“Do you know the casualty?” I was briefly stumped by this.
“Um…yes.” That was the correct answer, but I could see that some clarification was needed. “It’s me.”
“Ok, I’m going to stay on the phone with you until the ambulance gets there. You just wait and tell me when you hear the siren.”
The Avon Gorge lies just on the edge of Bristol. There is a busy road running along the bottom of it, just a short way from where I was lying (this is why Ben and I couldn’t hear each other while climbing). They should have been able to get to me pretty quickly. The responder kept me talking with questions. Another pair of climbers had spotted me lying there, but they needed to get to the top of the cliff before they could get down to help me. Ben hadn’t seen anything and had no idea what had happened. After a while I saw him clambering down into sight, but I told him to anchor himself into the rock and wait.
After about a quarter of an hour, I heard a siren approach… and I heard it pass and fade into the distance again. “They’ve gone too far,” I told the responder. “They just passed me.”
The other climber reached me first, and began asking first aid questions. Ash reached me on his bike before the ambulance finally turned up. “Sorry, someone flagged us down further along,” one of the paramedics explained. I never found out why that was. Who flags down an ambulance where there’s no emergency?
They cut me out of my clothes, examined me, and carefully loaded me onto a stretcher. One of them asked me what to do with my stuff. “Just give it to my friend,” I grunted – with the adrenaline wearing off I was feeling more of the pain now.
“Which one’s your friend?”
“The one who looks like a twat.” He looked around at the other people.
“Oh yes, I see him.” He walked straight over to Ash and handed the things over. This was one of my favourite exchanges ever. Ash had helped Ben down by now and was standing coiling the ropes. He tried for a little joke: “Lucky he didn’t lose these, otherwise he would have been in real trouble.”
The paramedic gave him a serious look and said: “Your friend has a big lump on his back.” I didn’t hear that. I was still fairly chirpy; I had never broken a bone before and half assumed that this was all just taking precautions and I would turn out to be fine.
They gave me a mask, saying “This is just gas and air, like the NOS you might have had at a party.” Classic Bristol.
“Sorry, I’m not cool enough to have done that,” I replied. I breathed deeply, but I didn’t like the light-headed effect it caused, so I breathed shallowly instead, which probably wasn’t the right thing to do. The ambulance rushed me to hospital, and Ashley followed on his bicycle.
Ash was pretty sceptical about the idea of bringing an umbrella for the day’s walking. Proper hikers, he seemed to think, did not use umbrellas. I had only started using one myself that year, while doing fieldwork in the Bornean rainforest. The small, cheap umbrella that I had bought in a town in Sabah had somehow survived the thorny undergrowth and tropical downpours, far beyond what I had expected of it, and had proven its value again in the first week of the walk. I pointed out to Ash that my mountaineering instructor in the Alps used an umbrella too, and he grudgingly relented. We were in for another wet day.
Very soon we were in the built-up area around Preston. We had come inland to cross the River Ribble, the only major river that flows west out of the Yorkshire Dales. After that, it was just a question of finding the most efficient way of going directly north for three days, until I reached Cumbria. We probably weren’t passing through Preston on one of its best days. Preston is the only place in the UK that still holds a guild celebration, which sounds like it might be the most interesting day to be there, but we had missed the last one by seven years. As such, we didn’t find much to inspire us.
I tried to find a quick, creative route that cut along footpaths and quiet streets, but this only led to us bashing through muddy undergrowth by a small stream, walking into two cul-de-sacs, and possibly trespassing through someone’s garden. We stopped at a pub for a break.
Eventually the buildings grew more scattered and, after passing under the M55, we were back into the countryside. A footpath took us through the middle of a couple of fields that were nothing but sucking, ankle-deep mud. After this things brightened up, however, and before we knew it, we were on a pleasant country stroll with the usual trimmings – hedgerows, cattle, little streams and farm houses. I tried to film a short video log update, which is something I occasionally had a go at over the walk. I rarely actually posted them because I found watching myself back insufferable. Ashley’s mocking did not help this.
Tina and Adrian called us to say that a lot of the area ahead was flooded, and they had had to drive to a different campsite to the one we had originally planned. We altered course, and more and more frequently had to dodge round large puddles and soaked earth, which then turned into entire sections of path that were submerged. Our route-finding involved some clambering, balancing, and fence-hopping, until eventually we were checkmated. Caught on a track between two walls in an abandoned farmstead, with no way round and twenty metres of water between us and the road, we gave up and sprinted through it. Miraculously, my boots kept the worst of it out, but Ash’s did not.
Tina, Adrian, and Piper walked out a meet us a couple of miles from the campsite. They led us along a track lit by the late afternoon sky above and its mirror image below. I had made my peace with the water. Tina said she could dry my things by putting them in the campervan’s shower cubicle, turning on its heater and ventilator and “making a hotbox”. Ash burst out laughing.
In the campervan, I peeled off my socks and peered at my feet. Tina asked if I was suffering from blisters.
“I don’t think I tend to get blisters. I think I’m all right.”
Tina took a look. “Alasdair, those are huge blisters.”
“Oh, well maybe I’ll just ignore them. They aren’t too bad.” This is my questionable pro-tip for blisters: just deny you even have them and they will lose their power.
Ash left after dinner, taking a pile of stuff that I had overpacked with him, including a pointless spare blanket and four pairs of gloves. My thinking had been that I was packing for the Scottish Highlands in late October, with no way of knowing what the conditions would be like, but in fact, given that I had people joining me at various points, there was no need to carry it the whole way. Learning as you go is a part of long-distance hiking. Next time I do something like this, I will have a heap of new knowledge to bring to bear in the planning stage, and the whole thing will be slick and not at all haphazard. A man can dream.