THOSE TEN HOURS ON THE HILL
The accident happened on the hills north of Loch Voil at 1.00 pm on Wednesday 25th October and I was found at 11.00 that night. I was on a week-long retreat at the Dhanakosa Buddhist Centre. Wednesday was a break from the usual routine of Tai Chi, meditation and writing. We could do what we liked as long as we observed the rule of silence from 7 pm the previous day to 7 pm that evening. Because, at age 83, I go too slowly for most hillwalkers, and because I knew I would be stopping every other minute to take photographs, I had chosen to walk alone. After heavy rain the burn I needed to cross was in full spate, so I decided to go up a different hill. I have been asked to say what went through my mind in the ten hours between the accident happening and the Mountain Rescue Team finding me.
Without warning I was thrown sideways and downwards. There was a bang as loud as gunshot -my femur on my left leg, my thigh bone, snapping in half. For about twenty minutes I lay, roaring in pain. I was probably in shock. My leg was strangely floppy and lolled about at odd angles. Disbelief was uppermost in my mind. Surely this couldn’t be happening. It must be some kind of fantasy or bad dream. Slowly I accepted that it had happened, that I needed to face up to the reality of the situation and that I was in deep shit. As if carrying our Silent Day to extremes, there was no reception at all on my mobile phone, not even for emergency services. I was unable to stand. I wasn’t where I had said I’d be. I was alone. I was in thick forest and might never be found.
I should say at this point that I have had quite a lot of experience in the past, through mountaineering and sea kayaking, of being in tight spots and of getting myself and my group out of them. Panic and fear, two of the great enemies in situations like this, were absent, or at least held at bay by a belief that I could and would get through this. Ironically, I had been recalling with my friend, Archie, only a week before, how when being assessed for my advanced certificate as a kayak instructor, I had been presented with some horrendous scenario and asked how I would deal with it. I had replied, ‘I wouldn’t have got into that situation in the first place.’ Yet, here I was, lying badly injured in the forest. At times I felt that the person on the ground, moaning in pain, was not me, but some case study for which the real me needed to find a plan of action in order to pass the test. I think the fact that, for the past four days, I had been doing four sessions of meditation a day, also helped me keep calm.
It was tempting to stay where I was, sheltered by the trees from the wind and rain. All around me were huge clumps of moss, ideal as insulating material and which could be squeezed like a sponge to extract water when needed. But the risk of not being found was too great. About five hundred feet below me was a forestry road. In order to be visible, I had to reach that road. I took my waterproof overtrousers from my rucksack. Using one leg of the trousers I tied the broken halves of my thigh together. I then placed the injured limb on top of my good one and tied them together with the other trouser-leg. Very slowly I inched, squirmed, wriggled and bum-shuffled through the trees and down the slope. After every two or three feet the pain became too much, forcing me to lie there, howling in agony, gathering my strength for the next big effort. For anyone to put themselves through this level of torture they really, really have to want to live. I am not afraid of death and I’ve had a long and good life. I could hardly feel cheated were I to die now. But there were things I still wanted to do; I still had a lot to give; my own personal journey of growth and development was incomplete; and, above all, there was at least one more chapter to come, a greater unfolding, a fuller flowering in the love story that is my fifty-eight years of marriage to Sallie.
What was going through my mind was entirely to do with the practicalities of the situation. No profound near-death thoughts visited me. My focus was on reaching the road; spotting the best route by which to drag my injured body; how to overcome the fallen tree trunk that was in my way; the best position to get into that caused the least pain. It took four hours to cover those five hundred feet. I was soaking wet. In my worm-like progress I had slithered through bogs, mud-slides and pools of stagnant water. Low cloud brought the darkness early. It was raining hard and a strong, bitterly cold wind was funnelling down the road. I was shivering uncontrollably. It would be at least two hours before my absence became a real concern and before any search for me was instigated. How long it would take to find me I could only guess.
Hypothermia was now the main danger. Simply recognising that fact and knowing its symptoms helps ward it off. I began a programme of controlled shivering and shaking, of rubbing my ribs with my elbows and humming loudly. I may have been using up valuable core heat, but it gave me back control. Instead of shivering uncontrollably, my body was shivering when I told it to. My survival, I knew, was now down to mind over matter and to morale. If some supreme being had said to me at this point, ‘I will take away either the pain or the cold. You can choose,’ without hesitation I would have chosen to banish the cold. The wind increased in strength. The temperature dropped even further. That I returned to the shelter of the trees became a priority. I dragged myself across the road. Going backwards, pushing with my good leg seemed to be the best way. But it meant that, in the dark, I didn’t see the drop behind me down the embankment at the edge of the road. Down I went, headfirst, clutching my leg, screaming. I ended up in a hollow, surrounded by rotten, slippery logs. At least I was out of the wind. I resumed my shivering routine.
Was that the sound of a helicopter? Were lights flashing? Then there it was in sight. I turned on the bright screen of my mobile phone and waved it to and fro. Voices were calling to me from the road. I was in a position where it was too difficult for the helicopter to lift me out, so the Killin Mountain Rescue Team had come to carry me out by stretcher. They gave me morphine and wrapped me in wonderfully warm blankets and handed me hot coffee from a thermos. My immediate feelings were of relief – relief from the pain and the cold; relief that I had been found; gratitude to all those involved in my rescue; and a certain feeling of triumph that I had managed to survive. The leader of the team told me later that, given my age and the atrocious weather conditions, they had expected to find a dead body.
This account was written on my last day in hospital, thirteen days after the event. I suspect that already my memory has altered things, erasing the less flattering bits, making myself seem more heroic than I actually was.