by Kieran James Cunningham
The summit ridge extended below me, a tapered line drawing the eye deep into a background of silhouetted peaks dotting the skyline like white-flamed candles. Behind me, the gentle southerly rising over the Orobic Alps from the plains of lower Bergamo whistled in the summit cross of Corno Stella, where I’d stood five minutes previously, chuffed with my day’s efforts.
The ascent had turned out to be straightforward barring the final hundred meters or so, where I’d been forced to crab-walk with both axes across a steep slab of crusted snow. I’d retraced my steps on the way down and now, finally, could relax, enjoy the view and take in my surroundings as I made my way back to the car. In the distance, the filmy, humped outline of Monte Rosa prodded the belly of a low bank of altostratus. To my right, framed in the neat Vs of the Cervia and Livrio valleys, the high dignitaries of the Rhetic Alps – Monte Disgrazia, Piz Bernina, Piz Roseg – sparkled in shafts of sunlight threading the cloud. My climb hadn’t quite scaled the heights of those giants, but at 2,620m – with 1500m of ascent – it had been a successful day out, a handy spot of training to kickstart preparations for the summer season just around the corner.
I continued my plod downward on the ridge. The snow had softened, the thin veneer of crust offering little resistance to my weight and my crampons plunging at least a foot into the mush beneath with each step. Soon I’d regained my tracks from the way up and was glad to be relieved of some of the burden of breaking trail, if not that of hauling myself out of each foothole as I went. Coming to one particularly deep imprint that I remembered having ‘wedgied’ me an hour previously, I dodged a fraction to the right to spare my underparts a repeat performance of the misfortune. Surprisingly, my leading foot didn’t break the crust of the snow. I balanced myself with an axe and tentatively made the step up, awaiting the now inevitable crash through the surface to knee- or crotch-deep. The jolt came, but somewhat more emphatically than I’d expected. Instead of stopping at my knee or crotch or even waist, I continued through the disintegrating floor beneath me, sinking, it seemed, into the mountainside itself.
I emerged a second or two later, unsure what was moving so fast around me. The thing that was moving, I soon realized, was me.
I’d somehow arrived onto the shaded north slope and was making my way down it in a hurry. My axes clattered beside me on ice and snow until I eventually got hold of one of them. I’d no sooner done so than I was airborne, propelled skyward for what felt like an eternity by a pebble-sized rock poking out of my inadvertent line of descent.
I landed with a winding thud and skidded on for another ten meters or so before finally able to spin round and slow myself to a stop with my pick.
I lay still for some moments, catching my breath and allowing my shaken and disbanded wits to catch up with me. Barring a few tinkles from shards of ice or snow trundling by me, the deafening tumult of only a few seconds ago had been replaced by an eerie, pristine silence. I looked up and saw the unscheduled shortcut I’d taken down the mountainside, a thin beeline runnel reaching all the way up to the ridge and my ex tempore exit crack – a small notch in a large cornice whose detritus had travelled with me and lay scattered across the slope. Downwards, the slope continued for another fifteen meters or so before disappearing over a ledge, beyond which the gradient appeared to become less accommodating and reasonable by far.
Lucky, I thought.
I checked myself for injuries, things missing, things awry, but found none other than a slight ache in my ribs and a bloodied nose. I set an axe in the snow and pushed myself up onto my knees. I tried to stand, but for the first time noticed an alternately dull and stabbing pain arising from some injury in my behind, one which also seemed to have incapacitated my legs.
Not so lucky, I thought.
Crap crap crap!
I tried to get to my feet repeatedly over the next ten minutes, without success, each attempt at bending a knee being quickly rebuffed by something verging on agony and forcing me to quit. I lay back on the slope, face-down. Taking off my glove, I felt around the source of my affliction and discovered an unnatural protrusion of some kind in the tailbone area, sensitive to the touch and worryingly inflamed.
At length, I fished a trekking pole from my sack and finally managed to stand, hauling myself up with both arms as my legs sagged half-limp beneath me. My first attempt at a step nearly ended in disaster as my leading leg buckled beneath me. Just in time, I managed to steady myself with the pole. Fearing further calamity, I resigned myself to smaller steps from then on. I started with a few centimeters at a time, nudging my way gently and timidly across and down the slope.
