Vigilance - it pays to be prepared

Around one hour after this photo was taken, the hill told us why we always need to be vigilant, alert to our surroundings. 

Three years ago, early November 2017, I travelled to the Mach Loop in Wales in the hope of seeing aircraft skim through the valleys. I had visited a few times previously, it is always pot-luck on whether anything will fly by, but the scenery is always spectacular and the hike is good exercise. There are several locations for togging dotted around this designated low-flying zone, on this visit I decided to head for CAD West on the slopes of Cadair Idris. There is a good-size car park and a relatively easy stroll up the hill to the view-point - only a few hundred feet higher; first off is a quite steep ten-foot scramble up a little cliff behind the stile, then the hill is traversed up a gently sloped, well-worn path until you reach the fence. Turn left and the ascent starts in earnest - there are much-trod steps in the hillside but they can be slippery when wet and many have a rise that can be a little too big, so you can walk up the grass beside, but that adds to the degradation and should be avoided if you can. Sometimes you need to give yourself a helping-hand by heaving up with your arms too, using the sturdy fence posts as an aid. Twenty minutes later you arrive at the main viewing area, you pick a spot where you have a good view and room to swing for panning shots, while ensuring you don't block another togger's view.

Here I met a new friend. The majority of enthusiasts are willing to natter and joke to pass away the hours until the traffic arrives. I got chatting to Gary, the usual small-talk about kit and past visits. This whiled away the few hours between lunch-time and some activity after 3pm when a plane decided to break our duck. A few groups hadn't the patience to wait so long, we noticed them walking down the hill using the opposite side of the fence to where you normally ascend. A fit-as-a-fiddle old-timer passed next, a chap Gary had spoken to on a previous visit so he knew he is a local; we asked if the other side of the fence offered a safer descent, and he confirmed that in this dreich, damp weather it often was an easier route off the hill, but you have to clamber over the fence without a stile to re-gain the gentle slope to the car park. We said our cheerios. Gary and I waited another hour as quite often there is a burst of activity just before evening arrives. Light began to fade and the temperature dropped, so we decided we would head down, with a quick debate about which side to use; Gary had a preference for following the normal path but I said I would try the "wrong side" of the fence as the old-timer seemed confident that it was safer.

An apocryphal moment

I popped over the stile that normally leads to a higher vantage point, and I began walking down; the slope was not too steep but was fully grassed, so I was taking careful steps as it was very damp. I noticed that Gary was following behind. After around thirty feet of descent, I heard a thump on the ground and quickly turned around. Gary was flat on his back and clutching his leg. I asked is he ok and what happened? He managed to tell me that his right foot gave way and slid along the grass, then came to a sudden stop against a big sod of grass, but he did not. He said he heard an almighty snap and received an immediate massive shock of pain, he wasn't sure if he had snapped his thigh bone. I asked was he sure, that is one tough bone to crack? Perhaps the jolt had just given a nasty strain? He told me that he believed it was quite serious, so I asked if he wanted me to phone for an ambulance - I didn't want to impose such a dramatic course of action on him. He said he didn't see how we would get off the hill without assistance, so I made the call. Fortunately hills have been installed with signal repeaters that can connect emergency calls even when you don't have a phone signal showing. The call centre seemed to struggle to understand where our location was - I thought that odd as the Mach Loop and CAD West in particular are quite famous in these parts; any-hoo, the details were passed on and the ambulance arranged.

The wait

Being way out in the wilds away from civilisation, I expected that we would be in for quite a wait. I was wearing several layers of clothing as you need to when standing still on a mountainside all day, so I decided that I could afford to take off my fleece jumper and scarf put them onto Gary to maintain his warmth - my waterproof coat has good insulation so I knew I could cope. The wind had started to pick up, so I laid down in the heather for two benefits - first to block the wind from reaching Gary, as wind-chill is the enemy, and I thought the long grasses would give me some insulation. This is when it started to dawn on me just how good a patient Gary was - no screaming and shouting, no making a huge fuss and drama about his situation. I told Gary how on my previous visits I had thought through how I would get myself off a hill should any calamity occur - how I would make my coat into a sled and slide off down the hill. Braking at the bottom needed a bit more forethought. I told him that I usually take care not to be the last person off the hill, just in case; but, if I am up there alone, I wanted my mind prepared to kick into action should I need it to. We had several long quiet periods, where I knew Gary would need the silence to be able to concentrate hard to manage the pain. I stood a few times when I heard traffic on the road below. After only twenty minutes or so, to my amazement I did see an ambulance heading up the road toward our location, I expected that it would take much longer to get here from the closest town. I always carry a torch in my coat pocket, for signalling if needed; it is a bike front lamp but makes an ideal emergency tool as it is lightweight and has excellent battery life. I turned it on and waved it around in the direction of the ambulance, to show the driver where we were. Disappointingly, the ambulance drove past the car park. I told Gary what had just happened, a few minutes passed so I suggested that perhaps it was already on a call, gauging by how quickly it had arrived in the vicinity. We waited another ten minutes, then discussed that maybe it had been our ambulance but didn't know where we were? I phoned the call centre again and explained what we had witnessed, this time the operator knew exactly where we were - he told us that the previous call had gone through to the South Wales centre and they were not familiar with the geography, it had been "our" ambulance but he had been given a location several miles further on. We were told that the ambulance would be turned around and would get to us asap. 

