and instantly knew what was heading my way. As soon as I looked up to see where it was heading I felt an enormous throb in my face and felt weightless. I sat up to find the ropes taught and I was lying on the floor with blood all around me. I could see a huge flap of skin on my face hanging down and my foot was bleeding heavily. I realised fairly quickly what had happened and looking around could see the rock with a chunk of my face stuck to it. I shouted up to Hamza that I had been hit by a rock and would need him to come help me all the time trying to stay calm.

I untied the ropes from me and searched in my bag for the only part of my med kit I had packed. I had brought just 3 bandages and some Oral rehydration salts having the attitude previously that if I needed more than 3 bandages I’m totally screwed anyway!

I had just got them out my bag when I heard Hamza calling from above to tell me he was heading down. As I was opening the bandage packaging to I heard the shout "ROCKKKKK!" I looked up and saw large stone similar to that of the first about to land directly on my forehead. I quickly rolled out the way and it impacted on the floor where I had been sitting cutting my let and sending shooting pains down my side. I continued to crawl across the ledge hoping to get out of the fall line of any more rocks that may come loose. I looked again at my injuries and tried to identify the one that needed attention first. Although my face hurt the most it was not going to be fatal. My ankle however was bleeding a lot now and my first concern was keeping as much of that blood in me as possible.

I bandaged my foot with one of the bandages, wrapping it fairly tightly around my foot in order to apply pressure hoping to stop the flow of blood on the floor. I was successful in slowing the bleeding but could not stop it. Just them Hamza arrived at the bottom and instantly began to help me dress my wounds with the hope we would both make it off this mountain alive. We pushed the flap of skin back across my face and held it on with a bandage around my head. With the remaining one we placed it around my foot again hoping to stop the blood and keep it clean for when (if!) we reached a hospital.

Knowing there was no mountain rescue in the country we called the next best thing, my boss Rob. We told him the situation and found out he was close to me and that he was going to head over to try and get me down with a group of helpers, failing that he would try to get a helicopter.

We were now some 200m up on a big wall with me still unable to stop the bleeding and Hamza in the predicament of figuring out how to get us down safely. We had never planned for this; I don't think many people plan for something like this to go so wrong!

Being a total knowledge geek when comes to all things climbing I fashioned a back pack in which Hamza could possibly try to carry me while he set up the next abseil. I shuffled over to where he was and we abseiled down to another ledge bouncing down the rock face as I went leaving a blood trail in my wake. We continued to abseil down with not too much difficulty until we came to our original starting ledge where we had been some time earlier. We gathered food and water and decided to try out this geek tip I had read somewhere about turning an alpine coil into a person carrying back pack. After some fidgeting we managed to get me on Hamza’s back and had walked a couple of meters when we decided it weren’t such a good idea.

If Hamza was to trip and fall he may have fallen off the edge of a 200m drop taking both of us with him and with my useless weight on his back it seemed a likely possibility how we were going. I got off his back and decided I would "bum shuffle" my way down the mountain. This way of moving was much safer than the back carrying but was incredibly painful if I caught my foot not to mention that I was wearing through the seat of my trousers and through my underwear whilst dragging my now useless body around. After 3 hours of shuffling and roughly 250m of descent later I was exhausted and was losing consciousness. Knowing a party of people was on the way I urged myself to continue to a possible helicopter landing point should it be needed. As we reached the small flat area I lay back and drank a small amount of water not knowing how long we would be there.

Not long after getting there we saw a figure approaching in the distance. At first we couldn't make out what it was, thinking it could just be one of the local’s goats that wonder the hills. As the figure grew nearer we realised it was not a goat but my 55 year old boss sprinting up and down the hill towards us. What had taken us hours to walk seemed to take him minutes to run and he was soon with us. He took one look and said "we're gonna need a helicopter..." My heart sank thinking how long would I be on the side of this mountain. I was already lying flat out in the boiling mid day sun, unable to find shade and I was still bleeding.

He then produced a sleeping bag and a bottle of water in which we could make a shelter and keep hydrated which brightened our spirits. He then left again saying a helicopter was on its way and he had been told by the police it would be there in 30 minutes. With the supplies from Rob, Hamza created a great makeshift shelter to cover us from the sun and while I cut off what was left of my trousers legs to make more bandages to tie around my foot and the wait began.

1 hour passed and it felt like my body had gone through a roller coaster. The pain was slowly getting worse and I was trying to keep cool headed about the situation knowing that if I panicked it would only makes things worse and wouldn't help me in the slightest. While Hamza continually tried to find out where the helicopter was and when it would be here the hours passed.

After 8 hours of waiting I was mentally and physically exhausted. The baking heat of the day had all but drained my energy and moral. I was now becoming so weak I could barely lift myself around and it was beginning to get dark, dashing all my hopes of a helicopter rescue. By hour 10 we heard helicopter rotors and we both knew it must be the one we had been waiting for.

It came into view but flew straight passed us, not noticing the H landing pad Hamza had laid out in stones or us waving our colourful jackets in the air with our head torches flashing. It then suddenly dawned on me how impossible it must be to see two tiny specs at the bottom of a huge wall even with all the preparation we had done. It continued to fly around while Hamza tried to navigate it towards us by calling the pilot on his mobile. He still couldn't find us and the night as drawing in. I knew if it got dark they would call off the search until tomorrow and I had an uncomfortable feeling about how long I would last if.

Just as the helicopter was looking to leave it came towards us and we made all the noise we could and waved around everything we had in the hope of being seen. It continued getting closer and we knew it had seen us!

It circled around and attempted to land but with the high crosswinds was unable too. Just then the side door of the helicopter came open and a winch man was lowered down. I crawled over to him, clawing at the ground in desperation to be as far away from that place as possible. He then slung me with a harness and began winching me up. As we reached the door I flopped onto the floor and we circled round to make a second pass for Hamza who had waved the chopper to leave him.

We flew to a nearby hospital where I was transferred to Ibri and taken care by a great team of doctors and surgeons. After several stitches to my face, inside my mouth and my ankle I was put to rest in the ward where my friends came to visit. Hamza came to see me and told me how he had carried both our equipment down the mountain to the vehicles and then drove for 4 hours to the hospital which makes him not only a good friend but a true hero in my eyes. Later I was released with crutches and a cast on my ankle and sent home to rest.

I cannot help but think how lucky I was to survive such an accident. If it had not been for the amazing efforts of my friends and the helicopter crew the situation could have been much worse. I plan to go back to Oman and finish our route sometime soon but with a healthier respect for the mountains and my environment.

If I could take one lesson from this it would be that it doesn't matter how good a climber you are, accidents do happen and learning how to get out of them before they happen is invaluable!

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