Sunday was just one of those days, you know the ones I mean, days where you felt it would have been better if you’d stayed in bed all day, ignoring the world outside your window as it spluttered, chugged and despairingly flashed past at a rate of knots that would shame any self-respecting Cheetah chasing its prey.
I woke up in a negative mood, after having a fitful night sleep due to some people next door partying all night. In retrospect, it was not that they kept me awake all night with their singing, loud voices and pop music, but that they did not bother to invite me.
It was a very damp and overcast day, one of only a few days in 1976 that it rained throughout a sustained hot summer – purgatory for river canoeists but manna from heaven for the rock climber.
I was in my second year at Durham University and had a piece of work to finish for the following day, but I wanted to go out and enjoy myself. As it happened, I was due shortly, to go to Nepal to help the Nepalese Government set up their first National Park in Langtang, a valley north of Kathmandu, and had just bought a pair of high altitude climbing boots. This was a good day to go walking to help break them in.
I had no idea where I would go for a walk, but ended up at a place on Hadrian’s Wall on the English/Scottish border. I liked the area for several reasons: first it had two large rock cliffs (Peel Crags and Crag Lough), that were great climbing grounds, and facing north they were never as crowded as the cliffs facing south, so nine times out of ten, you found yourself alone. Second, the Roman Wall ran across the top edge of the cliffs and I always felt a special connection to the history of the area. Third and last, you could not drive alongside the north of the wall which meant no traffic and no people.
As I parked the car, I realized that I had no memory of the drive from Durham, but soon got distracted by the drizzle, although it was not wet enough to deter me from getting out of the warm car and donning my new boots.
I set off from the car park, with the intention of walking over to Housesteads Fort and back again, a simple plan! As I walked along the bottom of Peel Crag, I was in a foul mood. I felt encased in a dark brooding cloud which tugged persistently at the frailties of my patience and humanity. I kicked out at tufts of grass that was guilty of nothing more, than being in my path and swore at the grey resolute rock monolith guardians which formed the lower part of the Roman Wall as they taunted me (I was wearing inappropriate boots for rock climbing). I hated the boots and I hated the world.
As I approached the second cliff face, the drizzle had stopped, and the air was warm and humid. I felt a little more positive in the damp warm air and so decided to keep to the lower path as it was a natural sun trap, despite what little sun had broken through the barrier of clouds that carpeted the dull grey sky above. Although on reflection, given the mood I was in, no matter where I went, the ever present emotional repressive feeling appeared to be drawn to me as if my negativity itself was acting as a magnet.
Continuing on my way below the cliff face, I started to think about my impending trip to Nepal and the mountains I would be able to climb, but got distracted by a group of climbers on Hadrian’s Buttress. I became annoyed that they seemed to be enjoying themselves whilst I was in such a negative frame of mind. Given that I was hooked on rock climbing, it should be no surprise to learn, that I suddenly found myself stuck at the crux of a route, some sixty feet above the ground on a small ledge on a route later identified as Jezebel Direct, a Very Severe climb of some 70 feet. How I got there was and still is, beyond my comprehension as I have no memory of climbing, but there I was, stuck just below the top unable to move in any direction, and to cap it all, it started to rain heavy again.
I had no idea how long I had been perched on that ledge, but my body was starting to shake with the intense cold. The rain began to pulsate down the rock face in tiny rivulets, finding its way down inside my sleeves, past my neck, through my clothes and down to the boots.
I looked around, and in horror saw directly beneath me, the field of large boulders which lay menacingly in their dank surroundings some 60 feet or so below. Spanning out below that extending down to the lake, was the scree slope that was also strewn with boulders of every shape and size, and which looked as inviting as walking into a lion’s den with a feather to defend yourself with.
I was aware that I was unable to feel my toes in my boots, so could not tell whether they were on a small lip of rock, but reasoned that they must have been as I was still standing there. Seconds seemed minutes which seemed hours, as I was unable to move side-wards, upwards or downwards. I knew I had to try for a hold I could see over to my right, but was just unable to reach it with my outstretched arm. After a short while, I decided that I had to make for the hold as there was nothing else I could do, other than drop off and take my chances on the rocks below, an option I discounted immediately I thought about it.
As my hands started to lose contact with the rock surface, I began to slip away from the rock. I accepted unconditionally, that there was no doubt that I was going to die right there and then, and that the ferryman was at last going to be rewarded for all their patience throughout my life, and finally collect my soul. For what seemed minutes but in reality can only have been a micro second, I had a mental discussion with someone to this effect, and I sensed them say, that it was okay to feel this way and that as ‘they’ were ready for me, ‘just to let it all go’.
I became aware, that I had become totally detached from the rock face but something was wrong, I was not falling. I sensed time had stood still. Total darkness descended. Everything went quiet yet I could hear the blood coursing through my body with every heart pounding beat. I felt warm and safe both internally and externally, in addition to feeling happier than I have ever felt before. I was at peace with not only myself, but with the universe and everyone and everything in it. I distinctly remember knowing every answer to every question there ever was and ever would be, and that all negative feelings and emotions felt on this material plain were meaningless and futile.
