Tuesday, 22 September 2015

No Hero


"A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life"
Over 4 years on from the epic rescue on the Peñon d'Ifach of a Base Jumper & now great friend Hana, I wanted to reflect on my experience and respond to the label of a "Hero"

Sunday 3rd April 2011

However you wrap it up, climbing is a selfish pursuit. It is justly a respectable physical & mental discipline with many examples of admirable achievement, maybe even honourable but never noble. It may lead to mastering qualities of self that can be later applied to acts of nobility, but ultimately the action of climbing itself only serves the climber.

So there I was, eye to eye with a complete stranger, who's current predicament had more in common with a Hollywood action film than real life.
I could see her canopy was impossibly snagged on a ledge that bore no definition but had somehow caught her and prevented what should have been a certain plummet to the ground 200 metres below. She had been here for over 4hrs, waiting, patiently for her rescue. Yet she was calm, still, in a sense at peace, she smiled, said hello and politely asked how I was. Absorbing all this made me pause for a moment, there was too much conflicting circumstance and this trigged a feeling of disbelief, making me re-evaluate everything I was witnessing.
I was level with her high above the ground and about 30m to her side, close enough to talk easily but still too far to be any help. My self and Jose (from the Fire service rescue team) had climbed fast and efficient to this point, but now we could see in detail what had happened and how precarious her situation was. The canopy had until this moment appeared to be stable, unbelievable when you see what it was, or more to the point wasn't caught on, but never the less still stable.
Then it hit me, a feeling that will haunt me forever. In this moment a deep bone splitting chill pierced my entire being, I was filled with the instant and morbid realisation that she could be moments away from death. The wind had suddenly picked up and her canopy had started to inflate, the "stable" situation had just been turned on it's head.
It was as if Death was perched eagerly waiting on the ledge where her canopy was caught, his feet delicately holding it there, whilst at the same time conjuring up an evil wind that was set in motion to place an end in sight, one way or the other, the count down had begun. It was as if he had handed me the baton, turned the egg timer, grinned and whispered "check, your move."
The coldest part of this chill was not only that things looked like they were about to turn into a fatal tragedy in front of my eyes but that now my climbing was going to directly influence if someone was going to live or die.
Surely fate wouldn't be so cruel, but then I realised there is no fate.

Let me rewind to the beginning of the day.

Meet Nando (left), my climbing partner for the 12 hr climbing rallies that year.

This also sums up his character....

It was like the start of any other climbing day, we met early at the car park in the port behind the Peñon d'Ifach. The evening before we had discussed rough plans for the day, what routes we could do and what equipment we would need. The competitions were fast approaching and I was aware of our lack of preparation and fitness. So I'd proposed the plan of climbing fast and light with the idea of climbing several multi pitch routes that day. Two or three routes that were safely protected but physically challenging so we could improve our fitness and stamina.
"Shall I bring my Trad rack" Nando had asked, "No" I said, "let's just stick to sports routes and move fast"

So this was the first "fateful" decision made or more correctly, ignored!!!
Nando, for some reason had chosen to ignore me and brought the Trad gear anyway. As you will soon discover this was one of many factors that had to perfectly align for our happy ending to this story.

We geared up at our vans, carefully selecting the exact equipment & water that we would need for the day. One of the biggest challenges of climbing on the south face of the Peñon d'Ifach is coping with the heat of the Sun. For this reason an early start had been planned to allow maximum climbing in the shade before the face comes in to the sun around midday.
The routes we planned to climb have guide book times of 4-6hrs and our aim was to speed climb each one in 2hrs or less.

"Shall we bring some Trad gear" Nando had asked yet again pointing to the shiny heavy metal in the back of his van. "Do you want to carry it?" I joked. "We won't need it " I reassured him with a smile. "We'll just be clipping bolts today"
With that he closed his van and we continued on foot on the walk way that leads to the passage under the main face of the Peñon.

It was a typical scene, a familiar picture looking up at the impressive and intimidating face; sun, blue skies, calm sea and the occasional cry of a seagull. The temperatures were good, no wind (perfect jump conditions for Base Jumpers) and I noted a high level of humidity in the air. Certain sections of the Peñon are highly susceptible to humidity, in the sense the rock can hold it and turn otherwise reasonable climbing in to near impossible, frictionless soap. I noted to myself that we'd made a good choice to day to be doing sports routes on the greyer rock, rather than the white/orange rock that suffers most from this anomaly.

