Richard on the road to recovery after 600ft fall

Everyone at the Scottish Episcopal Church will be delighted to learn that Richard Tiplady is making a steady recovery after suffering multiple injuries in a 600-foot fall down a mountain in the Lake District last month.

Richard, who is the Director of Mixed Mode Training at the Scottish Episcopal Institute, came to a halt just 20 feet short of a precipice, and was airlifted to hospital with fractures to his neck, left elbow and right ankle, and three deep cuts to his head which required 60 stitches, a series of lacerations which were described by medics as looking like the gouge of a lion’s claw.

His accident made headlines in the national media, and it was reported by The Times and the Daily Mail that he had been ‘saved by an avalanche’ which happened the day previously. Rescuers believe the debris from the avalanche acted as obstacles which broke Richard’s fall and prevented him from going off a 200ft cliff, a fate which he would not have survived. The reports also led to an interview with Stephen Jardine on BBC Radio Scotland.

By an amazing coincidence, one of the SEI students is a consultant neurosurgeon at Royal Victoria Infirmary  in Newcastle, where Richard underwent an operation on his fractured neck vertebra. Claire Nicholson, a second year ordinand in the Diocese of Edinburgh, was able to keep Richard informed of exactly what would be happening to him, and when.

The passionate and experienced mountaineer, who has scaled over 100 Munros in the past four years, would like his friends and colleagues to know that he is so grateful for the prayers and messages of support he has received from those in the church and beyond, and that he is making as good a recovery as could possibly be hoped for at this stage.

It will be a long road back, but Richard has taken his first few steps on that journey – including daily walks locally to rebuild his mobility, and a trip to Waterstones at Glasgow Fort shopping centre before the lockdown, complete with moon boot and walking stick. And his choice of reading material to assist his convalescence? Ernest Shackleton’s South: The EnduranceExpedition, and Joe Simpson’s The Beckoning Silence. (“Two books that tell stories of how things can go wrong in winter and on mountains,” says Richard, cheerfully but unable to ignore the irony.)

In an emotional interview with Inspires Online, Richard told the story of his fateful day on the Lake District peaks. It is re-told here, in his own words.

“I have been mountaineering on and off since my early 20s, and it has become a major part of my life in the last four years, and something that has become more than just an excuse for a walk. I’m beginning to dig into the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of mountaineering, of which there is plenty.

“I had connected with my climbing companion John Fleetwood via Facebook, and we set a date weeks in advance to get together and go climbing in the Lake District. We got the best day in ages, and it was a beautiful, still morning. We started out at 9am, and by about 1pm, we had climbed over one pass to reach Pillar mountain [2,900ft], arriving at Pillar Rock, a massive pinnacle about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. John calls these kinds of features as ‘cathedrals’ because they are like soaring spires.

“In a sense we had done what we had set out to do. I had a new friend here, and we were enjoying each other’s company. The writer Robert Macfarlane said that ‘mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder’ in his book Mountains of the Mind, and It’s the best articulation I know of the feeling of being on the mountain.

“So having achieved our objective, would we go down, or carry on to the summit? It is said that eighty per cent of mountain accidents happen on the way down, when you are tired or when gravity turns a slip into a fall. I am the sort of person who will always turn around if I am unsure, because the mountain will always be there to return to. Just below the summit itself, there was a rocky outcrop and a number of steep gullies filled with ice and frozen snow. Having assessed one option and decided that it looked a bit tricky, I started to descend a short distance to find another route to the summit.

“I don’t know if I slipped or if my crampons caught one another, but I went over and started to gather speed, sliding downhill. I was ramming my ice axe into the snow, trying to self-arrest [slow down the fall]. I was hanging on to the ice axe with both hands, one on the shaft and one on the head, probably going faster than I realised, but unfortunately I lost hold of it when I hit something (a rock, probably).

“I was falling down a snow-filled gully, not a vertical drop. It was like a very steep toboggan run, although most of those don’t have rocks sticking out of them.

“There’s a lot you can do to reduce the impact of a fall. Some of it is luck and some of it is preparation. You go feet first if you can. Your legs are a crumple zone, and your head is not. I could have ended up head first a couple of times during my fall, because the crampons can catch on the snow and flip you over. But there are things you can do to turn yourself around.

“I was unable to completely bring under control what was happening to me and I had no idea what was below me, but you know you are not going to come out of something like this unscathed. You know you can’t stop, so you know something is going to stop you, and it is going to hurt. All you can try to do is make it less catastrophic. At that stage, a good outcome would be not to end up in a wheelchair, or with two broken legs. The other outcome is almost incomprehensible, but I faced that.

“Then, before I knew it, I was clattering through what I now know was an avalanche, battering through huge frozen snowballs. This was the debris of the avalanche from the day before,frozen to the spot in the gully. I crash into and through it, and for the first time, I have friction. All of a sudden, I have stopped, and I am sitting on one of them like it is a chair, with my cramponed boots firmly anchored on two others, bleeding like crazy and with one eye blocked with blood.

“A lot has been made about how far I fell and that I stopped just short of the precipice [West Waterfall]. I can’t get my head round that, and for the moment, it is ring-fenced by my brain. It just won’t let me go there.

