Days of Recovery, Part 3

By the summer after the fall, my recovery seemed to be reaching a plateau. You wouldn’t have known anything was wrong by looking at me, but I felt creaky. Whenever I came back to the house, the first thing I would do was lie down to rest my back. My ankle did not seem to have healed as well as the doctors had hoped, and I was on a waiting list for surgery. I was also due for a follow-up operation on my back in September. I clung onto the hope that these procedures would make things better.

My housemates planned a big, exciting hiking trip to Canada. I didn’t feel I would be able to join them. Instead, I went with my university’s sketch comedy group, The Bristol Revunions, to put on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was my second time doing this and it is an amazing and exhausting experience. Too many students squeeze into a flat together and enter a relentless cycle of trying to drum an up audience from the streets, putting on the show and feeling either the elation of causing laughter or the deflation of a muted response, and then spending the rest of the day dashing between as many other performances as possible. Halfway through August, I found to my dismay that walking constantly round the city was taking a toll on my ankle, and I developed a limp. I needed that surgery.

Sketch comedy

September came, and my mum took me back to Southmead hospital in Bristol. In the original operation, screws had been put into my crushed L1 vertebra, and the one above and below it, and all three fused together with rods. This operation would now remove the connection with the vertebra below, L2, which would allow the joint to move and hopefully cause me to feel less stiff. The vertebrae above would stay fused; that joint had been destroyed.

I was put under again. The surgeon apparently reassured my mum by saying “at least this time it’s not life-threatening”. After having it sliced open and stitched together again, you realise that almost every movement you make involves your back. I spent a few days recovering in a ward, then went home – no two-week stay in a private room this time.

A couple of weeks later, I helped Zoë move into her student house (as much as possible without being able to carry anything heavy), then went in for keyhole surgery on my ankle. The damage turned out to be far worse than they had thought, and some scarring in the joint meant that it would always feel a bit stiff, but soon it should be much better than it had been for most of the year. They did tell me that I wouldn’t be able to take up running, however.

I will move swiftly on through the milestones that happened between then and the start of my walk. The recovery was now just something that was happening passively in the background while I lived my life. I began studying for a Masters in Tropical Forest Ecology. My use of crutches in my first couple of weeks probably helped me stand out a bit in the rush of many meetings that happens at the start of a university term. One friend I made admitted that when she met me she thought I was “just like that”. Gradually my back recovered and, whether imagined or not, I did feel more flexible again. Towards the end of the term, I began going to the local climbing wall, building up my strength.

Winter arrived, and I joined Zoë and other friends on the University of Bristol Expeditions Society Scotland trip again. I was feeling good and was confident that this would be my great return to the mountains. On the first day, I went with Zoë and my friend Rory to climb Dorsal Arête on a snowy Stob Coire nan Lochan, a mountain on the south side of Glen Coe. We had a brilliant icy, adventurous day and felt like serious mountaineers. We had moved fairly slowly, though, and the sun had set by the time we all reached the top of the climb. “We need to get off this mountain,” I said. We made our way briskly down below the snowline and back into the glen by torchlight. My knees began to feel a sharp pain with each step, which had never happened before. When I woke up the next day, I found I could barely walk. The pain lasted for the rest of the trip, and I wasn’t able to climb any more mountains. This wasn’t my great return. It was a great frustration.

Zoë and me approaching the base of Dorsal Arête up a steep snow slope, taken by Rory

In January 2018, my fellow master’s students and I flew to Borneo for a field course, followed by the start of our projects, based at a research station in the tropical forest. Before starting our research, three friends and I hired a car for a mad road trip around the north of the state of Sabah. One moment sticks out to me, when we drove down a dirt lane late in the day to try to find a beach. We came down to a rocky shore at dusk, and after initial hesitation, stripped down to our pants to swim across the mouth of a tidal inlet to reach the strand on the other side. Once there, laughter took us, and we ran along the smooth sand in the brief equatorial twilight. I felt the warm wind rushing past me, and increased my pace to a sprint. What a simple joy it was to feel my body moving like that.

My fellow tropical ecologists on an orangutan transect survey

I stayed in Borneo for four and a half months and had some incredible experiences with monkeys, orangutans, and elephants, and some less incredible ones with leeches and fire ants. For the purposes of this post, though, the important thing is that after a few weeks trekking into the forest every day to catch and record birds, I began for the first time to have the odd day where I didn’t think about my injury. It was a startling and comforting realisation – that the fall really was losing its grip on me.

