Short Fall, Long Consequences
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 255 (January 2019).
The fluorescent lights in the grimy Malagasy hospital ward cast a pale green over the tile walls. Between the cracks a pair of antennae appears, wagging from side to side before receding again into the darkness. The air is cold, but we were in such a rush that I never picked up a jacket. I gaze sleepily around, shivering. It’s just past midnight, and I’ve been running on pure adrenaline since early this morning.
My friend Alan lies in the bed beside me, awake but only barely. The Tramadol he’s been popping sent him into a tranquil high hours ago, but this state is broken repeatedly by the sharp, throbbing pain emanating from the gaping wound on his leg. Suddenly, four doctors appear, surrounding the bed, one of them holding a bucket of water, another a bottle of Iodine, and another with what appears to be a dishwashing brush. One speaks to Alan in French, and Alan looks to me with an uncertain expression, explaining, “They say they have to clean the wound now.”
The head doctor straightens the leg, sending Alan into a fit of screams, followed swiftly by the first douse of water and subsequently a pressure wash of iodine where the bone of Alan’s leg protrudes outside of his body.
“This is unbearable!” Alan yells. “Make it stop!”
This morning was just another day in Madagascar. The sun rose into a cloudless sky, lemurs chattered around us, and the blank granite face of Tsaranoro Atsimo loomed above our camp.
Alan Carne, Calum Cunningham and I had a long day ahead: the first attempt at free climbing our newly bolted 700-meter big wall. The psych was high, the energy positive. We were buzzing. Alastair Lee, a British filmmaker, was joining us to capture the ascent. We had fixed lines for him, but this morning he was staying at the base to get drone shots.
It was about 7 a.m. by the time we started to climb. The sun had already hit the wall, there to stay until 1 p.m. In Madagascar the sun is intense, with no clouds for even a moment’s respite, but if we could make it a few hundred meters up the wall, we could tackle the crux pitches when the shade hit.
At the third belay it was starting to get really hot; the rubber of my climbing shoes burned my toes, and I was secretly glad this was not my lead. Alan looked a little nervous; this was his first pitch of real free climbing in the last two weeks. The bolting process had been long and hard, and between the three of us we had done very little continuous free climbing throughout.
Sweat beads rolled down the side of Alan’s face as he left the belay. His climbing movement was rigid and robotic, not his usual flow. He clipped the first bolt from an awkward and off-balance position before his foot slipped a little on a small edge.
“Alan, there’s a better foot there, dude, just to the right. See it?”
“Oh … oh, yeah.”
I thought about asking if he wanted me to take over. He was at the first bolt and had been climbing only a minute, but I could tell he wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t want to offend him, though, by suggesting it this early on, and just kept my mouth shut.
Alan moved a little higher, his feet now at the first bolt, his hands on a big flatty. Level with this hold, a loose dinner-plate-sized flake jutted out. Alan shuffled his feet from right to left, inching his left hand up and moving it just beyond the flake to an edge.
He’s in! He’s solid, he’s got it!
Then he grabbed for the flake with his right hand. The flake ripped off the wall, showering me in dirt and crashing 300 feet to the forest.
Alan spun, one of his feet arching above my head as the other stuck briefly to a foothold, then popped, his body hurtling over mine in a wild contortion. In slow motion I saw Alan’s leg crumple against the granite slab, buckling under the applied forces of gravity and rock versus bone.
In an explosion of sound he screamed in pain, desperation and fear. His leg dangled sickeningly in the wrong direction, blood running down as he clutched at it.
I hurriedly pulled him up to the belay—Alan was only a few meters below me and thankfully weighed only 104 pounds—and shouted to Calum, above us on the fixed lines, to abseil and get help from the people in the village.
The fixed lines hastened our descent, and using a sling I set the Grigri up to carry both our weights as a tandem rappel. Alan was facing away from me, and I wrapped my arms around him and kept talking.
“It’s O.K., Alan, I’m going to get you down, everything is going smoothly, and we’re almost there … ”
I knew we’d make it down but was worried about putting Alan in any more pain or knocking his leg against the wall and doing more damage.
The final pitch, the one off the base, was so slabby that I struggled to hold Alan’s body away from the wall. Using my daisy chain and a spare sling, I kept him upright without using my rope hand. This gave me more control of our position. But it was still tough to maintain balance, so I turned completely around and abseiled with my back against the wall, sliding. When we finally made it to the ground, my ass was literally in pieces. My climbing pants had shredded on the rough Malagasy granite, leaving me with the least seductive pair of assless chaps in existence—bloody from both Alan’s wound and what the granite had chewed out of me.
It took a little under an hour to get Alan to the base of the wall. Calum sprinted down the steep trail in record time. Two hours later, around 10 villagers arrived carrying an ancient-looking stretcher. It took four hours to carry Alan down what usually would be about a 1.5-hour walk. In the village, a local Frenchman, Jean-Marc, agreed to drive us the 4.5 hours to Fianarantsoa (the nearest town with a medical unit). Alan took the back seat with Fali (one of the locals), Kate (Alan’s wife, whom we’d picked up at the village) was in the front seat, and I crouched in the rear of the hatchback. On the bumpy, windy roads, I kept a constant dialogue with Alan, trying to keep his mind off the pain and on happier thoughts of family, friends and life experiences.
Finally arriving at the hospital, we saw what appeared to be patients and their families lying all over the place, some on beds, others on the floors. A doctor saw Alan initially, then hours passed. Another tried to administer localized anesthetic to the leg, but only Alan’s upper leg went numb. Then the four doctors with the scrub brush came.
The next morning Kate arranges for Alan to be emergency evacuated to Antananarivo, connecting to La Reunion, an island 600 miles east of Madagascar. Alan is a French citizen, and La Reunion is a French colony; there he will receive first-world medical care in his own country.
Alan undergoes surgery, the surgeon telling him, “If you’d stayed in Madagascar any longer, it was likely you would have lost a leg, or possibly worse.”
Alan’s fall was short—it could have happened at any single-pitch sport crag—but being in rural Madagascar made it serious. When traveling to remote locations and third-world countries, consider the lack of support, low level of medical care, and chance of catching a serious illness in a hospital. I would recommend anyone traveling to places like this, no matter what sort of trip, have insurance, first-aid and rescue training, and a backup plan. We were lucky that the villagers were equipped with a stretcher and willing to help.
Alan is recovering now at home in Verdon. He looks forward to a fuls recovery and returning to Madagascar to climb and thank the locals who assisted in his rescue.
After the accident, Robbie Phillips and Calum Cunningham returned to Tsaranoro and completed the FA of Blood Moon (5.13c). The Alastair Lee Film “Blood Moon” is part of the Brit Rock film Tour 2018.
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