The thing no one ever tells you about being in a really serious accident is how strangely fascinating it is.
One minute, I was climbing smoothly up the vertical rock face of Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales, enjoying the feeling of movement and the pleasant fatigue in my arms. The next second I was falling after one of my feet had slipped on a patch of greasy rock.
As I fell, I felt surprised and curious, and clearly thought I’d land OK. I had not yet reached the first point of the route where I could attach my rope to a secure bolt on the rock, and was only about 12 or 15 feet up.
Seconds later, my world had collapsed into a kaleidoscope of visual hallucination, pain and terror.
In June 2016, I was with my good friend Keefe, and we’d been enjoying a day out rock climbing, which I’d been regularly practicing for about 20 years.
I’d been trying to complete quite a difficult route during the day, which I had not quite managed, and I was climbing this last one as a warm down as it was familiar, and something that was physically easy for me at the time.
Unfortunately, my foot slipping had spun me over, and I landed head first on the jagged rock platform at the base of the cliff.
I was lying in a tangle of rope and equipment – feeling simultaneously freezing cold, and extremely sleepy. Through a screaming wail of pain inside my head, my only conscious thought was that I was scared, and all I wanted was to see my family again.
Fortunately, two other climbers at the cliff had immediately phoned the emergency services.
I had no conception of how long it took for the helicopter to arrive, as my brain was only occupied with agony, the nauseating feeling of something wet leaking from the back of my head, and trying to concentrate on the exhortations of my friend for me not to go to sleep.
I would later find out that I had fractured two of the four bony plates of my skull and my right wrist, and the pressure of the blood building up was threatening to damage my brain by pressing on it.
I owe my life to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance – with the aid of a mountain rescue team – who carried me down from the cliff to a helicopter in the field below. I was conscious throughout, and tried to chat and joke with the crew while we were in the helicopter; giddy as I’d already been dosed up with powerful pain relief.
The next thing I remember is being in a hospital – which was Leeds General Infirmary – and being handed an operation consent form while being wheeled along on a stretcher, and trying to sign it with my shattered wrist. I felt no fear or anticipation at the hospital, just a delirious curiosity aided by the copious medication I’d been give to dull the pain.
I had an emergency decompression operation to drain the blood from my head – a lengthy procedure that was, thankfully, successful in saving my life.
The days after were a blur, as I was still being given a lot of morphine. I was grateful for my mum being at my bedside soon after I woke up – she’d taken a six hour taxi ride in the middle of the night to get there as soon as she’d been telephoned.
The nurses in the intensive care unit were kind and reassuring. I distinctly remember the absolute gratefulness I felt as one brushed my teeth in the evening, which made me feel more human and as though everything would be OK.
Over the next week or two, I was moved from the intensive care unit to a general ward and, after this, allowed to go home – I was desperate to get out of the hospital to the fresh air and outdoors, which I loved.
I did not realise that this was not the end, and over the next year there were more hospitals, operations and endless redressings of my head.
I was given drugs and lotions to try to prevent infections, and had many agonising waits for results of X-rays to see if my head was healing.
I’d been really fit, and with about 20 years of climbing experience had reached a reasonable standard of difficulty. Now I was incredibly weak. Hospital stays and the drain of injury on my body had left me emaciated.
I’d gone from being able to hang onto tiny slivers of stone with my fingers on rock walls, to not being able to do one pull up.
A few months after the accident, my head became infected – despite the treatments – and I had to have some of my skull removed, and replaced with a titanium plate. It was another operation – which lasted hours – and then weeks of recovery with my head plastered in bandages. I felt despondent, and occasionally as though I was sorry that I’d survived at all.
My wrist also needed more metal to put it back together.
The accident was now nearly five years ago and, in the time since, I’ve gradually returned to climbing, which I still love but perhaps with a little less of the fire that I did before the fall.
I was a physiotherapist in the NHS – which I returned to for a few years – but I left the job late last year. I’d come to realise that the involvement in healthcare and the recovery process had become a constant reminder of my own experiences and that this was chipping away at my mental health and making me depressed.
I am now trying to make a living from writing, which I have always loved. If I’ve learnt anything through my experiences, it is the slightly clichéd notion that it is the time you spend with the people close to you that’s really important.
At the moment when I was quite sure that I was about to die, this was the only thing I longed for.
I rarely wore a helmet to climb before, and now I often but not always do. I certainly always do when I ride a bike – even to a shop – and it makes me wince when I see people not doing so.
I hope that I have become more risk aware now, and I would urge anyone to try to assess danger in any situation, especially those in which you might have become accustomed to treating in a blasé way.
I don’t mean that you should avoid doing things; I still love to do adventurous activities outdoors, but to try to do what you can to reduce the risk involved in doing it. Do not pass through life assuming that you are invincible, until one day, like me, you find that you are not.
You can donate to support the Yorkshire Air Ambulance on their website here.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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