One life (left)….Live it!
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
My mate Al has a radical approach to superstitions. If Al sees a ladder he strides right under it, he dances carelessly over pavement cracks and even waits till someone else is on the stairs just so he can cross their path. Well Al is hardcore and he’s lived to tell the tale, but I’ve lived by a far more wimpish code – I religiously pick up pennies, buy lucky heather and even get hot sweats if I don’t salute the magpie! I’m also a firm believer in the old nine lives theory despite it sitting rather uncomfortably with a love of all things adventure.
I first lost a life back in 1985 when my friend Dave and I got avalanched in number 4 gully on our first winter trip to Scotland. Number two fell to an accident in Pembroke, a third to a very close encounter with a gnarly croc on the Zambesi River and four when I got persuaded to paddle the River Ogwen in spate as my second river descent. Last, but certainly not least, life five (and probably my closest call) was lost to a stupid ‘end-of- a-long-day’ error in the Ecrins when I pulled 50 metres of rope across my belay sling and found it had completely melted through, leaving me attached to the mountain by just a few strands of thread!
Now I might be a total wuss about superstitions but I’m pretty good at reasoning things out. So I’ve really had no problem justifying to myself that all these precious imaginary lives simply fell to bad decision making and stupid mistakes – and five lives down with 25 years of risk under my belt still leaves me a reasonably healthy four in the bank – or at least it did until my trip to Jordan………………..
The four of us boarded the plane in the dampness of Manchester and stepped off into the dry heat of early evening Amman. New smells, new language, a new culture - the way all great adventures start. After picking up our hire car in very suspicious circumstances (a shadowy figure in a dark corner of the airport - you get the picture!), we were forced into a decision to drive through the night (because the reservation for the hostel we had booked had been ‘lost’ and we couldn’t find any other accommodation in the city). The car was a decrepit Ford Cortina that reminded me of something from a B grade American road trip movie. Neil (my best friend and the most enthusiastic person you will ever meet) kicked off the driving. Natalie (Neil’s partner and one of life’s great carers) sat next to him. Cal (my partner for twenty something years and my emotional rock) lay on the back seat with her head in my lap. That just left me (all round rock god and Brad Pitt lookalike – and a little prone to exaggeration!).
Somehow Neil got us out of the city but he had taken some dodgy allergy pills on the flight and started falling asleep at the wheel so I took over. Some time into my third can of keep-me-awake Red Bull a small monkey darted in front of the headlights and went straight under the front wheels. The adrenaline surge ensured I didn’t need any more Red Bull but I drove on despondently. Fortunately my spirits lifted with the rising sun and soon we were driving up the long desert road that leads to Rum village. I’ve been lucky enough to visit quite a few places but the impact of this place is absolutely unique. Huge glowing sandstone domed towers rise from the flat expanse of the desert floor and black Bedouin camel hair tents dot the horizon as camels amble around sedately – it really is a special place.
Our first week passed in an adventurous blur and we got a selection of excellent climbs under our belts. ‘Fear of Flying’, ‘The Beauty’, ‘King’s Wall’ and ‘Rum Doodle’. Evocative names for awesome climbs. The sandstone is full on friable, the route descriptions sketchy, the rock loose and there’s a feeling of isolation I haven’t normally felt in the mountains before – you soon realise Wadi Rum isn’t for the faint hearted.
By the start of our second week we were keen to see somewhere new. We bartered with a local driver to get us to a venue on the other side of the mountains called Barrah Canyon. After collecting together as much food and water as we could, we piled into the back of the ramshackle Landcruiser ready for a pleasant meander through the desert. No chance! Our driver Suleiman obviously knew exactly where he was going but some of the places he took that vehicle were miles outside my comfort zone.
But of course we made it and first impressions of Barrah Canyon didn’t disappoint. A vast cleft with towering walls silhouetted against the deep blue Jordanian sky. We pitched the tents in the shade of the canyon walls, shared some syrupy mint tea with Suleiman, arranged for a pick up in three days using hand signals, waved him off, then prepared for action. There were a number of must do climbs on our list but straight after arriving I found myself drawn to an unclimbed crack line near the campsite. The walls here are massive and I guesstimated the line to be around 300 metres long - so starting it with nowhere near enough time to top out before dark defied logic........but a lot of the decisions I made that day defied logic.
Neil and Natalie headed off to explore the canyon as I tied in below the route. “Don’t forget your helmet,” Neil shouted as they disappeared round the corner. What he didn’t realise was that Cal and I had decided to not wear helmets today. Why? I’ve absolutely no idea. We had used helmets on every other Jordan climb. We knew the rock was unpredictably brittle. We knew it all yet still decided against. How was I to know that I would soon have sandstone blocks raining down on me? Another life lost and a decision I will never take again!
