We drove to Scotland the day after Boxing Day, thirty or so students off to spend a week at a bunkhouse in Fort William for some winter mountaineering. I wanted to help with unloading the van and setting things up, but was limited to light tasks, so I clacked around on my crutches directing people instead – this was my third time coming on this trip and the routine was familiar. I claimed a bedroom on the ground floor and relaxed while the newer members met their winter skills instructor and the old hands planned their first days’ adventure. I found myself listening to their discussions with a certain trepidation I hadn’t felt before.
In the morning, everyone went off early, and I put on some music, washed up the breakfast things, and worried. My friends had gone off to climb mountains, and now I understood what they were putting at risk. Did they understand? Could they? I had had a lot of time to think about what we were doing, and had concluded that I wasn’t nearly as experienced as I had pictured myself, and neither was practically anyone else I knew. The student life had warped my perception of what it takes to become truly experienced. In two years I had gone from being a beginner to helping to run a hiking, climbing, and mountaineering society, running trips, leading walks, and teaching people to climb, without a proper adult in sight. I realised now that all of us were only just starting out on our journeys as climbers, and I desperately felt the need to make people understand this.
On that trip, I started to feel a terrible sense of dread that someone might get hurt as badly or worse than me, through not understanding the risks of what we were doing. When, on one day, a group came back chuckling that one of them had almost died when he slipped, but another had grabbed him by the backpack, my heart turned over. I didn’t have any ability to stop people going out climbing, and I certainly didn’t want to – I was keen to get back to it myself as soon as possible – but I wanted to be sure that everyone was doing it with the right attitude. I felt that the knowledge that my friends would keep themselves safe from now on would be the only thing that could give my own suffering any purpose. I began to share my thoughts on the right attitude to have and found that people did want to listen; the experience I had been through seemed to add weight to my thoughts on safety.
I wasn’t trapped in the bunkhouse all week. My strength on crutches had come a long way. On one day, I clipped over the top of the hill behind the bunkhouse and down into Glen Nevis. I found a cemetery and walked among the graves for a while, and cried at the futility of life, which is something everyone should indulge in once in a while. The following day, I persuaded people to take me to Glen Coe and drop me off at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase. Still on crutches, I clattered my way along 10km of the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven, which felt like a great accomplishment. That was two and a half months after my injury, which doesn’t seem nearly long enough given how interminable my time stuck in bed had felt.
After the trip, I went back to live in Bristol again, and gradually got stronger. Though I was still frustrated with my aching body and the uncertain extent of my recovery, the underlying doubts were mitigated by having my friends around. My housemates kept me laughing more than possibly any other time in my life, despite the habit they had developed in my absence of binge-watching absolutely awful vine compilations. People in general were really, really kind to me and touchingly told me how happy they were to have me back.
I went back to my comedy society, the Bristol Revunions; we put on a sketch show where I was able to play roles that mainly involved sitting down. We did a standup show where I told the story of my accident, interspersed with the imaginings I had dwelt on of what it might have been like had things gone worse. I loudly thumped my way onto the stage, still on crutches and in my two heavy orthopaedic boots, paused, and said: “I’m going to address the obvious…” I ended the set with a thank-you to my friends in the audience, and suddenly found myself struggling to get the words out as tears formed in my eyes. It probably wasn’t my most hilarious performance.
I began tentatively flirting with Zoë, whom I had started to get to know a bit on the Scotland trip. When that turned into the start of a relationship, I had most of the ingredients for this to have been the happiest time of my life. My outpatient check-ups would occasionally bring me crashing back down to the ground, however. I went along to them with optimism, ready to show off how much I had progressed and hoping for them to agree that yes, I was on track for things to get back to how they were before. They never said that. It was always, “you may always suffer a bit of discomfort; this will always be a bit stiff; you may find you get some arthritis here.”
It’s tricky to remember the timescale of when I phased out my crutches, but fortunately, UBES keeps a calendar of its old trips. In mid-February, I went on a weekend trip to the Lake District where was still using them, and walked up Illgill Head, a small fell in the south-west of the area. In mid-March, I did a two-day hike along the South-West Coast Path, where I strapped my crutches to my backpack just in case, but didn’t use them. I still needed to lie down a lot. After being out doing something for a few hours, my back would get increasingly tired and would complain more and more, but I could tell it was slowly getting stronger too.
The dread I had felt that something bad was going to happen didn’t go away. It was repeatedly fed by near misses. One friend slipped while scrambling on Tryfan, but apparently “did a sort of flip” and landed on his feet. My housemate, Ollie, also slipped on Tryfan and dislocated his shoulder. Another friend fell off an unprotected traverse in the Avon Gorge while seconding, swung a long way and hit her head, while her rope sheared almost apart. Losing a friend to a fall was my number one fear in life.
It turned out that Zoë and I had consecutive birthdays in April, so we celebrated with a BBQ on the downs with a big mixed group of friends. We started throwing round a frisbee, which turned into a game of ultimate. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do much running around, but once the game was on, my competitive side took over, and I was running around flat-out despite my weak, dodgy ankle. I was stiff and sore afterwards, but it was wonderful to discover that I could play sports again.
In June, I went for a climbing session at an indoor wall, and was pleased to find that I wasn’t completely hopeless at it. It felt nervy, but I was sure that I could get my head used to it again if I kept going. This didn’t work out, though, because a few days later, I was having a lesson in how to make charcoal and, while trying to cut a small bit of kindling with a full-sized axe, chopped off the very tip of my left thumb. As the instructor was staunching the blood flow with a first aid kit, one of the other guys there presented the axe to me, where the little dome of flesh was still stuck to the blade. “Do you want this?” he asked.
“Yeah, we’ll just leave it for the crows,” he said, flicking it into the undergrowth.
I turned up to a couple of parties that evening, with my arm in a sling to protect the thumb from painful bumps. I was repeatedly greeted with looks of “What have you done now?” I tried in vain to persuade people that I wasn’t accident-prone. I hoped I was right.