I spent an eternity wallowing in a universe of knowledge that made me whole, connected and an integral part of everything that had every existed, past present and future. I felt what love really is, not an emotion but knowledge and it was housed in every speck of cosmic dust that everything is made out of.
I welcomed such a feeling with eager open arms, like a long lost friend. It resonated with nothing that I had ever felt before. I had no cares in the world and I was surrounded by peace, which permeated the very core, soul and essence of my body.
Then without warning, I was conscious again, and was surprised to find I was still in the same position as I was when darkness engulfed me. I became acutely aware of everything around me, and I was able to spend time looking at the very rock texture in front of me which I had just become detached from. I saw tiny schist particles shinning in the sunlight that had broken through the brooding clouds, and noticed the rain had stopped. But I was still not moving. Time appeared to have ceased to exist. I looked into the very rock itself past the individual particles that made up the rock and saw in them, resonance of life itself in every conceivable detail. I saw dancing colored lights in everything, and was able to steer my mind’s eye in any direction I wanted it to go in.
I felt something touch me in the center of my back, just like I had several times before when I was climbing and about to fall, and then the darkness engulfed me once again. I welcomed it back, enthusiastically and unconditionally.
I sensed once again, that I was floating in this sea of darkness, although I had no sense of smell, touch or hearing but did have a distinct and acute sense of intellectual awareness. I was so happy that I wondered what all the fuss about death and dying was all about. As I floated in this sea of darkness, everything was clear and I felt the love of everyone I had ever known, caress me in a way that made me feel whole, safe and satisfied that I had lived my life as it was meant to have been lived. I sensed that the universe was in order and that what was about to happen, was meant to happen, right there and then.
My ‘mind’ felt rich and full with all the answers of the universe once again, and I felt powerful and in total control of my thought processes. I saw everyone I had ever known both those still living and those who had since ‘passed on’, and enjoyed the feeling of being connected to them directly. Then it happened. I came face to face with my soul, my internal spirit, and I suddenly knew everything there is to know about spirituality in the human context. Time continued with no apparent movement, and my senses became heightened to such proportions, that I heard everyone I had ever met, talking all at once, yet understood what they were all saying all at the same time. At one point, I even recognized my own thoughts as they swept over my very senses and it all made perfect sense at long last.
Once all the voices and thoughts had dissipated, I floated endlessly in a sea of unconditional compassion, understanding and recognition which gave meaning and explanation to every question I had ever asked, and thought about, in regard to the concept of ‘love’. I was totally happy and content. I did not want this feeling to ever stop.
All of a sudden I heard a whooshing sound, and as I opened my eyes, I saw the rock face zooming past at 32 foot per second per second. I was filled with utter horror and dread, fear and terror then it all went black again, I was back ‘home’ in the sea of tranquility. All was well with the universe once again.
I had no concept of time or space, let alone my place within them. I just became aware of ‘being’ but in a way I had never experienced before. Everything surrounding me and within me felt dark, not a sliver of light anywhere, but it was not a frightening darkness, more of a comforting blanket. No wind, no heat or cold sensation, and no noise, just a soothing feeling floating in and around my very senses. I felt no part in my physical body, but this did not seem to worry me. It was as if my mind, my brain, my very thought processes, was in tune with everything and was at total peace with itself.
Then I felt control of my eyes and slowly opened them to witness pale blue skies above, birds flying in circles over me, then a sudden and unexpected tender touch of a soft breeze as it blew across my face just like it does on a warm balmy summer’s day. There was no sense of anything other than this vision. All was peaceful and quiet. Just as suddenly as I felt the soft breeze, along came a strong sense of smell of newly cut grass and I was pleased that I was in heaven at last.
I knew time had no meaning, and I was happy to just exist in this wonderful peaceful and solitary scene before my eyes. Suddenly, some white fluffy clouds came into view, and I took great delight in the knowledge, that if this was heaven, then all those in my past who said that you have to lead a totally blameless life without sin, in order to go to heaven, was wrong. All fear of being dead or even of dying had evaporated, and I was content to exist in this state for an eternity.
As I could neither see nor feel my body, I assumed that my soul had left its bodily shell and had travelled through the darkness, to come to rest at a place which it felt at most peace. As I lay there, I heard voices over to my left, and was pleased to see groups of people standing around on a sea of green, bedecked with wild flowers. I moved towards them and was pleased to see a river carpet of bluebells, my favorite wild flower wafting and waving in the breeze to my left and right. They stood so tall I allowed my hands to gently brush their dancing heads, and as I made contact, I felt their energy pulsate into my body which I still could not see but could definitely sense.
As I approached the first group of people, they disappeared which made me want to express my annoyance, but all I felt was love permeating my thought processes. I turned towards another group of people and they did the same. This repeated itself for group after group and so I decided to stop moving.
In an instant, I was looking back up into the blue sky above with a gentle summer breeze still wafting across my face. I cared for nothing and decided that if I heard any more people talking, I would wait for them to come over to me.
