Friday, December 17, 1993

A little up and a little down

Quite a nerve wracking night lying on the edge of a cliff with about 10m drop a few inches away and not being tied in but morning finally broke after probably the longest most uncomfortable night of my life. Rob had slid down a little bit during the night so instead of only his foot dangling out over space, the edge of the cave was up to his calf. I actually think this made his femur a little more comfortable since it put a little bit of traction on it from the weight of his foot. It was a size 14 after all.

Made some more soup and fed Rob yet more water while we listened to the clink of climbing equipment as the rescue party slowly made their way up to us. By about 10:00 we couldn't understand why they hadn't reached us so we had to make a decision for me to once again leave Rob. The problem was that although I could get down from Robs cave, there was no way for me to return without someone to belay me so it was with great trepidation that I left Rob, down climbed the 10m of cliff face and went in search of the rescue party.

I found them just below the top of the water gullies unable to get over an awkward part, not because it was particularly difficult but the water made it really slippery and the doctor was taking no chances of having a second accident on the mountain. The relief on the doctors face when I poked my head over the ledge they were trying to scale was obvious and his first words to me were “Pizza Delivery” which was kind of amusing given the situation. The doctor's name was Roger Natrass who besides being a doctor was also one of the leading sport climbers in South Africa at that stage which made Rob feel like he was in very good hands. The “Pizza Delivery” joke was repeated when Roger reached Rob, bringing a welcome smile to Robs face.

Along with Roger, Mike and Justin once again climbed up this time with two 100m 11mm ropes which weighed a ton. They were instructed by Roger to go and make a belay as close to directly above the cave as they could and that it had better be the best belay they could make. While Mike and Justin were busy with this, Roger and I climbed back up to Rob to get him ready for the descent.

The first thing that needed to go was the sleeping bag which was pretty much soaked through after the night. I can still picture the steam rising from Robs body as the bag was unzipped as well as the smell. Whewee!, the closest I can get for people to imagine it would be a bad case of wet mouldy wool.

Roger cut Robs pants away to have a close look and for a change our luck was with us, although the femur was definitely broken there was relatively little swelling which meant there was a really good chance that no major arteries or veins had been severed. After checking the hands and teeth and discovering some broken ribs we started to splint the femur with the fancy blow up splint which Roger had brought only to have it deflate almost immediately. Fortunately I had brought some tent poles with me the previous day so we used these to splint the broken leg and then splinted both legs together to provide even more support. After this it was time to manoeuvre Rob onto the stretcher, tie him firmly in and then it was time to leave our little home and make our way back to the big world.

Getting a stretcher down a mountain is no easy feat, what the procedure is, is to tie a person to the bottom of the stretcher with about 1m of rope and then attach the stretcher to the belay ropes controlled by Justin and Mike. So far so good but as the stretcher comes out of the cave both the stretcher and myself fell about 2m as the slack went out of the rope. This was quite terrifying as I could just imagine the two of us cartwheeling end over end down the mountain attached to each other by a metre of rope. Fortunately both Justin and Mike had done a good job and it was left to me to wrestle the stretcher down the cliff face which isn't nearly as vertical as I would have liked it. Half the time I had to physically pick half of Robs 85kg up and drag him slowly downhill as Mike and Justin payed out the rope. One of the most difficult parts of the stretcher work was stopping it turning around and scraping Robs face on the cliff face and there were times where it took all the strength that I could muster to prevent the cliff rearranging yet more of Robs anatomy.

We finally made the bottom of the gully at about 17:30; meeting the rest of the rescue party who would take over from here. We were in the gully when we heard a shout of “Rocks below” as Justin dislodged a few rocks and I cowered over Robs face protecting him as best I could and hoping that nothing substantial hit us. Apart from a resounding thunk on my helmet and softer thuds on Robs' chest, we were fine but the gully was clearly not the place to spend a night especially given the number of rock falls which we heard the previous night.

I can't remember who spent the night sitting with Rob in the gully but I have to take my hat off to him, that couldn't have been a pleasant night. I took my leave from Rob and climbed back up to Mponjwane cave reaching there at 19:00 just after supper had finished. I was ravenous, I hadn't actually eaten anything solid for close on 3 days, all I had had was some soup, jelly beans, nuts and raisins on the first day and water. Fortunately there was a little of supper left over which I was going to attack as soon as I could. Unfortunately I turned my back for a few seconds and within that space of time, someone else ate it. Bastard. So I went hungry but to be honest, I was so tired that I didn't have any trouble at all falling asleep immediately.

My climbing helmet came off for the first time since Friday morning which felt very weird as I had grown so accustomed to wearing it. I think Vivette was really glad to see me, especially knowing that Rob was halfway out and on his way to hospital. There was still some doubts about how to get Rob out since getting him up the gully and to the cave was near impossible but going down the gully might not get to anywhere that a helicopter could get him either. Nobody knew where the gully led but it seemed the better option on the balance of probabilities.

You can just see Vivette peeping out of her sleeping bag on the far right hand side.

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