The Fall

The Fall


In West Cornwall, the morning of Sunday 4th July 2021 dawned grey, dull and misty, not looking good for the climbing day we had planned. However, the forecast was for ‘improving later’, so we decided to have a look. The drive from my place to the main climbing areas of Penwith takes around 45 minutes, give or take. By the time we got to Penzance things were looking up, so we decided to go and climb on the black stuff at a crag called Trewellard, in the heart of the St Just mining district.


I had been climbing regularly in recent years, although, for various reasons, not as regularly as I would have liked. The previous winter I had trained hard, lost weight, got stronger and fitter and kicked off the climbing year in good style. I should point out that, then and now, I am operating firmly in the lower grades, leading up to Severe and occasionally seconding to VS. My teenage son Dylan, who was with me, had been climbing for about four years. We were feeling good and we were up for it, looking forward to a good season.


The approach to the start of the climbs involves scrambling down a series of easy slabs to a good broad ledge well above sea level. Between the ledge and the face is a deep crack, just wide enough to drop your foot into. At the landward side of the ledge, at right angles to the face and seaward facing, is a vertical wall, around 2m high, above which is a broken glacis and then another ledge. We had a planned trip to North Wales coming up and I joked about how daft it would be to fall into the crack, break something and put an end to the holiday. Little did we know….


To begin, we did ‘Bright Morning’, a good climb of V Diff standard, which we both managed comfortably. Next, as I was feeling good, I thought I might have a look at a route to the right called ‘Isosceles’, which I had led before. The route follows a diagonal line up rightwards, is graded 4b and is quite sustained; nowhere desperately difficult, but no soft touch either. The sparsity of protection (small cams and wires) means that the overall grade is given as VS. I explained all this to Dylan and said I would have a look, but wouldn’t push it; if I decided it was not on I would back off. I climbed two or three metres and got a couple of small wires in a sideways crack; they looked ok. Another step up and I then made a long stride right onto a small foothold that was wet; water was running down a diagonal crack. By this time my feet were just above the top of the glacis so, feeling a bit nervous, I stepped back onto it with my right foot in order to take stock. I remember thinking ‘Mmm, thin above here, but I can see a couple of good looking small pockets up there to go for’.


I don’t really have a clue what happened next. Looking back, it seems likely that my foot, being wet, just slipped off. So, it wasn’t a classic ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this, watch me, I’m coming off, Aaargh!’ kind of fall; it was a split-second thing that I had no control over and absolutely no memory of! I remember, fleetingly, lying on the deck next to Dylan and the next thing after that I was standing up, uttering the classic ‘What happened? Where am I?’ with the world spinning crazily around. Dylan was clearly upset, so we had a hug and I reassured him that he hadn’t done anything wrong and that I was ok.


Slowly my head began to clear. It was apparent that I had no broken bones and there was no blood. The two runners were on the ground, still clipped on the rope; I assumed they had popped out when I fell, but Dylan said that he was lifted up, so they must have held. A few days later he told me that I had begun to climb back up to retrieve them, but he told me not to and so I had then flicked them out with the rope. Of all that I have no recollection whatsoever.


Well, we sorted things out, managed to scramble back up to the bags, changed and headed back to the car, which was only five minute’s walk away. I decided I needed a break before heading home, so I phoned some good friends, Des and Pauline Hannigan, who live a short distance up the road. After a nice brew, cake and chat I drove us home and cooked us a meal.  Quite how I managed all of this, I do not know. I have only a vague recollection of the driving; I must have been operating on pure adrenalin. Des told me later that I had seemed ok, apart from the bump the size of a goose egg on the back of my head, and that if they had realised just how bad I was, they would never have let me drive home. There is an important lesson here, I think, regarding head injuries: no matter how ‘right’ someone appears, or claims to be, it is almost certain that things may be not too good below the surface.


Anyway, I got myself off to bed, where I had a restless night. Next morning I awoke feeling dreadful. I managed to get myself out of bed, literally crawling around the house, and was able to check out the damage. The lump on the right side of the back of my head had gone down, but was still painful; my right shoulder was grazed, swollen and really painful; my right arm and elbow were badly grazed and painful; there was a graze and bruise on my right buttock the size of a dinner plate and, finally, my right knee was also badly grazed and very painful. The left hand side of my body was completely untouched; I looked like one of Tommy Cooper’s classic 50/50 comedy routines.


