Saturday, 30 August 2014

Big Bruises on Aiguilles Rouges

So all had initially gone to plan... We had climbed the route called Manhattan (Kaboul) on Aiguilles Rouges, which was largely problem free, albeit with an awkward crux sequence. We had finished in good time so opted to continue up the 4c and 5b pitches to the summit of the Middle Bastion. This meant descending by foot rather than by abseil but we had plenty of time before the last cable car departed. We zigzagged down the scree slopes and circled beneath the cliffs towards our bags at the base of the route. And this is where it all went wrong...

Some photos from the climb first:

Wide bridging on the 6a crux pitch
Anna leading the penultimate pitch
Also some fantastic views as the clouds cleared in the afternoon

Loose rocks of all sizes littered the hillside. Anna's feet slipped and triggered a couple of large boulders in her vicinity to roll in her direction. Both rolled over her ankles and feet despite her best efforts to scamper out of the way. My first impression was that she had largely avoided contact but then it became immediately clear that all was not well as Anna couldn't really stand. Her left leg looked already very swollen and misshapen around her lower third of tibia, where her leg was soon maybe 50% bigger in girth than normal. It looked broken. What to do?...

Fortunately an trio of climbers from Geneva, who had climbed the same route as us, were descending a short distance behind and were on hand to help. One of them had a first aid kit and set about trying to splint Anna's leg. Then there was the immediate problem of how to get Anna down from the mountain. The hardest part would be descending the loose scree slopes to reach the path, which still lay a few hundred metres away. We at least had strength in numbers now. The tallest member of the other group and I then lifted Anna under the arms to standing. Fortunately she was able to weight bare through her right leg. Then we started down the slopes in clumsy, unsteady fashion. The others kindly carried our bags. Trying to carry Anna, whilst minding my step was no easy task. The difficulty lay not just with the unstable ground but also with it's undulating nature. It was very difficult to find a passage flat enough for three of us to walk side-by-side. On a couple of occasions my feet slid but I managed to keep control without dropping Anna. For Anna it was no easy ride either as she was using a lot of strength to hold the tension in her shoulders. We stopped so that she could let her arms recover then tried the crossed arms seat technique instead to attempt and make things easier for her. The higher centre of gravity made things too precarious on the loose scree slopes though and so we quickly reverted back. With a fair amount of tenacity we made it to the path.

We were still around 500m from the Index chairlift but at least we were on a relative highway now. Piggy-back seemed the most efficient form of transport. Anna was pretty easy to carry and so I managed it in one push, although the final uphill stretch was a bit of a workout for the thighs.

The attendant stopped the chairlift so that Anna could board. The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc was currently in progress with the course directly passing the Flégère cable car station. This meant that first aid assistance was in the fortunately in immediate vicinity. Soon a couple of medical students were eagerly on hand and only too happy to help with re-splinting Anna's leg, along with various other medical checks. They removed Anna's shoes and socks for an examination and they too thought the left leg was broken. Then appeared a doctor who also concluded the leg was likely broken. The consensus seemed fairly unanimous - that it was broken. Even to the point of asking Anna where she would prefer to have her leg reset. Locally or back in the UK? Locally Anna replied without hesitation. At least it looked to be in the lower third of the tibia rather than at the actual joint I thought. Our bags made a nice prop to maintain the leg in an elevated position for the current time. Incidentally her right foot, despite being able to hop down the scree slope, also wasn't feeling too good either.

Receiving first aid at the bottom of the Index chair lift

Despite the efforts of carrying Anna to within a few hundred metres of the Flégère cable car station a helicopter was summoned by the medical team. Having read 'Life and Limb' I naturally thought that Anna would be taken to the hospital in Chamonix. As it happened it no longer an A&E and so Anna would be flown to the hospital at Sallanches, further down the valley. In the meantime a foil blanket was located to keep Anna warm and Anna donned her buff like a bonnet to make herself look extra special. The student doctors suggested with a laugh that I take a photo and of course I obliged:

Keeping warm whilst waiting for the helicopter

We waited a short while before the sound of rota blades resonated from the valley. The helicopter set down out of sight just below the chair lift and soon a mountain rescue team appeared. Anna was strapped to a stretcher and whisked away with great efficiency, leaving just her backpack. Also her shoes and socks, as Anna had concluded that these would be unessential baggage, were her leg to be reset shortly after touchdown.

I took the last cable car down to the valley with Anna's belongings in hand. One of the lift attendants kindly offered me lift back into Chamonix. I then set about working out how I was going to get to Sallanches hospital. Or more to the point where was Sallanches? Jumping in a taxi and paying whatever the asking price looked the best option. I hadn't eaten much during the climb and I didn't expect much food to be available at a hospital on a Saturday night so first I needed some food, as well as get a quick wash. Then I needed to pack some things for Anna, based on the assumption that she would likely be admitted.

The phone rang as I was walking towards the train station to find a taxi. It was Anna. Contrary to expectations the x-rays had shown no fractures and she had been discharged. Also, the pain in her left leg had receded a little so that she was able weight-bare and walk at a snail's pace. She was planning to catch a train from the station down the road back to Chamonix via St Gervais. She of course had no footwear but the hospital had provided her with some blue foot covers so at least she wasn't completely barefoot. I looked at trying to meet her in St Gervais but quickly realised that she would have boarded her connecting train before I could get to St Gervais. It seemed the best thing was to just wait in Chamonix. In the meantime she would have to put-up with teenagers laughing at her foot covers on the train platform...

When the train pulled up at Chamonix I had the walking poles at the ready and a pair of shoes and socks to be returned. It was good to see Anna smiling and walking independently and because both her feet were feeling equally sore she was actually walking without a limp. Albeit very slowly like an old lady. Anyway, wine and fondue were calling us. We were flying home the following day so there was nothing more now to do than relax and applaud the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc runners courageous efforts towards the finish line.

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