204 - Keith's second underground trip

Fri 25 Jul 2008

The next day, Keith woke up keen to do more caving and we agreed to do E again and this time have a proper tourist trip, maybe heading on to D. On the way into the entrance I caught a glimpse of his central maillon and noticed that his stop wasn't on it, and asked him if he had it with him. He said yes, so I figured he was keeping it on his gear loop so it wouldn't get in the way on the crawl. I figured the routine of the day before where I waited at the ledge across from the rebelay was unnecessary, and Keith went down first.

I watched him test his stop, and abseil out of view. Suddenly I heard a sound like a tacklesack sliding a few metres down the rope, and shouted "What happened?". I don't remember his response but it made me shout "CLIP IN! CLIP IN!" but then the tacklesack started sliding again, for a much longer period with a loud boom at the end. I believe I made some freakish noises at this point which seemed to frighten Keith more than the 30m fall he had just sustained. "ARE YOU OK?" I shouted when I had regained some sense of mind. "YES" came the response. "STAY CALM" I shouted. "*YOU* STAY CALM," was Keith's insolent reply. I waited until I felt I could do things carefully and then replaced the old style twist with a new one (which Nial had asked me to do the day before before walking down the hill) largely to prove to myself that I was still concentrating sufficiently to act safely, rigged my stop and headed down. I remember passing his stop, which was stll on the rope, using a normal knot pass, and noticing that the upper deviation was not clipped to the rope when I got to it, but the lower deviation was.

Keith was sprawled out in something very close to rescue position at the bottom of the pitch, with the rope about 1 metre behind his back. It was an enormous relief to find that he could talk and move all appendages. I checked briefly for bleeding, cutting his oversuit in the back where he said he felt 'wetness' but could detect no bleeding. I opened his survival bag and draped it over him to keep drips off as well as I could. Leaving him food, water, and the personal first aid kit I prussiked out to call base camp. On the way up, I again passed his stop but this time removed it from the rope. I believe it was about 2m above the rebelay, and am unsure whether the stop crab was done up.

At the empty bivi (everyone but Keith and me had gone down the night before) I called base camp and Tony answered quickly. "Are you serious?" he asked.

I shoved a carrimat in a tacklesack, grabbed the top camp first aid kit, and headed back down E. I started to investigate whether it would be possible to move Keith from the bottom of the pitch and out of the drips. He claimed to have no pain but it became clear he could not so much as roll a few degrees without extreme difficulty. It proved a challenge to get the carrimat under him for insulation - I had to do it piece by piece, hacking bits off and shoving them under, removing rocks from below him. I took another survival bag and attempted to cover his entire body with plastic, duct taping the two together. I kept up conversation and asked him to teach me a song he knew. I placed lit candles under the bag to try and provide some warmth. Keeping these lit was very difficult as Keith would move and extinguish them either with the plastic or his hands/arms. Because I wanted to encourage as much movement as possible to keep him warm, I encouraged this but asked him to warn me before moving so I could guard the candles. This was of little use as he frequently forgot and would extinguish them.

I tried to put my balaclava on him (wearing it first for a while to warm it up), but like so many things so far this turned out to be harder than expected. He insisted it was too small, but the label read "one size fits all". I sliced the back open with a knife and managed to get it on that way. I began to keep notes, not very systematically, but at least every half hour, although there wasn't much to write because very little changed.

After two hours he began to worry about cold and complained of shivering. He was concerned about shivering but I encouraged him to welcome it as a way to produce warmth. I also encouraged him to eat a little food and drink a little water, although he was concerned that water would cool him down and that it would cost energy to digest half a chocolate bar. After around 2.40, I allowed myself to say that the first help would be here shortly. Every minute after saying that became more difficult because of course we were both thinking the unthinkable "what if they've been delayed somehow and won't be here for hours." As it turned out, it was only another 10 minutes or so before Nial appeared, probably one of the most emotional moments in my life although I think I appeared outwardly collected. I prussiked out and Ollie had tortolini ready at top camp. From then on, there was little I could do to help the rescue effort other than going through everyone's bags at top camp looking for something that could replace the 17mm spanner the Austrian cave rescue had forgotten to bring...

The rescue was brilliantly executed, and I am forever indebted to everyone who participated.

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