Monday, 5 June 2017


Repeating Iain Small's Siege Engine E7 6c yesterday. Amazingly carefree feeling just to have to worry about sending the route and not much else. The rope is hanging down another project which goes out left across the roof. Cant wait to get back on that one. Photo: Kevin Woods

Last September I broke my leg on Binnien Shuas. I didn’t really write much about it on this blog for a couple of reasons. First, because I was pretty upset with just how badly the whole climbing day went wrong and second, because the accident was only really the start of the story. I felt like I needed to try and recover before making any sort of sense of it.

Yesterday I was up at Binnien Shuas again and repeated Iain Small’s superb new E7 ‘Siege Engine’. On the way down I stopped at the nice beach by Lochan na h Earba and just took a moment to enjoy being there and not having a broken leg, and instead to be heading off for some dinner after a nice afternoon climbing.

What a contrast to when I stood by that beach for two or three horrible hours in September.

It started with a crap July and August with continuous rain in the west highlands. I’d bet on doing Scottish mountain trad for the summer instead of going to an alpine big wall. My gamble had fallen on its face. The best I managed was three days of mountain trad with two E8s and one E9. Instead I spent most of the summer on my board. So I was quite fit, but getting fed up waiting to actually climb some rock. So when a couple of dry days appeared, I cleaned and worked a great project though the roof on Binnien Shuas. It was around 8a climbing with enough gear and a brilliant line. If I could just salvage this project from the summer, I’d feel happy with that.

As August drew into September, the rain just kept coming. My friend Masa and I had made several arrangements to go into Shuas, only to bail at the last moment as the rain was worse than forecast. It was getting ridiculous. One morning we bailed again, but by 1pm it looked better and Masa texted to see if I still wanted to go in and look. I bit his hand off for the opportunity and next thing I was abbing down the project. It was just dry enough. Masa climbed first and tried Ardanfreaky (E3) but found the crux bulge wet and took a good whipper, before lowering off. He looked disappointed. It underlined the desperation of trying to trad climb when the weather is just not playing the game.

Abseiling down the line and drying holds. I should probably have just left it for another day! Photo: Masa Sakano

I racked up carefully ready to lead my project. I was really excited. It had literally been months since I’d tied in to start up a hard trad route and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to go for it. I pulled onto the start and climbed up a couple of moves, reaching for a big flat undercut above my head. The next second, I was tumbling through the air. The side pull I’d been holding with my right hand had broken off. I shot off backwards without any warning and landed hard on my right foot on the sloping rock slab below, slammed into Masa and both of us stopped in a heap of tangled ropes in the heather slope below.

One minute later I had a broken leg. Enough said. Photo: Masa Sakano

I stood up in a little shock and disbelief as to why I was suddenly back on the ground. I felt okay but within seconds could feel my right ankle and leg beginning to hurt. It didn’t feel too bad, but I also felt a familiar feeling of adrenaline and shock from previous climbing accidents, killing the pain and giving me a peculiar buzz racing through my brain. I put my boots on and walked around a few steps. Within minutes I realised all was not well in my ankle. But this was not the time to consider feeling sorry for myself. I realised I needed to get myself out of a mountain crag situation rapidly, before I would need to bother a mountain rescue team. 

I agreed with Masa that I would start hobbling down the hill with my poles straight away and he would retrieve my static rope which was still hanging down from the top of the crag and meet me at our bikes by the beach.

Off I went, in more and more pain but determined just to get down to safety before letting myself worry about the future. Masa had the option of either walking to the top of the cliff, locating a scramble down to a terrace and getting down this to access the static, or soloing a V-Diff gully climb to arrive directly at the terrace; harder but much quicker. Just before I dipped down the hill out of sight of the crag, I looked back once to see Masa starting to climb the gully.

When I eventually reached the beach by the loch, I took off my boot, put my swollen ankle into the cold water and sat and felt sorry for myself. I’ve had three ankle surgeries in the past four years and spent over a year on crutches. I was finding it hard not to get miserable at the prospect of going through it all again. But what else could I do? 

Time passed, a lot of time. It started getting dark and midges bit me. Masa still hadn’t appeared. I’d  hobbled down the whole way on a broken leg and he still hadn’t caught me up. Shit. What could be delaying him. As it got dark, I went over possibilities in my mind and got more and more agitated and intensely worried. Realistically, a fall would be the most likely cause of delay and he was last seen soloing to the top of the cliff!

