Helen Moat thought she'd conquered the Lake District's most notorious fell. But it had other ideas
The gully rises steeply in front of me, a vertical wall – well, almost. Every foot is carefully placed, every step carried out with total focus. It wouldn’t do to fall here: the land drops away sharply to the col below. To my left, a girl sits hunched on the scree crying, her boyfriend comforting her. Just a few minutes earlier she had been joking that her boyfriend wouldn’t buy her Nordic poles as he knew she’d beat him black and blue with them. It was clearly his idea to climb Red Pike, not hers.
In truth, the scramble up the gully isn’t that difficult. It’s really only the last few tens of feet that require me to grab the stones on the side of the path to haul my body against gravity. Now and again I feel my feet giving with the stones, and find myself sliding backwards. My heart gives a little lurch and I grasp the rocks with my hands more tightly.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any serious hillwalking: messing around in the dales and moors of the Peak District doesn’t really count. Child’s play. The mountains in the Lake District are in a completely different category – they may not be particularly high, but they rise steeply out of the valleys, carved and spliced, often with sharp edges. On top, the wind cuts through you, even on a good day, and the weather changes from minute to minute. This is not a landscape to be taken lightly.
I look up and realise there's only a few more yards to the top. I’m loving the challenge of the gully: the total focus, the satisfaction of safely traversing yet another section. And I remember now why I’ve always loved being in the hills.
I’m up. The wind batters me on the summit and I take great mouthfuls of air, realising just how exposed it is up here.
The next section towards High Stile is a wide flat edge. No need to worry here. True, there is a sheer drop to Buttermere, but the edge is as wide as a motorway. It’s a piece of cake. I can relax now. I traipse along the ridge that is strewn with rocks; then I trip on one. I’m flying through the air, in slow-motion, and at the same time, too quickly for me to co-ordinate my thoughts and actions. I see a protruding rock, jagged as a shark’s fin… and my head is falling towards it. I put my hand out to protect my head, but somehow my wrist is bent over as it makes contact with the ground. Then my body falls on the bent wrist. Foolish, foolish me.
First thoughts: my head has missed the rock. My legs are okay too. Then I feel an intense pain and I look down to see my wrist and fingers have roughly taken on the shape and proportions of a puffer fish. Gill, our group leader from Ramblers Worldwide picks her way over the rocks towards me. “Just give me painkillers,” I plead with the group now gathered round me.
Gill wants to secure my arm and wrist. I just want to get off the mountain. I don’t want to believe I’ve broken any bones. I convince myself it’s just a sprain. Gill wonders if I need Mountain Rescue. “No, I can walk. I just need more painkillers.” No fuss. Gill secures my arm in a sling and wraps me up in her warmer, loser jacket.
The path down towards Buttermere is long and very steep, and riddled with loose stones. And now, one of my arms is immobilised. Balancing is difficult with one free arm and I feel vulnerable. Occasionally, I slip on loose stones and a jarring pain runs through my lower arm, wrist and hand where I’ve jolted them. At last, we reach flat ground.
Gill’s husband, Chris, wants to drive me to A&E straight away, but I’m still in denial; there’s no way I’m going to miss Ruby’s afternoon cake, or chef Brian’s Easter Sunday meal of smoked salmon and roast lamb. (Hassness Country House on the shores of Lake Buttermere not only has some of the best views in the Lake District, but some of the Lake’s finest food too).
I’m persuaded to skip dinner, but not the cake. Just as well. I’ve smashed my wrist thoroughly, breaking both bones and sheering off bone. The doctor at Whitehaven A&E gives me a local anaesthetic and yanks the wrist back into place. I don’t look. “This is a temporary measure” he tells me. “You’ll need an op and a plate inserted,” he says. “You’ve smashed your wrist up badly.”
“Will I be able to do the four month cycle I’ve planned, starting July?” I ask. It’s all I’m worried about (that and a book I’ve been commissioned to write), and this is the question I ask repeatedly over the next few days.
The doctor shakes his head. “I don’t know. You’ll have to wait and see.”