“The mountains are indifferent; nature isn’t trying to harm you or help you. You can start to put a narrative around it, but what happened was random. I have gratitude for God, the mountain rescue team, the helicopter crew, my wife Irene and my family, the outpouring of support on Facebook, WhatsApp, texts and e-mails, and messages from around the world. There has been a massive amount of love and support. People are good in a crisis and the church is full of good people. They will pray for you. I needed prayer, and people did pray for me. Let’s take our faith seriously and realise that prayer does work.

“Thirteen years ago I had a very serious illness and was on the critical list in ITU in hospital, after developing double pneumonia on my return from a work trip to Kosovo. I realised then what I realised now, that I am unafraid of dying although it does grieve me that I would be leaving behind my wife and son.

“I remember coming to a stop and a feeling of being protected came to me. It took me a moment to realise what had happened, and although I could see the drop in front of me, I did feel protected. That stayed with me as I made an injury self-assessment, put in a call via 999 for mountain rescue, took painkillers, had a drink, and ate a chocolate bar.

“I realised that John will not have a clue what has happened to me; he will not have heard my fall. So I followed the simple protocols: took my phone from my zip-up pocket, and made an emergency call, explaining where I was and what had happened, and that I would probably need a helicopter. I had an App on my phone which let me give the emergency services my Ordnance Survey reference. Then I got out my whistle, the best £1 that I have ever spent. I never go into the pocket that it is in while I am walking, so that it is always going to be there if I need it. My left arm was killing me but I got the whistle out, jammed the keyring on my thumb and gave six shorts blasts every minute. I also used my headtorch which has a flashing light, like a cyclist, to draw attention.

“I got into my survival bag, knowing I was going to get cold quickly, and kept blowing my whistle. Then it was a case of just waiting. John heard my blasts and got down to me. He started to clean me up, and got out every bandage we had. I reckon that after 45 minutes, the search & rescue helicopter arrived from Prestwick. After they did a visual assessment of our situation, they flew off and began to carry members of the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team to the summit, from where they abseiled down to reach me. At the same time, a relief team had set off to reach me by foot from the bottom of the mountain, in case the helicopter couldn’t reach me and I had to be stretchered off. There were 22 people involved in my rescue, and I maybe saw six of them.

“After initial treatment, they worked out that the helicopter could not pick me up from where I was because I was too close to nearby crags, and I would have to move to a flat area a bit further away. So they helped me to walk (or hobble, because of my broken ankle) off the slope and across to that. The helicopter also had to fly off for ten minutes, to burn off fuel, which helped to reduce the down-draught.

“The key thing is how non-judgmental the mountain rescue team are. One of them told me: ‘There are four of us here now; two of us are part of this team because we were rescued from the mountains, like you.’ That really meant a lot to me. Their combination of a professional, caring, and egalitarian attitude was really humbling.

“Next thing I knew, the winch man was next to me and I was being put into a bag-like seat which was fastened to the winch. The next two minutes were agony as I was being winched, with a broken and dislodged bone in my neck placing pressure on my left arm nerve and my whole body weight pressing down on top of that, and it seemed an age before I was pulled into the helicopter, the door was closed, and we were off.

“Ten minutes later we were at Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, with an ambulance waiting for me at the helipad. I was taken to Accident and Emergency, where I found a team of 20 people was waiting for me. That’s when it hit me: ‘Oh … this is a big deal.’ They had assembled a major trauma team for me.

“I was very impressed with the A&E team. One of the nurses was dedicated to emotional and pastoral care, and looked after me while I was being treated.

“Claire [SEI student] emailed me a few hours ahead of my transfer from Carlisle to Newcastle the morning after I was admitted in Carlisle, saying they were just waiting for an MRI to be done before the transfer. That was very reassuring.

“The operation by the orthopaedic team in Newcastle was to realign the C7 neck vertebra and fuse it to the C6 one above. They removed the disk between the two and replaced it with a mesh that the flesh will grow into, like reinforced concrete, I guess. They then joined the two bones together with a titanium plate, held in place by pins/small screws. I have seen the post-op x-ray, which Claire sent to me, and it is an incredible thing.

“Both hospitals were amazing. I have paid a lot of National Insurance over my lifetime and I feel I have withdrawn it all in one go.

“I was also visited by my climbing companion John, and his wife who is a GP. John has shown me images he captured of the rescue, and it is quite shocking to see.

“But I’m here, I’m in one piece. Emotions are catching me out, but talking about what happened is part of the healing process for me. If people hear my story and think ‘I need to be properly prepared’ then some good has come of my accident.

“Will I go back to the mountains? Yes. But maybe under summer conditions first. I have to wear a moon boot for eight weeks and will lose some fitness as I recuperate. I will begin with local walking and progress to smaller hills to regain my muscle strength and fitness in due course. Winter mountaineering will, I hope, return next year, but I expect that there will be some unexpected emotional moments if/when I do that.

“What makes me a bit cross with myself is that I am normally so careful in winter conditions. I was trying to be careful here. I just got unlucky, maybe.”