23 January 2011
To say my life was in tatters is an understatement. I lay in a foreign hospital bed, hooked up to a machine with a drip in each arm and a headache, the pain of which I have yet to find the words to describe. I was very much alone. I was disorientated beyond imagination. Am I alive or am I dead? This was the question that filled every waking moment and consumed me for the weeks and months that followed and even now I occasionally question what happened that day.
I remember dying. I remember every second of it with the clarity of high definition slow motion. So, where am I now? I remember being woken up, thinking is this real or is this just the next stage? Is this purgatory? Why does my head hurt so much? Please God help me.
I remember the helicopter. We flew across the beautiful mountains for what seemed like an eternity. The crew seemed very anxious to get me to a hospital and they kept checking on me. I insisted on sitting up and I tried to speak but the pain was too great. What had happened? One minute I was flying like a bird and the next I was cemented deep underground.
“You are the lucky one,” shouted the pilot. “We don’t meet many like you.”
This gave me hope. The pain was scaring me. There was no blood so I was conscious that if there was something seriously wrong with me, it was inside my head.
They had laid a stretcher out next to me. I caught Stefan’s eye giving the rescue team the nod to let me stand up, he could see my pride. I was not going to be beaten. I staggered to the helicopter like someone concussed leaving the field with a man on either side ready to catch me should I fall.
The boys had sat in a circle around me waiting for the chopper, creating a wall, shielding me from the wind. I can see the dirt and scratches on the glass window of the helicopter I was staring at.
There is so much I recall from that day. Their faces no longer beaming and their lungs emptied. They were shattered. They were the brave faces of broken men. They were struggling to deal with what had happened. Their experience had been just as horrendous. They had stood helplessly by and watched their friend get swallowed up by the same mountain we had been flying down minutes earlier. To this day, I don’t remember seeing it coming. I remember being hit by it and being swept away; I just don’t remember seeing it. I remember seeing the boys waving. I waved back, triumphant. I was having a great day. I was oblivious that they were warning me of something terrifying coming down the mountain. Suddenly, I was engulfed. I don’t remember sound either. It is almost as if it stopped before I was swallowed up and actually for the amount of movement the boys on the sideline were making, I think this part of my memory has been wiped clear.
We were flying towards a town. I smiled thinking of Dan’s face as I caught him holding his camera wanting, yet not wanting to take a photo. I smiled and gave him the go ahead. “Do it.” That’s all I could say.
He looked how I felt at the birth of our first daughter. Frightened, shellshocked, exhasted and this a man who rowed across the Atlantic. It is amazing how a mountain can cut you down to size without warning.
The boys who started digging that hole, in my eyes, grew up and became men that day. They took responsibility and worked as a team to save my life and I am only here because every single one of them gave 100%. With only one shovel, they used their hands to burrow into the snow. I was 8 feet down before they found my head. I was unconscious at this stage and unaware of the shouting and instructions being hurled from the 2 doctors in the group.
During the digging, Danny Robb consoled Dan explaining that after this much time, even if they were lucky enough to find and resuscitate me, I would have serious brain damage, with the likelihood of being unable to speak or walk. It had been more than 8 minutes and the chances of survival dramatically drop at this point. I can only imagine Dan digging harder with this going around his head. Dan was a family friend, we’d grown up in Wales and our mums are best friends. He’d have been contemplating the impossible task of explaining my loss to my mother.
Deep below the surface, a very different fight was taking place. I gasped for air one last time as I was turned over and taken below the surface. I had consciously chosen not to continue to fight the immense force. I knew I was going to need every bit of waking strength for what was coming. No one could have prepared me for what came next. Suddenly, everything was very still. My arms were cemented far apart. I was entombed in a dark cold grave.
I was suffocating fast. There was no air, just what was left in my lungs. I tried to hold my breath, then chose to breathe very slowly with tiny breaths. It was no use, I was dying and I knew it. By the end I was panting, alone, desperately trying to breath air that just wasn’t there. The last physical memory was the heat this created on my lips and the sound of me fighting for my life.
I don’t remember fear as such. I calmed any panic with thoughts of all the wonderful people in my life.
“Oh God, I was never going to see Gail again.”
“Please God, what have I done?” I had completely wasted my entire life.
I never asked for a second chance but someone took pity on me that day, yet I was made to suffer the whole experience to remind me just how important life is.
And it’s to this end that I will work tirelessly to give something back every single day.
It wasn’t a great day but it is something I treasure. It is much more than a memory. It is a physical experience almost like an invisible souvenir that travels with me wherever I go. Something I can call upon whenever things gets tough.
I am a different person now from the battered and torn shell of the boy lying in that French hospital bed and that night I was woken up by an angel. Dazed and confused, I opened my eyes to see Gail by my side. Was I alive or dead? It didn’t matter anymore. I now knew my purpose.
And 10 years on, as today is the anniversary of the Avalanche in Pic Blanc it is easy to see the difference that day made. I am married now with 2 children and no doubt more to follow. Our lives are very different as a direct result of a change in attitude. Knowing that every day since that accident is an extra one, does make me cram as much as I can into every one of them.