How Stupid Can You Get ?
by Gary ‘Stupid’ Hill
I was having what I thought was a surreal experience. I think it started with a silent explosion of light and then the strange disembodied sensation of travelling within a dustbin down a bumpy bob sleight run. Gradually the silence (and my dustbin) dissolved so that a rushing sound together with random scraping could be heard and felt. Then when I put my arm out I felt pain as though something had hit me. It was then that I realised I was falling, but nothing was clear and my head was a fog. Was I dreaming??? No! Incredible as it seemed, almost ridiculous, I was falling down a mountain!
With thoughts of the 1997 new year celebrations in Aviemore and a weeks climbing in the Cairngorms, I never considered that I might not make it to 1997. One thing I have not been accused of in the past (at least with regard to mountains!) is being reckless or stupid and indeed rather the opposite - steady, careful even boring! Climbing to me, as I have so often tried to articulate to non-climbers, is partly about the mental and physical challenge, with a perceived risk - yes, perceived - risk. There is no need to get hurt climbing, so I have attempted to justify, if undertaken responsibly, it should be no more dangerous than, say, walking down the street.
Soloing, in particular, is something I have had a fairly strong opinion about. I think it would be fair to say that everyone does ‘solo’ to some degree or other and whilst each individual’s level may vary we are all, nevertheless, likely to do it. Most, surely, would agree to scrambling ‘free’ up a slippery bank to the start of a route, or to starting a climb at the top of the first ungraded pitch, or again to down climbing unaided a ‘descent path’ wouldn’t they??? However, my opinion is that soloing of climbs is inherently dangerous and something that should never be undertaken lightly. It should never, I believe, either a) endanger b) be intended to impress other people.
Despite all this Sunday 27th December 1996 saw myself and Stephen Field soloing Aladdin’s Mirror (I) in Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairngorms, on approach to Aladdin’s Mirror Direct (IV, 4). Our intention, on setting out had not been this at all, rather, to climb, not solo, Aladdin’s Mirror Direct, so what changed our minds? Certainly the fact that both of us would have liked to lead the climb had a major bearing and we reasoned that whilst the ascent looked very impressive the difficulties really appeared to us to be concentrated in the initial steep ice fall (over about 45 feet).
Figure 1: Aladin's Mirror - second route from the left (Photo from talisman-activities.blogspot.co.uk).
With common sense already on the decline it suffered another setback when the sight of what appeared to be an experienced Scottish climber (equipped with a pair of ‘predators’) bidding a retreat failed to instil in me any real concern or, indeed, cause any doubt as to my own ability to solo this climb to creep in.
Opportunity missed (or not taken) we left our sacks at the bottom of the route and I started up the ice fall clutching my alpine mountaineering axe in one hand and technical hammer (Mountain Technology Vertige) in the other. Fairly quickly I was aware that something didn’t ‘feel right’, although it was not until later that it occurred to me I was holding the axes in the ‘wrong’ hands. The climbing was steep and now, at least, I can remember thinking that I shouldn’t be doing this. As I ascended I repeatedly glanced back down, assessing feasibility of retreat but deciding that, despite the fact that I would rather have been somewhere other than here (and preferably, predictably, curled up in an armchair in front of a crackling fire and sipping at a pint of ale) continuation was ‘easier’. I continued. The steepness and the hardness of the ice proving the main difficulty and barrier to progress which needed to be vertical (of course) and slightly to the left. My axe placements were taking too long and were not very reassuring and due to this upward traverse I found I was needing to use my right technical hammer to gain upward movement, providing support and stability with my left so that despite the fact that this was my weak link it nevertheless had to spend longest in the ice.
My strength was certainly draining but I could hear Steve encouraging me and with this as a spur I managed to get to the top of the steep ice fall which had appeared to present the most difficult part of the ascent. The next priority was to reach up and place my right axe over the top of the fall and at an angle slightly off perpendicular which would enable me to move onto the easier terrain. This manoeuvre was to prove my downfall. I made an initial, unsuccessful attempt and then I think I tried again, but my axe bounced and I began to move backwards and away from the ice. I have no clear recollection of what followed but I now experienced that strange, dreamlike sequence, flashes in my memory of sounds, bumps and pain, with which I introduced this account. To Stephen and others watching it must have been frightening. I am told that I fell backwards from the ice wall, somersaulted in the air and then ‘bounced’ on my shoulder at the foot of the climb, shooting off into the gully of Aladdin’s Mirror. As I fell I collided into another climber, fortunately the second of a roped pair which served to prevent him falling as well and then disappeared into the mist and round the banked up corner of the gully. Stephen and the climber I had knocked into followed in pursuit and descended to find me ‘resting’ in the boulders near the bottom of the Corrie. I was now aware of what had happened, but found it difficult to talk and there seemed to be a lot of noisy interference, in the form of buzzing and fizzing, going on in my head. One climber was, I think, poking around in my mouth (not trying to strangle me for hitting him). I was bleeding and he was checking to see if it was localised or internal bleeding but, fortunately it appeared to be only my tongue. I must have said I was all right and he disappeared into the mist, back up the gully. Stephen mentioned something about did I realise how far I had gone (500 feet, apparently!) and that I’d have to buy some new ice axes. He then set off back up the gully to fetch the rucksacks and try to locate my ice axes, (which luckily weren’t impaled in me and were subsequently found somewhere up the gully).
Figure 2: Aladin's Mirror Direct (IV, 4) (Photo from adventuresplusnorthwales.blogspot.co.uk)
I stayed still and spat blood, and the remains of three chipped teeth, until I was happy that the bleeding was from my mouth. The interference in my head had subsided and I was systematically trying to check that my ‘body’, the ‘thing that transports my stupid brain around’ was all right. (Funny how the wrong thing always gets hurt, my brain screws up and my body gets it!). Stephen returned, most importantly, with lashings of hot sweet tea.
After deciding that going back up to complete the route did not feature in my list of top 6 million things I’d most like to do next, I tried to stand, a bit of a struggle, but to mine and Stephen’s surprise I managed it. I was all right! Absolutely amazing! I had just travelled 500 feet, with some rapidity, down a mountain side and I was all right! I didn’t deserve to be but I was very grateful.
After a visit to the Aviemore health centre and a ‘head to toe’ check plus urine sample I was declared ‘stupid’, but bruised. There was a possibility that I had briefly dislocated my shoulder in the fall, I also had a bump behind my ear which may have been the cause of my trip into unconsciousness, and my elbow was severely bruised.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is "think", very carefully, before you solo absolutely anything as the consequences of failing can be fatal and it is certainly not worth it. I was extremely lucky and have learnt a lesson. Be sensible and learn from my mistake, I can assure you it will be less painful.
Take care on the mountains and I hope we don’t hear of another ‘How Stupid Can You Get?’ story. Not from me or any of you.
Thank you to Stephen for all his help and to Bev., Brian, Frank, Jinny, Lawrence, Murray and Peter for not giving me any sympathy.