We pushed on to the base of the face towards our intended first route "El Navigante"

I'd placed my small rucksack down and was about to start racking up. Then


A loud exploding napping sound erupted from the surrounding cliffs. Loud noises from above will make any climber flinch in anticipation of some kind falling danger. From my semi cowering position I glanced up to see a blue canopy fill my vision of the sky to my right.
Relaxing I noted out loud to Nando, "cool, base jumper".

Returning my attention to the heavens I noticed the canopy turn in towards the cliff face where it disappeared from my line of sight due to a large protruding buttress situated between us. 
I glanced back to my task at hand, racking up for the climb ahead.
In my head I just expected to very soon see the blue canopy return in to my field of vision as it made its safe return to the ground.

I immediately dismissed it's absence to my miscalculation of its distance from the cliff and had turned away to land out of sight or was still obscured from view by the buttress between us. This assumption was not given any time to settle as I then heard unsettling shouts from lower down on the cause way.
"Hmm something is wrong." But I hadn't heard anything like an impact, but still, something is wrong.

So I suspended my racking up, placed everything on the ground at my feet and walked out from the base of the wall with nothing short of a mild dread in my stomach. Hoping to be wrong I passed the buttress and was welcomed with this view...

No movement from the limp looking casualty hanging from beneath the canopy.
"He's dead" was my first thought, my second was;
"What a fucking idiot, now we've got to deal with this shit and our day is fucked"

So not only had I made the mistake of assuming that she was a he, I'd also shamefully placed unfair selfish worth on my training day.

I felt nauseous looking up, too many close calls in my past, too many intimate glances with death, it didn't take much to vividly imagine the last movements of this persons existence.

So I then proceeded to remove my mobile phone from my bag and dial 112, whilst discussing options with Nando, "let's call this in and go, maybe Gandia, we don't need to be here to watch a body recovery".

Then as I glanced up again, still feeling sick, I saw MOVEMENT...
"Wait", I passed the phone to Nando to continue the conversation with the emergency services.
I shouted up "Hello, are you ok? Are you hurt?"
Then SHE shouted back, "Yes, I'm ok!"
She! I didn't know what shocked me more, that he was a she or she was alive and ok.
Why was I even shocked it was a female? I guess from my experience in climbing females tend to take less unnecessary risks than their male counterparts, coupled with my limited knowledge of the base jumping community impressed upon me a male dominated sport.
Anyway that's completely irrelevant I thought to myself, by some shear miracle she was alive.
"We've called the rescue services they are on their way"

Now everything had changed, the irresponsible idiot who had just killed themselves had now transformed into a living person, and I was starting to feel a degree of responsibility towards her.
Nando and I discussed options, should we try to go up? We could but quickly assessed it would be better to wait for the rescue team to arrive, they would have better equipment, more resources and we didn't want to get in their way. Also we had friends in the team and we had full confidence in their experience and competence to deal with this kind of situations.

The next 40 mins was spent trying to send reassurances to Hana whilst waiting for the helicopter, we'd called twice more to find out if it was on it's way as Hana had repeatedly asked "is it coming? when is it coming?"
I was beginning to feel the sense of time drag on, I can only imagine how she felt suspended by a wish & a pray, waiting for rescue. Little did we all know that this was going to be hours away....

Finally the distinctive hum of the helicopter came echoing up from the south. You could feel a temporary sense of relief in the air, even as it's powerful blades cut the air to it's will. The rescue team are here, to save the day, she'll be down on the ground soon and we can all go home and reflect on witnessing a close call. 