The most worrying thing was what was going on in my head. I had a really bad headache and at the slightest movement I suffered terrible dizziness, the room spinning so wildly that I would have to sit down. It was several days before I felt safe enough to have a shower; I have a bath with shower over and simply couldn’t risk it. The next few days were bad, some of the worst I had ever felt, but I slowly began to recover and take stock. Some online research of my symptoms confirmed that I was suffering from concussion, but the various information suggested that it was not bad enough to require hospital treatment; I just had to take things easy for a while (couldn’t really do much else, to be honest).


Eventually, after much concerned prompting from Des, I got in touch with my GP and he immediately arranged for me to have a brain scan at Truro hospital. Off I duly went, on the bus, on my own, with an overnight bag, just in case. The scan turned out to be ok, thank goodness; no bleed and no sign of any potentially dangerous or permanent damage. In fact, the consultant pronounced it ‘boringly normal’. I did, however, get one of many subsequent lectures about wearing a helmet (I wasn’t at the time; I’m not allowed to climb without one now).


Over the following days the various bumps, bruises, grazes, aches and pains started to heal. I began going out for walks, but initially I would get five minutes down the road and become so tired that I would have to turn back. Slowly things improved, but the dizziness continued, any sudden movement of my head and the world would spin around and I would have to grab onto something to steady myself – very worrying and very disheartening.


Things came to a head a few weeks later. My daughter and her boyfriend were down for a visit and decided to go to Sennen for a climb, along with Dylan and myself. I said from the outset that I didn’t know what I would be able to do, I’d see how I felt. We went the long, easy way round to the bottom of the crag, with me moving very nervously. Eventually, they began climbing. Moving my head up and down to watch brought on violent dizziness, I could hardly stand. This was the point at which the enormity of everything that had happened finally came over me; I ended up sitting down with my head in my hands, almost sobbing, thinking that was the end of my climbing career (and a lot more besides) – a hugely emotional moment.


I was now rather stuck, there was no way I could get back the way we had come on my own, so, when they were all at the top, I told them to lower me a rope and I would attempt to climb ‘Staircase’, a Diff that I had done a thousand times. I managed to struggle up this with a very tight rope and several rest stops on the way.


Summer went on, but we didn’t do much. Eventually, after a few weeks, Dylan and I ventured back onto the rock, with Des along for support, and I managed a couple of easy routes.


The head spins continued, however, and I finally got in touch with my GP again. When I described the symptoms she said it was a classic case of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) caused by bits of stuff in the ear canals becoming dislodged and affecting your balance. She told me to look up the Brant-Daroff exercise on t’internet, which I then carried out for two weeks as prescribed.  It didn’t make the slightest bit of difference! So I then tried the Epley manoeuvre, after watching several Youtube videos. This did the trick and the BPPV went away.  I was, however, left with the really bad headache.


The GP had also ordered another CT scan, just to be sure, and this, like the first, was pronounced normal – no sign of bleed or permanent damage.


So, where has all this left me, almost two years after the fall? I am suffering from what is called ‘Post-Concussion Syndrome’, which, according to all of the literature, can take weeks, months or even years to recede. The various bumps and bruises, aches and pains have mostly cleared up. However, the strength, fitness and stamina that I had built up disappeared, almost overnight, and at my age (now 75) I have found them difficult to get back. My right shoulder is still painful and I still suffer from a constant headache. I have tried various medications for this, but none of them have worked.


The BPPV comes and goes; I have long periods where everything is ok, but then, for no apparent reason, the dizzy spells return, and can go on for extended periods. Occasionally I have days where everything just gets on top of me, the BPPV kicks in with a vengeance, the dizziness returns; I feel tired, sickly and barely able to function at all. These are really depressing times; times when I feel really broken by the whole experience.


One thing that I have lost and am really struggling to get back, is my confidence on the rock; the confidence and trust in my abilities borne of 46 years of rock climbing. Everything that I had learned, the experience I had gained over all those years seems to have deserted me, so that climbing, has become much more of a struggle, rather than the enjoyable, fun activity that it used to be. It’s as if I were starting out all over again. I don’t know whether I will ever get this confidence back.


Dylan has put the event behind him and is developing into a good, competent and cool-headed climber. He has taken over virtually all of the leading duties now, with me just about managing to follow. It is becoming clear what the main thing holding back his progress in the near future will be – me!


So, there we are; at the end of the day, I am still standing, still managing to ‘get out there’, still looking forward to pulling on my climbing shoes and getting on the rock. One split second event has brought about massive changes for me, especially as far as climbing is concerned, but I’m not quite ready to jack it all in just yet.


Sam Salmon, June 2023.


Photo caption: Dylan on the first pitch of Bright Morning, V Diff. The broad starting ledge is below and left of him (as you look down at it), with the 2m wall and glacis to the left of that.

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