Alpine Accident

(by Seán Rothery, from Irish Mountaineering 1968)
Rockfall and rescue.

“This is my life,” said Pat – nobody disagreed. I was washing my socks – for medical reasons – not hygienic since a sharp stone had ripped a lump from my right calf. Peter was asleep, Doc was arguing and Dick was keeping an eye on the German birds and planning ahead. There was no doubt about it – it really was the good life – the clean sharp air at 7,000 ft. the satisfaction after yesterday’s epic traverse of the Leiterspitze in twice the guide book time and a nice reasonable route for tomorrow on the Alphubel and then on to the Matterhorn.

That night Dick beat Pat to it and had his sleeping bag like a flash over to the other side of the Matratzen lager where the dollies dossed – much good it did him ! Three hours later we were up – there was grim satisfaction in sticking your crampons into some one else but breakfast civilised us and we were rattling off in the darkness up the track. The start of the Rotgrat was easy – it was first light and we were moving at great speed unroped right up to the top of the rib. The snow shoulder swooped up above – grey and cold. I was slow fixing my crampons and Doc and I moved up the snow on the last rope.

We started on the rock tower. It was eight o’clock in the morning – cold and still – when it happened ! A flurry of frenzied shouts and the great black mass of rock came thundering down on me. A terrible blow tore me from my holds, the world turned upside down and I was falling clear with the rocks! The rope jerked tight–Oh, God–Doc had held me! I spun around in the gully, my right hand burned into the rope–my left leg was turned around and hanging by the muscles. I scrambled in a panic across the gully as more rocks came down – the others screamed up at Eddie, who had started the fall, to stay still. I found a belay spike up on the wall of the gully and hauled myself up to it. I wound a spare coil of rope around and then gave way to the waves of pain sweeping over me. They will never get me out of here I thought and I didn’t think I could stand the pain much longer. I hung from the belay and tried to pull my leg up to a foothold to ease the pain. This worked for a while and I was able-to tell the others about my state. Dick took charge and raced away up the tower with Pat to descend by the easier normal route for rescue. Doc belayed Peter to let him down to me.

He tried to splint the leg with his axe but it was impossible in the situation and I couldn’t stand the pain of manipulating the leg. He cut a series of ice steps up and across the gully. We had to get out of there before the sun got around or we would all be smashed by stone falls. He faced the slope and I put my arms around his neck and we started. This was the worst experience I could imagine. My leg kept tangling up and Peter was exhausted with my weight. He cut a couple of handholds for my hands and with me pulling and Peter lifting me, he got me onto the platform.

Shock descended in waves on me then – great shuddering spasms. They adjusted my leg to stretch it out despite my howls of agony but when they covered me up I settled down and the shock waves died out. I was more frightened of my back where the big rock had hit me tearing my axe out of its straps. I endured this sharp burning pain for a while until I got the courage to reach around under me to find that a nut on the sling was biting into my skin – the relief almost brought me back to normal.

The long afternoon wore on with no sign of rescue – the black clouds over Monte Rosa growing bigger every minute worried hell out of me but the others tactfully didn’t mention them. Then Peter shouted “Look at the light on the hut flashing.” They lifted me up to see and there away down below the glacier was a red light flashing. Hope came flooding back to me and I felt renewed. Days later in hospital the boys told me that the “light of hope” was the square red Swiss flag flapping in the breeze beside the Tasch hut.

Eight hours passed and now the boys were silent. What had happened to Dick and Pat ? My mind was far away now and I was in a sort of delirium. Somebody shouted “There it is”! The helicopter rose and spiralled up away across the valley then its ugly clattering roar enveloped us and it was hanging there a hundred feet out from the face with the door open and helmeted figures were sizing up the situation.

There was no hope of getting a line to us from that position as the face was too steep. Down went the machine and it hovered over the snow shoulder. Out jumped two men to land waist deep in the soft snow. They climbed rapidly up to us and we were relieved to find that Dick was one, the other a guide from Zermatt. Dick’s first concern was to do a really good splinting job on me as since the femur was smashed I had to be completely immobilised. He used three ice axes and a couple of hundred feet of nylon cut into loops and in the process stopped the guide tying an ordinary knot in the nylon tape sling which was to connect me to the helicopter line.

Meanwhile a line was being rigged up across the gully and up to a larger platform which jutted out from the face.

They lifted me up and clipped me to the ropeway. I was scared stiff and the pain was bad again. I hauled hand over hand, the others pulling me. Near the top the rope jammed and my stomach turned hanging there above the gully. Two others rushed up and hauled me onto the ledge. In the process, the guide, who refused to be belayed when all this was going on, slipped on the ice and came off. He managed to grab a spare rope to save himself from shooting down the gully.

I heard the clattering roar of engines again overhead but again the helicopter swooped away. I heard the guide muttering that it was too dangerous, the rotors could crash against the face. I really felt black despair. The others were not discouraged – they dragged me and hauled me right out to the very edge of the ledge and waited for the chopper to come back. In it came again and then I saw the rope and snaplink come sailing in. They reached for it, grabbed it with frantic fingers and clipped it onto my rope cradle.

There was a ferocious jerk, an ear splitting howl of engines and I was lifted right off the mountain – out into the void. The figures of the others dwindled until they vanished into the face of the mountain. Then I saw the immensity of the glacier below and the thousands of feet of space around my sailing legs. I shut my eyes tight and gripped the rope until my knuckles were white.

For five minutes I hung there with my eyes closed until I plucked up courage to look up at the helicopter. The door was open and the co- pilot was leaning right out, looking down at me. He grinned and waved and suddenly I felt I was on the way back.

After what seemed like hours, a dream like flight at the end of a slender line, floating over dark ridges and white snowfields, green alps and forests appeared below and I was suddenly suspended over a group of climbers outside the Tasch hut. Willing hands lowered me to the ground, Pat appeared and brought me water and I was then lifted into the cabin and laid flat on the floor.

The clattering roar began again and the second leg of a long journey was under way. Down to Zermatt, the first operating theatre of many and the months of hospital before I could walk again.