As the helicopter approached the reality of the situation became sickeningly apparent, why hadn't I thought of this before?
As it came in closer the down draft started to partially inflate the canopy, I gasped in horror expecting to see her peel off in front of our eyes .The helicopter pilot must of seen and thought the same as he immediately pulled away, levelling off out to sea at the same level as Hana, it waited a few minutes and then made a move to come in and land at the base of the wall.
"Of course they can't use the helicopter" I thought to myself, the down draught will be too risky and the wall is too steep for it to position itself above her. That is why it's a good wall to base jump from, because it's so steep.
But still, the rescue team are here and they will know what to do.
We shouted up to Hana that the team are here and they will get her very soon, and with that we started to descend to the base of the wall and promenade below. "Our bit is done now, let's go." I remarked to Nando.
My phone ran, it was Hugo, a friend from the rescue team, "Chris, are you still there?" he immediate asked, "yes!" I replied, "are you on the helicopter?"
"Wait there, don't go anywhere, I will call you right back",
"Ok but..." he was gone
"That's weird" I turned to Nando, "why do they want us here?" It didn't make sense, maybe they wanted our testimony or something, but there was a sense of urgency in Hugo's voice that pointed to something more impending!
2 mins later Hugo was back in the phone, "Chris, listen carefully, the helicopter has only come with 1 climber, the rest of the team is on it's way but none of them are climbers! And this situation needs a rescue from below."
"OK" I replied still wondering where this was leading.
"Also they don't have any equipment for ascent, only descent" arrh I get it they want to use my equipment, fair enough, of course, I thought.
"Are you on your way?" I asked still oblivious to the assignment of my 'fateful' role.
"No, I'm too far away and won't get there in time!" he said coldly. It then clicked before he said what followed.
"So you need to go up with Jose as you two are the only ones on site able to climb that wall! Do you know Jose?" he asked
"Yes I met him last year in Albarracin." We'd met by chance in the forest and hooked up for the weekend as we both had young children and thus common ground as well as climbing.
"Good, do you have a trad rack with you? you'll need that as well." as he said that I gulped and looked at Nando with an unearthly state glaring "how the fuck did you know?"
"Yes we have that in the van"
"Excellent, grab it now and go and meet him at the helicopter, good luck." and he was gone.

I quickly explained to Nando the plan and our relaxed casual descent turned into a fast run.
We we're soon sprinting back to the car park to collect the trad rack from Nando's van and then pelted it back to the helicopter to meet Jose.

The view of Hana from the ground as we made our rescue plan.

"Hey Jose, How's things? What's the plan?" I said after a quick embrace & salutation.
"You and me will climb up, we'll lay fixed rope for the rest of the team to follow with a stretcher. We'll get to her, stabilise her and then work out a safe descent"
"Sounds straight forward, let's go" I replied.


With that we turned and headed back up to the base of the wall, quick but steady.
So as we started climbing, I reflected that really this was just going to be a normal day out climbing with a bit of extra excitement added in.
Very quickly we hit the harder 7b/+ sections and the humidity had us both slipping and sliding off the holds and regularly falling off! 2 Pitches later we were back on less greasy rock, but the 200 plus metres of  fixed rope I was carrying for the rest of the team was starting to take it's toll on me physically.

Climbing on slippery rock on early pitches, heavy ropes in tow

The climbing took a familiar pace of normality, a rhythm of absorbed focus that had become my normal meditative motion that I always aimed for.
Jose had taken the lead and thus dealing with the more mental challenge of route finding and lead climbing, leaving me to carry the weight of fixed ropes and responsibility to climb fast. We soon reached some bold moves. I clearly remember Jose about 10m above his last piece of gear facing a seemingly blank section of rock for at least another 10-15m before any protection could be placed. He just looked down and me and shrugged and then proceed to climb with compete confidence, it was clearly hard and I did the maths if he'd of fallen, no good outcomes there so I immediately expelled that assessment as "not an option" and returned to 100% focus on his movement, as if willing him to keep his focus and calm, and stay strong. As all climbers who've chosen  risky climbs know, when you get to a section you're not sure about, you choose to climb it or not to climb it, as there's no room for any middle ground, any hesitation will most likely lead to manifesting your worst fears.

climbing with Jose on the 3rd Pitch

After each pitch we had waited for the rescue team to ascend the fixed ropes we had laid and bring up yet more fixed rope for us.
Although they moved with well trained efficiency, it just seemed to take so long for them to ascend. Only because we we're sat waiting for their arrival at each stance, mostly only a few minutes but this felt so long.

