Saturday, December 18, 1993

A short way down

The climb just seemed to go on and on and I was pretty well toast by now and a couple of times caught myself nodding off at the most inopportune moments like just above an abseil point just before starting down. We were both so tired that we started taking chances we would never take if circumstances were any different, in particular I remember abseiling off an old piton because we couldn't find anywhere else to anchor the rope to. It seemed very firmly embedded in the rock but was more or less in the line in which we would be pulling, thinking about it now gives me the creeps. Fortunately it held and we found ourselves at the bottom of the gully at about 05:00 ready to start the climb back up to the cave where Vivette and Anne were waiting for us, by now aware that something was dreadfully wrong.

View showing the point that rob fell from, where we were when he fell and the cave into which he managed to fall.

We could hear anguished cries across the chasm from the injured one, alone and abandoned by his friends halfway up a cliff face with very little hope of surviving the ordeal. We reached Vivette and Anne at about 06:30 to 07:00 and Tim and Anne immediately set out for Isandlwana Police Station with lightly loaded packs to summon the cavalry. We later learnt that Tim and Anne had made it to the Police Station in 3 hours flat, a remarkable time given the terrain over which they had to travel. We were extremely lucky to meet up with Mike O'Reilly and Justin who were about to climb Mponjwane and were prepared to help with rescuing Rob, abandoning their own climb.

Mike and Brian


Somewhere in between deciding what we were going to take, distributing the contents of my backpack before packing it again I managed a 20 minute nap which I desperately needed. I didn't even take my helmet off, just lay down in my clothes and was fast asleep within 10 seconds. By about 08:00 we were on the move again back down the gully, across the nek and to the bottom of the watercourse where I once again started the climb as I had done 24 hours previously. Climbing with a backpack is a vastly different proposition to without one so I led mostly without it and then pulled it up behind me, the pack catching on all the little protuberances and sometimes forcing me to pull it so hard that some of the cordura was cut through.

I think we got back to Rob at about 11:00 to find him still alive although not in a very good state, specifically he desperately needed warmth, water and nourishment not to mention medical treatment if he was to survive. First thing up was to get him onto a sleeping mat and into his sleeping bag so that he could warm up. The cave in which he was had little if any direct sunlight on it so it was quite chilly and up until this time he was still only in his climbing clothes, jacket and rain suit. His leg was tight in the rain suit but he could still wiggle his toes and feet so we decided that rather than do what I suspected the doctor would do we would leave it in the trousers and move it as little as possible. This made getting him into the sleeping bag very awkward but ½ an hour of careful manipulation and he was lying in the bag zipped up and starting to warm up. We had brought some myprodol (painkiller) and I knew that two pills was the recommended maximum dose and that it had to be taken on a full stomach. I thought that since we were way into the exceptional circumstances category with a suspected broken femur and there was no way Rob was going to have a full meal any time soon, whatever damage the myprodol was going to inflict was probably going to be a distant second to everything else, I fed Rob four at a time every few hours. Rob was muttering on something about wanting to feel the pain so that he would know that there's something wrong. Didn't make too much sense to me since we already knew we were in desperate straits and so in the myprodol went, about 30 minutes later Rob pipes up with a “Hey, these things really work, check this!” and proceeded to move his leg causing the bones to grate together. “I can't actually feel that” he continued.

Next problem was dehydration and sustenance so I set about making soup and feeding Rob what I could which wasn't much since he had broken some teeth as well. By now I was seriously hungry as well not having eaten properly since breakfast the previous day so when Rob said that he couldn't eat the packet of jelly babies I had laboriously carried up for him I demolished the entire packet in one go before he could change his mind. Not very altruistic I'll admit but it's what happened. After I had finished all this, Justin and Mike chatted to Rob while I sunned myself on the rocks about 15m below him and about 30m to the south and contemplated the predicament we had managed to get ourselves into.

The cave in which Rob ended up was pokey to put it mildly and while there was quite a nice step to stand on about 1m below the cave to the left there was absolutely nowhere to attach a rope anywhere close to the cave or inside it, even having a piton and hammer courtesy of Mike didn't help us at all. The cave was about 2m wide and about 1m deep although the back of it was so low that it was effectively unusable. In order to cook we would put the stove on the inside of the cave and I would cook bending over Rob to reach it. The floor of the cave was slightly concave with just a faint hint of a lip which was a total blessing. It also sloped slightly down towards where Robs feet were.

We were constantly talking about Tim and whether he had managed to get word out and one so desperately wants to hear helicopters that half the time we were actually imagining the sound they would make. After an afternoon of this we finally heard what was unmistakeably a helicopter and saw it fly around the back of Mponjwane cave and then an abrupt silence. Surely the sound shouldn't just stop like that we thought, it turned out that the helicopter had suffered a malfunction and dropped out of the sky from about 20 metres breaking it's undercarriage but nothing nor anyone else fortunately.

At about 17:00 when it became clear that the rescue party wasn't going to get to us that day so we decided that I would stay the night with Rob while Mike and Justin would return to Mponjwane cave. So there we were, the two of us stuck in this tiny cave literally half way up a cliff face with a broken femur and assorted other injuries in the most remote section of the Drakensberg and to top it all off the weather closed in again. I must admit that the very last thing that I wanted to do was to stay the night, the thought of waking up next to a dead body didn't really excite me at all not to mention the night itself which promised to be long and uncomfortable.

As darkness closed in on us, the rain started along with the thunder and lightening which reverberated around the peak along with the sound of numerous rock falls. The rain bucketed down and although we were in a cave, ostensibly out of the rain we didn't escape completely since the roof of the cave was rounded and any rain running down the cliff face would follow the curve of the roof and land on us. We tried as best we could to arrange the emergency blanket to drain the water off us but in the end we just resigned ourselves to sleeping in a pool of cold water. Since there was no protection in the cave at all there was nothing for it but to just lie still and sleep as best one could and turning over definitely wasn't an option at all. We chatted and played the mouth organ which I had brought up with me before we both retreated into our own worlds, each of us desperately tired.

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