I kissed Cal and chalked up. A final gear check, a quick ‘say it all’ glance at each other and I pulled onto the rock. Straight away it felt wrong and I should have stepped back down, but I don’t really do stepping back down half as often as I should. It probably didn’t help that the first section was the sort of steep technical slab climbing I love and soon I had reached a small convex ledge at 10 metres. The featureless rock below me had not offered any gear placements and I was getting seriously intimidated by what lay ahead. I fumbled around with my gear and eventually managed to place a Rock 6 and a large cam. Then I took the cam out again. Why? I decided I would probably need it higher up. How was I to know that this single wire would soon be the only thing left to stop an 18 metre fall? Do I lose a life for that?
I chalked up and moved up into the crack above. The rock steepened, I weakened, but the only way was up. I knew I needed more gear but nothing would fit. I tried, moved up; tried again, moved up - things just weren’t working out. Above me a large flute of rock enticed me with the promise of a rest. Even better, I was sure that cam would fit perfectly into the crack next to the flute. Let’s just go for it.
I leant back off the flake and just kept leaning. I have no idea at which point I realised that I was falling rather than leaning but then many things about that fall don’t make sense. Did I slice my leg on the convex ledge? Where did all those grazes come from? Will this fall ever stop? Well yes, I can answer that one. I came to a stop upside down with my face staring at the sand 1 metre below me. Each of my double ropes was coming from a different side of my harness and I was concertinaed between them – the breath ripped from my lungs by the vice like stopping force. But at least it’s over, or maybe it’s not.
I had heard a deep cracking noise as I leant on the flake and it turned out the whole piece of rock was coming down to join me (amazingly the freezer size block hit the ledge and shattered on the way down which undoubtedly saved my life). Brick to breeze block size – they all wanted to join the gravity party. Unfortunately I was hanging upside down directly in their path. Several pieces hit my back and legs – not a single piece hit my head. Any lives left?
As the rocks cascaded down I’d been aware of another sound that was strangely reminiscent of the squeal of the monkey as it disappeared under the car all that time ago. Cal! It’s Cal! Cal’s screaming. Cal’s hurt. Oh God no. I twisted round to see Cal’s beautiful face contorted, panicked, afraid. But her fear was for me. She had managed to run far enough to the side to hold my fall without me hitting the ground. Far enough to the side to miss the barrage of rocks. But not far enough so that she didn’t have to witness my fall and the blood falling on to the sand.
Neil and Natalie also heard the fall, the screams and then the returning silence. They were well out of sight but knew we needed them now. By the time they arrived I was laying on the sand and Cal was hugging me close and I could taste the salt of her tears on my lips and her hair caressing my cheek. Neil and Natalie are just the people you need at a time like this and I knew then it was going to be alright. Natalie gently taped wound dressings to my knee, arms and hands while Neil ran to get help. But what help? An hour later we heard an engine and there was Neil. He had waved a wad of Jordanian Dinars at a passing 4x4 and soon we were heading to an unknown village where apparently there was a hospital.
The ‘hospital’ was a single room with a white coated nurse and a bed. Neil was told to wait outside but he instinctively knew I needed him with me and pushed his way back into the room. Over the next 30 minutes I must have squeezed the life right out of Neil’s hand but he never complained. Cold water and stitches with no anaesthetic. Neil reckoned he could have done a better job himself and I wish he had. Luckily we had brought painkillers and antibiotics but I still had a badly infected leg by the time I got to a British hospital. Neil offered money to the nurse but she just smiled and shooed him away. A group of giggling children had gathered outside. Our driver had long gone. More of Neil’s bribes and soon we were heading back to camp.
Three hours later shock set in and I lay shivering inside my sleeping bag. Four hours and my back was in spasm, every movement agony and my breathing laboured and shallow. There were lots of whispered conversations that I couldn’t quite hear. It turned out the others feared internal injuries but thankfully they told me nothing. I had enough to think about in my own little bubble of pain. I was worried and wanted to be at home but was a long way from it. I didn’t sleep that night but fell asleep in the breeze of the morning and slept for twenty hours. The others packed. I slept. Suleiman arrived and stroked my head. He drove gently with me lying in the back of the flatbed. The kind of journey I had wanted on the way out and now got but couldn’t enjoy.
We made a pre arranged stop at the famous Rock Bridge of Burdah. We had all planned to climb up to it but now three did and I didn’t. The others offered to skip it but why should they suffer for my misfortune? I slid under a shady overhang while Suleiman collected wood and made tea. I gave him the climbing ropes. After a fall like that I wouldn’t climb on them again but they would be useful to him for tying down his tent when the sandstorms came. We couldn’t share a common language but we connected.
I looked around at the gorgeous expanse of desert and everything seemed so right. Recent memories flooded my mind. Only then did my tears start to flow. First little splashing droplets, then deep convulsing sobs. But not sorrow sobs. These were tears of joy. Tears of relief. Tears that looked forward to a great future. The happiest tears I have ever cried. The fall had stripped everything away and I was stronger than ever. I may only have one life left but its mine for the taking – you bet I’m going to live it!
Hopefully this won't put you off visiting Jordan! A fantastic place with wonderful people and well worth a trip. If you are heading there the Jordan Fact File that accompanies this article might be of use. You can find it here.