So up to this point we had a sense of urgency but things felt calm, controlled and stable.
So now we return to the beginning of my story, I'm there level with Hana and everything had changed. And in the moment of my chilled realisation that what I now do will determine if she lives or dies, Jose shouts from above, he's clearly seen the same, "Chris, cut all of the fixed ropes free and move, we have to move faster"
I immediately unclipped all the fixed ropes from my harness and like a wind up child's toy car, I felt all the potential energy surge inside of me. Adrenalin flowed strong, this was a stranger to my body as I had worked for years to keep it out as it has no place in sustained physical activity and often limits your mental capacity and perspective. But in this case fight or flights was the flavour of the hour, coupled with weighing almost half the weight I did when carrying the fixed line, I felt like I could almost fly up the rock. I was bedding in for a fight!
I have never ever climbed so fast, it was a full 70m pitch, sustained and steep. I sprung with intent and speed, not particularly graceful, I grabbed the first thing with in reach on each move and pulled with all the dynamic force I could muster. No stopping to evaluate holds or body position, just grab and pull, grab and pull. The initial sensation of feeling near to weightless after dropping all the heavy fixed ropes soon passed and muscle burn set in, "breath deeper, push harder" I kept saying to myself, now half way to the next stance and the eager stare of Jose.
"Man it burns" I was breathing so hard, it was all I could hear, my deep panting echoing around my head, sweat was poring into my eyes I could barely see, "I just need to rest a bit" the weaker side of my mind said, and I forced a glance at Hana and her ever inflating canopy, "The fuck you won't, you can rest when this is over, now move you Cunt" - all other thoughts were expelled, I dug deeper, started to power scream on every movement, "dig deeper, move, dig deeper move, move move move!" I enveloped every fibre of my will with one purpose; climb faster than I'm capable of and when it burns too much just push harder... Hana, I refuse to let you die because I didn't climb fast enough.
Seconds! later I was on the belay stance with Jose, "good" he said. I was gasping and feeling like every muscle in my body was about to explode, I failed to reply with words, just nods and pants. 
Jose leaned in and said quietly, "we don't have much time, we're a little higher than her now but not high enough, I'm going to climb up this bolted section here above for a about 3 or 4 bolts, and then I want you to lower me down to her., OK?"
Still unable to speak I gave a thumps up.

I couldn't see Hana now but every few seconds her canopy would partially inflate blustering into view.

I could almost hear a countdown in the back of my mind and Deaths cruel laugh bouncing around the cliff, "Times up boys, hahahahah".
We're so close, it can't end now, we have to get to her, we must.
This is our purpose, this is all that exists, I reject any other outcome....

With in a few minutes I was lowering Jose steadily down to her and shortly after he had clipped himself to her, ensuring her safety.

A big grin grew on my face, followed by a deep sign of relief, I slumped forward with my helmet pressed against the rock. Still smiling, I gave Death the middle finger.

Jose arriving to secure Hana. You can see how much her canopy was inflating.

But it didn't end there.

Although we had successfully secured the situation and prevented Hana from falling, which given how the wind increased shortly after, I reckon we literally only had a few minutes left. We had abandoned the rescue team below with the fixed ropes & stretcher, which were needed to implement the original plan to bring her down.
I started to formulate from my own knowledge as a Mountaineering Instructor and time spent in the cliff rescue team in the UK, plans on how I could set up a counter balanced abseil to reach them both and then a series of assisted multi pitch abseils back to the ground.
"Yeah that will work" I thought. And just as I was about to relay my idea to Jose, the Helicopter fired up it's engine.

WTF, "Jose, what's going on?" I had no radio and with in seconds the bellow of the helicopter engulfed all sonic air space, making communication impossible. 
"Oh well, it's out of my hands now" we'd done our part, Hana was safe, yet what did they have planned next, I couldn't see any way the helicopter could reach us, it was too steep and impossible for it to position itself directly above us.

What happened next was something that took this story to pure Hollywood drama.