Old-growth rainforest at the Maliau Basin, Sabah, Borneo

I returned to England at the end of May. To make it up to Zoë for being away for so long, we planned a hiking trip to Norway together. This was a chance to put myself to the next test. It was one thing to be able to hike for a day, it was another to see if I could carry camping gear and a week’s worth of food through a remote national park. Over five days, we crossed the Hardangervidda plateau, arriving at the stunning Trolltunga. It was glorious and magical, and I did it without any real problem. Could I now say my recovery was complete?

Approaching the cake-shaped mountain of Hårteigen in Hardangervidda, Norway

I was bouldering indoors regularly now, but it was not until the autumn, two years since my fall, that my friends arranged a weekend to visit Adam in Sheffield, and I finally went climbing outdoors again. It was, in a word, terrifying. From any point on a climb, I could look down and imagine vividly and with absolute accuracy how it would feel to fall. These flashes would intrude into my head without warning, sending me into a near-panic. I was climbing with Adam, though, and he was patient and I trusted him. I only got a handful of opportunities to climb outdoors over the next few months, but each time I was a little more calm and could stave off those intrusive thoughts. I don’t think I am likely to ever be as bold as I was before, after experiencing so viscerally what is at stake.

Winter came again, as it tends to. I would have happily gone on the UBES Scotland trip yet again, but Zoë was doing a year abroad in Germany, and as she was only back for a couple of weeks, we decided to spend time with her family in their cottage on the edge of Cumbria. We danced the new year in to a live band in a village pub, then went out for a good meal the next day. We then planned to head into the fells with Steve for a couple of days, hiking and camping. At breakfast we saw the news: a student had died in a fall on Ben Nevis. A horrible dread came over us, but we didn’t know any more, so off we went. We wandered up Helm Crag and Gibson Knott. It was a beautiful day, but a cloud lay over us. At one point Zoë dropped back and I turned to see her frozen, looking at her phone. Her friend in Scotland had confirmed that it was a girl on the trip, new to the society, who had fallen.

I tried to comfort her, then began to weep myself. For the loss, for the tragedy, for the pain my friends were going through, and for the awful fulfilment of my worst fear. I do not want for a moment to suggest that my reaction matters compared to the depth of loss felt by those closest to her (her family requested at the time that her name not be published), but I had wanted so badly for people to be safe, and had believed that if everyone took the lessons from my accident on board, then nothing worse would happen, and maybe that would make what I had been through worth it. Now it was all for nothing. No good, just pain. I learned much later that nobody had done anything wrong or made unsafe decisions – it had been a freak slip – but at the time I felt I had failed to do as much as I could have to make people understand the dangers of the hobbies we loved.

Something good. I needed something good to come from my accident. How could life just go around letting terrible things happen for no good reason at all? The god Odin sacrificed an eye in exchange for a drink from the well of wisdom. That was his choice to make. Perhaps I had gained some wisdom, but I had never agreed to the terms. Internally, I screamed: “Give me my body back! I want to be whole again, brave and stupid and carefree and unscarred. Give it back, and all the time I lost as well.”

In the spring, I went to the UBES annual general meeting in Snowdonia. After a soaking day of gales in the hills, we gathered in a barn to drink, elect a new committee, and reflect on the year past. When the rowdy voting was concluded, and most were several bottles deep, Rory, who was president this year, stood on a chair to give a speech. Skinny but with a deep, sonorous voice, and missing the lens from one eye, he painted a picture of a trip that had been bursting with joy and friendship, of a New Year’s Eve that had been one of the happiest days of his life, followed by a New Year’s Day that had been the worst. Looking around, I knew that these brave young people all bore scars now too, and carried a deep hurt. Tears were everywhere.

Rory began to sing The Parting Glass. He had first heard it the year before, when I had played it at the end of a delirious end-of-year party, passing round a glass for everyone to drink from. Then it had carried a promise of times well had and more to come – “Goodnight and joy be to you all”. This time it had a different message – it was a dirge. “Since it fell unto my lot that I should rise and you should not…” We clustered round Rory in an unsteadily swaying embrace, our tears mingling, trying to force the words out through our juddering throats. It was tuneless, raw and beautiful, the most powerful outpouring of emotion I have ever been a part of.

I had to do something good. To make something good out of the bad. I was working as an ecologist, on a six-month contract that ended in mid-September. I had my date. I just needed to think of something. Something that would not only do good, in some small way, for the world, but that would be a rebellion against my injuries, a triumph over them. I would not just show that I could hike and climb again – I would do something bigger and more challenging than I had ever done even before my accident. That is how this story happened.

Published by Alasdair Robertson

Hiker, birder, conservationist, and occasional comedian

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