A few toggers came off the hill, some surprisingly passed without a murmur, but most asked if there was anything they could do to help. I explained that we had already called for an ambulance and should be ok, and thanked them for their concern. One chap said he would wait for the ambulance to arrive and tell the driver exactly where we are. 

Escalation

I watched the ambulance arrive from the opposite direction and park up in the car park. I found out a short while later that the last togger was as good as his word and had waited all the while for the ambulance to arrive, and did speak with the driver. The paramedic bounded up the hill in a polo shirt; he explained that the exercise kept him warm! He chatted to Gary and quickly decided that there was no way to get him off the hill with just the two of us; he told us he would have to call for an airlift! Gary and I offered our apologies for causing everyone such trouble, the driver brushed that aside telling us these things happen. The local Mountain Rescue Team had been out on exercise and heard the call-out, they raced over to the hill in several Land Rovers. While we had been waiting, Gary had called his friend who has a neighbouring caravan at Bala, not too far away north. He was asked to break the news to Gary's partner; we didn't expect him to charge down to meet us, but he did. Seventy years old with a replaced hip and walking stick, be charged up the hill to be with his mate; a beautiful moment. Gary had quite a hefty backpack full of heavy camera gear, that his friend said he would take care of. I told him I wasn't letting him lug the thing down the hill - it was difficult enough walking without any weight. The rescuers were keen for us to clear the area for the helo arriving, so I got my own pack on my back and swung Gary's back-to-front on my chest - quite a package to get back up to and over the stile to go down the "proper" side of the fence.

The going was mostly ok, but my feet did give way a few times - each occasion I threw myself sideways to protect the gear, no harm was done. Half an hour later feet were firmly on the tarmac of the car park in the now pitch-dark evening. 

Retrieval and afterward

Not much later, we heard the approach of the helicopter. And I cursed that there was no light to capture the unfolding events on the camera - the smartphone would have to do. We watched the bright beam of the searchlight sweeping the hillside, and stood in awe of the total stability of the machine as it hovered perfectly above the casualty. Less than ten minutes later, Gary was taking a private flight through the Mach Loop - an event all we toggers dream of, but not in this manner! Shame he couldn't see anything, what with laying prostrate and there being no light.

I passed on my best wishes to Gary's friend, as I told them I had to shoot off as I still had another six hours drive home to Scotland. I left Gary's gear in their good hands. A few weeks later I was on another long commute for work, and stopped by the hospital where Gary had been fixed. Turns out that there had been quite a series of unfortunate events for his recovery. He had been taken to the closest hospital for treatment, but Gary asked to be transferred closer to home to make it easier for visitors - busted leg but still thinking of others. It transpired that Gary had not broken his femur, he had snapped in two the ligament that joins the thigh to the kneecap - a much more troublesome injury to repair. Our NHS are brilliant though, and had him sewn up and on the mend. He had to wear a leg brace for the next year, the first quarter it was locked straight, then a 30 degree bend was introduced over each of the next quarters to stretch the ligament as it repaired. 

In much less time than I expected, Gary was back on the hills togging. Not the same hill - the one across the valley that can be driven up to and a gentle stroll takes you to the mega-cliff.

The lesson to be learned is to think about all the eventualities of your exploring. Gary had been wearing near-new, appropriate footwear and was using a hiking pole, but the hill still claimed him. Let people know where you are and your itinerary; carry a phone and torch, and even an emergency homing beacon. Plan how you can help yourself. You never know. 

In the immortal words of hill street blues - "hey, let's be careful out there"