The flying machine quickly positioned itself above the summit directly above us, and a fireman starts a descent from a rope attached to the helicopters side. "What on earth is he doing?" I asked myself. "There's no way he can reach us" it seemed impossible, one, it was about 150 - 200 metre away and two, he would be too far away from the cliff.
Then bang, I get a face full of green juice, "What the....?"
Bang, again, a metre to my right, another explosion of green. 
I looked up to see that the down draft of the helicopter was knocking off cactus leaves from the plants above, then forcing them turblently down and inwards, directly towards me!
"Hay!!!"  I screamed up, pointless as I could barely hear myself over the noise of the helicopter.
"Really!! this is how it ends, death by cactus leaf?"
These leafs although plant material where large, about half a metre square, loaded with water and moving very fast. So as the fireman continued to abseil out of the helicopter, now linking ropes together, I spent the next 10mins trying to dodge these green spiky bombs. Which was hard as I was anchored in and unable to move more than a few inches in each direction, plus I was on a protruding rib that had no steep rock directly above to offer any protection. Fortunately, Hana and Jose were under a small  overhanging section of rock to the side, protected and oblivious to my predicament. 
After a while and a few more mouthfuls of cactus juice plus some glancing blows to my back pack, the helicopter had exhausted the supply of detachable green incendiary devices from above. I returned to a calm enjoyment of the cooling and much welcomed down draft whilst watching the spectacle unravel in front of me.
Now the fireman was level with me, having linked over 3 ropes together he was level and about 30 metres away from the cliff, grinning straight at me.
"Throw me your rope" he commanded.
"You are joking aren't you?" I replied, knowing exactly what would happen if I tried.
"Throw it" he repeated.
"Ok" I replied shacking my head, I bundled a large section of rope, more than enough to reach him plus some more to provide extra momentum. As expected with the force of the down draft of the helicopter the ropes never made it beyond about 10 metre from my location. Even with out the down draft it would have been a difficult throw. This was impossible. I gave it a few more attempts before he admitted defeat.
Then what happend next left me with my jaw wide open in shock, awe and amazment.

He radioed up to his pilot something I couldn't hear, then the helicopter positioned him so he was level and facing Hana and Jose, but still way to far out to reach them.
"Swing me" I heard him shout into his radio.
"Did I hear that right? I thought to my self. Swing? How? and looking up at the long 10mm diameter rope connecting him to the helicopter, I could see it was pressed firmly against the cliff top edge. Any slight movement from the pilot could cut the rope. Climbing ropes are strong, but when under load and any where near a sharp edge, it's like a hot knife through butter!

With his command the pilot gently and perfectly moved the helicopter away from the cliff and with a gracefully delicate "flick" returned to the same position, sending the winch man first out into space towards the sea and then rocketing back in again.
"Again" he shouted.

This time the same manoeuvre but with added momentum from the previous swing sent the winch-man straight in on target and Jose caught him. The winch-man then reached in connected himself to her, unclipped Jose from her and cut her canopy free, all in one smooth action and immediately floated back out into space with Hana safely connected to him.

As they swung out away I shouted "Yeah Hana Yeah" emotion pouring, eyes running. She had her back to me and couldn't hear me over the noise of the helicopter. But it was over, I slumped forward and wept.
Within moments the helicopter had them both safely on the ground and in the hands of the medical team.

Jose then popped back into view, we discussed our descent and I lowered him to the high point of the rescue team with whom he then descend with.

I was then alone, half way up one of the most impressive and omniscient big walls on the Mediterranean coast. Left to reflect on what had just happened, still not quite believing it all, I drifted back into my familiar climbing mode, calm, focused on the job at hand, retreive what equipment I could and descend in safety.

This video is form the news team there covering the incident.
I have been back several times and climbed over the exact point where Hana's canopy was caught, each time I stop there, I shake my head in disbelief in how the canopy actually took hold there, it's impossible, yet it happened.

I have to conclude that fate is an illusion, either used to explain situations where meaning can not be extracted or used as an excuse where we refuse to take responsibility or fail to act.
It was not fate that saved Hana, it was not me nor Jose. Nor was it the impeccable skills of the helicopter pilot, or the chance that Jose was on duty that day. Nor was it Nando who decided to bring the trad equipment anyway. It was the sum of a series of impossible acts, decisions and choices that allowed this to happen. Each one was as important as the next, each as fragile, each as insignificant and each as critical!

So the question that I'm forced to ask is why? It wasn't luck because as we can see individual volition was key in all of this, each persons active choices had purpose and were not random chance outcomes.
What gave the underlying adhesion to keep each element on track and in communication?

You could argue that it was all pure luck and my role was purely coincidental and I was in the right place at the right time and with the necessary skill set, but I also stopped believing in Father Christmas a long time ago....

So to address the label of hero I have to strongly refute this.
Firstly as I mentioned above, I was a small part of a much bigger series of events that all equally deserve credit.
Secondly, I did nothing that risked my life, nothing that I wouldn't do any other day of the week.
And lastly there was no nobility in what I did, honour, maybe, but I did what I did because I was there and it needed doing, I was amid equals who would have done the same for me. I did it because we all share the same love for the mountains and share the same risks. I did it for the same reason I climb, because I love life. I am not a hero.