The three of us had been hiding all morning in the Cauldron – a place of shadows, whispered voices, the smell of seaweed, loose rock, and poor protection.
We needed light. We needed to laugh, to shout, to remember that climbing in Pembroke is just a game, something to do of a weekend, a way of relaxing.
So we wander over to Bow-shaped slab, rap down to just above the waves and clip into the belay.
The rocks come in a cascade, small but numerous. Marie isn’t wearing a helmet and she takes a direct hit just as her carabiner snaps shut. One moment we are chatting, making plans: which route next, which pub to stop at on the way home. Now she’s slumped, unconscious above a wintery sea. I look up to see Craig at the top waving. Pillock. His scrabbling feet knock a few more pebbles off and I call him various names that get lost in the wind.
After a minute or so Marie comes around and I race to the top with the rope ready to scream some more at Craig.
Craig is wet. Very wet. Just been swimming in his clothes wet. He’s babbling, shaking, almost incoherent, distressed. I set the ropes. Marie and Susan climb whilst Craig tries to explain.
Through his chattering teeth I make out that his partner, Luke, has had an accident. To my mind the only question is whether Luke will be ok to travel back to Guildford with us.
“He hit his head” – ironic given what had just happened.
“Is he ok?”
“I don’t know” – strange
“Did you take him to the hospital?”
“No” – sounds minor
“Is he back at the van?”
“No” – getting information out of an hypothermic Yorkshireman, is like ……
“Then where is he?”
“Hanging on the rope” – not minor.
“How long has he been hanging?”
“All morning” – very not minor.
As I bring the others up, Craig explains that Luke fell on the second pitch of a route at Mewsford Point, went past the belay, disappeared under an overhang and came out unconscious. Craig tried hauling him back to the belay, but failed. He tried soloing to the top, but it was too hard and loose. He shouted but no one responded so in the end he abseiled down to Luke, stabilised him, then rapped down off the end of the ropes and into the sea.
For those that don’t know it, Mewsford Point is accessed at low tide via a 50m abseil to a rocky slab. To seaward the slab rises forming an island at high tide. Craig’s plan had been to swim to the rock, run along its length, jump back in, swim to his fixed abseil line, prusik this and run for help. Risky and a major mission in summer, even if you had some ascenders. In winter and without even prusik loops, totally insane.
The island is only a few meters from where he enters the water but the current is strong and in the wrong direction. It takes him twenty minutes to make the rock. Totally exhausted he crawls to the other end and jumps back in hoping to get swept onto the abseil line. He will only get one chance. If he fails to grab it and hold on the next landfall is probably Ireland.
He makes it, manufactures prusiks out of extenders whilst trying not to get swept away and starts to climb.
At the top he is disorientated and exhausted. Luckily he bumps into a couple of German soldiers (there is an army firing range nearby) and tries to explain what has happened. Although they speak English they can’t understand hypothermic Yorkshire. So Craig heads for me.
Once they are are at the top I leave Susan to look after Craig and Marie. It’s Susan’s first time climbing, and I try to explain that it isn’t normally like this. I’m not sure she believes me.
I run off towards Mewsford and straight into the two soldiers. They are confused. All they know is that something is wrong, and the guy who spoke to them was distressed and “was not English”. Luckily they can understand me, and I tell them about how to alert the rescue services. I leave them to it and keep running to Luke.
By crawling on my belly I can look over the top and I see him spinning on the rope. Even if he is alive, I know it isn’t good, as his harness will have cut his blood flow off. Time is critical.
I can’t find anything other than a number one wire placement to abseil off, in part because most of my stuff is back at the slabs; so no backup. Down I go. I tie into Craig’s belay by clipping into the screwgate he left and rap to Luke. With prodding I can get him to move a little, and I hope it helps his circulation rather than takes a blood clot straight to his heart. His head is covered in blood. No helmet. Occasionally he says something like “Sorry, I don’t think I can finish this one. Your lead.” Then slips back into unconsciousness. I use Craig’s belay to haul him into a more comfortable position.
I prusik back up hoping that rescue of some sort is on its way. Hauling Luke on a small stopper in a boulder buried in the grass is too scary to contemplate.
Suddenly the horizon disappears in a cloud of dust and a line of army vehicles roars towards me. In true military style, rather than following one behind the other, they charge over the landscape like a crashing wave; boys having fun with their toys.
(It turned out that the two German soldiers, being soldiers, hadn’t tried to alert the rescue services, but just run to their officer, who had decided to mount his own rescue.)
I now have a whole platoon at my disposal. One of the vehicles has a big red cross on it and houses a doctor. They have cables and winches on the front of some of the vehicles. This is going to be easy. This is going to be quick. Luke might survive.
I head back down. It’s not easy to communicate back up to the Germans at the top of the cliff, but we manage. Until the helicopter drowns everything out.
The winchman descends on his wire. The cliff is steep, the cable is almost touching the rock and he isn’t happy. I guess that if the cable snags it’s bye-bye him and maybe the whole crew. I explain by screaming that we are ok and can winch Luke out with the trucks. He seems relieved and the chopper disappears – back to Plan A and the German Army, except that….
One rock gets me on a shoulder, the other on a thigh. Luke gets one on the head – another hole and more blood. Why is everyone trying to kill me today? I look up to see that the coastguard have turned up. How many rescuers do we need?
Except for knocking rocks off as they start to descend, they are professional and efficient and soon have Luke at the top. By the time I have prusiked out again Luke has been loaded onto the helicopter and is on the way to hospital. The coastguard chap kindly volunteers to be lowered back down to strip the belay and drag the ropes out of the sea.
He brings the whole collection of cams, wires, slings and ropes to the top in a neat bundle held together by a sling and a screwgate. This is the screwgate that Luke had been hanging on all day, Craig had rapped into the sea from, I had hung from several times and short hauled Luke from. As it is undone it snaps in two!
Luke made a full recovery and shortly afterwards led Lord of the Flies.
Craig started a career in rope access.
Marie returned to her home in the French Alps, probably vowing to stay away from British climbers.
As far as I know, Susan has never climbed again.
The BBC made a short film about the day’s events.
This is the only time I have seen a carabiner fail. When I asked Luke about the history of the screwgate he replied “Oh, I’m not surprised, I found it at the bottom of a crevasse in Chamonix”. Bastard!
- Craig is well hard.
- Always wear a helmet.
- Don’t trust kit if you don’t know its history.
- Tell people where you are climbing and when they should expect you back.
- Carry prusiks.
- When climbing on a cliff with no walk out consider carrying a few self-rescue items.
- Learn basic self-rescue, and basic gorilla aid.
- If Craig had known how to rope solo and the rudiments of aid climbing he might have been able to save himself the swim.
Acknowledgement: thanks to Pete Callaghan for the use of his photos.