I could not sit still and hobbled round to the far side of the beach so I could see more of the approach path and the cliff. No sign. But the light was failing. I strained my eyes and kidded myself that distant rocks were in fact Masa walking down. There wasn’t much point in me hobbling back up on a broken leg to look for him. What would I achieve? But I was reluctant to raise alarm before I had any evidence of something going wrong. Trad climbing faff can suck up a lot of time. But at some point I’d have to make the decision. I stood for nearly an hour in full ‘fight or flight’ mode, my heart pounding in my chest, shaking and really upset. Finally, my eyes saw a spec of moving orange below the crag. Was it? Shit I’ve lost it again. Then I saw it again, a little lower. My heart dropped a little from my mouth. But it was basically dark now and as I looked lower again, I couldn't see anything else. For a further 20 minutes I cursed my eyes for showing me what I desperately wanted to see.

But then, there he was, appearing almost right in front of me out of the darkness. Masa was a marvellous sight despite looking pretty dishevelled, helmet lopped to one side on his head and generally looking muddy and messy. ‘Are you alright?’ was the only thing I could think of to say. I just wanted him to say something so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. ‘Kind of’ came the answer back. As swarms of midges devoured us, Masa told me that he’d slipped near the top of the V-Diff and fallen the full length of the route. But that every time he’d hit ledges on the way down, he had landed on his back on the rucksack full of ropes and gear. After spending some time in a heap at the base, he’d gathered himself, apparently uninjured apart from lots of bumps and a staved thumb and tried to walk over the top, but failed to locate the descent in the failing light and eventually staggered off down the path. 

Masa Sakano starting up Ardanfreaky E3, Binnien Shuas

Like a pair of drunk old men, we struggled, moaning onto our bikes and cycled off down the track. I discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to get going on a bike with one leg broken. Back at the car, we agreed that it was at least good that we were still alive and headed off home. Masa later got an all clear from hospital in Inverness and after a few days in bed and a few weeks off climbing, he seemed fine. I went for a leg x-ray in the Belford hospital. I was also given an all clear, although I could not weight my foot at all. A nurse looked at my X-ray and said it looked normal. I also looked at it across the corridor and asked what the big line was that stretched down my tibia. “Oh that’s nothing - you can just see the bone behind”. Taking my own advice, I wanted another opinion so paid £350 for an MRI scan, which despite the cost still took a week to arrange and another week to report (the radiologist was on hols - lucky her/him!). While standing up a ladder setting routes at Three Wise Monkeys in Fort William, an email popped up on my phone from my surgeon, who had thankfully glanced at my MRI before the report and let me know that the ‘nothing’ line on my tibia was in fact a fracture and to urgently go and get a cast. Oh and I’d basically reversed my ankle surgery from the previous year. Great.

Despite my experience with getting through injuries, I will admit to being rather knocked back by all this. In other words, fucking depressed. I did my best to try and do something positive, and enrolled to start a part time masters degree in human nutrition at Glasgow University. But when I went, I was struggling to find my normal motivation. After Uni I’d drive across to TCA to do some training. But a couple of evenings I just sat outside staring at the entrance and couldn't face going in. Being self-employed also meant I couldn’t drop out of life. A particular low point was a drone flying job I had booked on the Cairngorm plateau in October. Going up there on my crutches and still being a delicate painful mess just made me feel very weak and vulnerable.

The consequence of neglecting to continue training properly only compounded my problems. I lost a huge amount of physical form and confidence. At the end of October, I left my crutches in the car at the airport and left for a long booked trip to Margalef to sport climb. My second route there was 8a and it felt desperate! I don’t think an 8a had felt so hard for over fifteen years. To be fair, walking to the crag also felt desperate at the time. I managed to get up to 8b+ redpoint in two weeks, but even that was a real struggle and I relied on experience far more than fitness to manage it. On the harder routes, I just got totally shut down. End of story.

Smiling after climbing Via Del Quim 8b+ at Margalef, two weeks off my crutches. It was great to be trying hard, but I still felt really awful.

It was a weird bittersweet experience. One one hand it was fantastic to still be able to just go out and climb rocks, but on the other I felt like a shadow of myself. But it does amaze me how these feelings eventually pass if you take good care of yourself (with basic things like sleep, nutrition, good friends, careful training etc). I have slowly regained some strength and fitness and feel quite good again now. Last month, I returned to the project I broke my leg on. After carefully cleaning the bottom section where the hold broke, and carrying a boulder pad up the hill, I sent it with ease. That was definitely a satisfying and hopeful moment. 

Sending the FA of Stronghold E8 6c a few weeks ago. A great feeling. Photo: Calum Muskett

I’d say the recovery is not quite over yet. But I just spotted an E9/10 project on Binnien Shuas. Something to drive forward the progress.

PS: Many people patiently helped me through my brokenness and recovery. Thank you, all of you.

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