As I stared into the pale blue sky above, I started to see shapes in the clouds as they floated on the breeze across my line of vision. First I saw Bomber Brown, the first airman to die in Cyprus in the 1960s’ when a nine year old boy walked into a bar he was relaxing in, and threw a hand grenade into his lap. Then there was Rick who was decapitated in a car accident on his eighteenth birthday, in a car his parents had bought him, and then a sudden rush of faces of other friends who had also passed over many years before when I was serving in the armed forces. They sped past at a rate of knots that made my head spin, making me feel nauseous. I wanted the scene to stop, but when I opened my mouth in an attempt to shout for it to stop, there was nothing but a deafening silence. I started to panic thinking that if I could not be heard, then when I met up with any departed family or friends I would not be able to converse with them which made me sad.
Suddenly, I was looking into a dark light which on one hand, appeared familiar but on the other hand, appeared disturbing so I tried to look away, but my head and eyes appeared to be frozen in front of the dark light. I saw a multitude of hands reaching out for me and I sensed that I did not want them to touch me, so made every effort to scream to make them go away, but the cold hands flowed over me like a tidal wave, and just when I thought I was going to drown, everything vanished.
My heaven was instantly shattered, when a face appeared over the top of my head complete with climbing helmet. “Are you okay pal” came his question which vexed me as I thought that if anyone was to be with me in my ‘heaven’ it would either be a relative that I loved, or a friend who shared similar values about nature and the environment, but this was a total stranger.
His question made me move my head, which is when I felt the sharp rock protruding into the back of my neck. Up until then, I was totally unaware of it so was a little annoyed with him for bringing this to my attention. Then another face came into view, then another, and then it hit me. I was not dead.
This was not my heaven. As I tried to move, I realized I did not know where my left arm was or my right leg, and struggled to get them moving just to let me know that I had not broken my neck or back, but nothing happened.
Just then, someone said to lie still, as they had sent for the mountain rescue team and an ambulance and they were already on their way.
Being obstinate, I tried to lean over on my right side and would have fallen back down if someone had not helped me to sit up. It was then that I understood why I could not feel my left arm or my right leg. The arm was folded behind my back and my leg was bent at the knee and lying under my right leg. I suspected both were badly broken but then I sensed both had pins and needles racing through the tissues, so deduced they were not broken or damaged. After some puffing and panting, I managed to stand up with some help just as the mountain rescue team arrived.
Both the climbers who came to my aid, the members of the rescue team, along with myself, were taken aback at where I had landed which was not at the bottom of the cliff face. I was in fact lying at the bottom of the rocky scree slope beside the edge of the lake, way below the cliff face. How did I get there? Why did I not have any broken bones? Why did I not have any cuts or bruises? Why was my head free of any injury? Where was all the blood? Such questions came and went in micro seconds, and then were interrupted by someone telling me to get onto the stretcher. My obstinate personality took charge and I refused. I said I would walk to the ambulance thank you very much as I was a member of a mountain rescue team, and I knew how difficult it would be for them to carry me all the way back to the car park.
They tried several times to coax me onto the stretcher, but gave up when I started to walk back up the scree to the path below the crags. As we walked slowly it became clear that the other climbers on the adjacent buttress, had seen me start to climb solo on Jezebel Buttress, and when they did not see me around after a short while, they came looking for me. They said they did not hear me cry out nor did they hear any thud or other noise when I must have hit ‘rock’ bottom, literally.
We arrived at the car park where a large crowd had gathered, waiting with cameras at the ready, but they seemed confused when the stretcher arrived with no one on it. By the time they realized the casualty had walked, I had collapsed on the ambulance floor with shock, the doors were closed and we were off speeding towards Newcastle General Hospital, blue light flashing and siren wailing.
When I came to, I was still lying down in the ambulance and the siren was going at ten to the proverbial dozen in unison with the blue flashing light. I asked the medic who was sitting in with me, if he knew something I didn’t, but he just said that they should have been off duty ten minutes ago and wanted to get back to Newcastle General quickly, so not to let the blue flashing light or the siren bother me. It didn’t so I just relaxed and waited until we got to the hospital.
The ambulance doors opened and there stood an orderly with a trolley bed, three nurses, and a doctor making sure that the casualty would be taken directly to the operating theatre where they were waiting to repair the damaged body.
As I stepped down from the ambulance, they rushed into the back of the ambulance to get the casualty. They stood there, mouths agape when the ambulance driver pointed to me and said that I was the casualty, the one who fell over sixty feet whilst solo rock climbing without a helmet. Not a scratch, no broken bones, no cuts or bruises were inflicted
They were clearly expecting to see a mangled body with severe injuries when the call came in that a climber had fallen. Instead their disbelief at the lack of injuries swept through the hospital as nurses and doctors even medical orderlies came to have a look at the patient sitting in a side ward. Talk about a Monty Python script!
Before I walked out of the hospital, the doctor who met the ambulance came over to me to ask if I really did fall 60 feet without a helmet, and did I really walk to the ambulance. Once I had convinced him that this was the truth, he just shook his head and said, “your’ guardian angel must have been with you, that’s’ all I can say”.
Perhaps ‘she’ was, but then again, perhaps it was all in my imagination despite every detail being crystal clear today some 40 years later!