An hour or so later, a look back to where I’d begun did very little for my declining spirits or to assuage my fears of being stuck out there long after dark. I hadn’t seen anyone all day barring a duo who’d summited from the Bergamo side of the mountain early in the morning, and there seemed little hope of coming across anyone who might offer any assistance in the remote, empty valley below. My legs eventually deigned to humor me with some cooperation, gradually accepting a little more weight from my arms. The pain was considerable, but the sun had already dropped below the valley wall and I was numb with cold. Tolerating it seemed the only way I was going to make it down in the foreseeable future.
Another hour brought me onto a more kindly angled slope that would eventually lead me to the established summer trekking trail. I hobbled on. I considered crawling, but a combination of pride and a desire to get the hell out of there quickly vetoed the idea. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen through a cornice. A cornice! I thought of all the times I’d warned friends and climbing companions of the dangers, all the while assuming myself somehow immune and invulnerable to such an obvious, avoidable hazard. I felt no self-pity, no overwhelming concern for the wellbeing of my ill-fated and smarting behind, just plain embarrassment.
That morning I’d made the ascent with snowshoes between 1700m and 2,200m and by nightfall had reached the high end of my tracks. I briefly contemplated putting the snowshoes on again to spare myself the pain of digging each leg out of its own hole with every step, but balked at the logistics entailed in the task and in any case doubted its feasibility in my current condition. It had taken me less than two hours to reach that point from where I’d parked the car at 1,100m that morning; it would be a further six before I finally made it back.
The sight of my trusty Fiat Panda at the end of the trail was nearly tear-inducing. I threw my sack in the back seat and warmed myself with the thought that soon, following a hospital visit en route, I’d be home, safe, warm and already on my way to putting the whole affair behind me. As soon as I opened the door I realized my miscalculation.
The 900m descent to the valley floor over the bumpy, rock-strewn forest track proved to be, if anything, a far worse experience than the long shuffle off the mountain. Stops, stalls and screams included, it took me another two hours to reach home. During that time, further insult was added to whatever injury I’d sustained when the need to pee came and passed, literally, without first allowing me time to stop the car to get out. I’d lost control, it seemed, of more than my legs.
I arrived home shortly before midnight and fell asleep immediately, face down with a bellyful of painkillers. I woke several times over the next few hours, the fear of peeing myself again staying my slumber and slight shifts in position sending jolts of agony through my hindquarters. Following maybe the dozenth of such rude awakenings, I finally summoned the sense to take myself to the hospital, where I was informed I’d broken my coccyx and three ribs.
For the next three months, I hobbled around on my walking poles – which I preferred to crutches – carrying a rubber swim ring decorated with Smurfs attached to my briefcase, much to the delight of the townspeople in my remote Italian village, my colleagues and my students. After six months, I was finally able to sit again without any pain. One lunchtime, I did so in a patio chair I’d picked up on the cheap from the local Chinese market the day before. At some point during that first, inaugural lounge in my new purchase the stitching, just like the cornice, took objection to my 85-kilo weight and I plummeted speedily through it to the patio floor, redoing the efforts of the rock I’d skipped over on my way down Corno Stella.
In total, it was another nine months or so before I regained full fitness. The take-home has been a lesson on the false economy of the easy step as opposed to the prudent step, and also an unambiguous reminder of the fine margins between safety and calamity – ever-presents in the world of climbing and mountaineering but brought home to me unequivocally that spring of 2016.
Nevertheless, the event hasn’t left me counting only my misfortune. While it has proven easy to lament the consequences of such a slight misjudgment as the one that took me through the cornice, it has also been hard not to think about how my fortunes panned out further down the slope. In the months after the ‘assident’, my thoughts returned frequently to that tiny rock, each time with varying degrees of cognitive dissonance. While it might have played the panto-villain in many of these subsequent reflections and mopes on the incident, I just as often wondered what the odds of my butt finding it on such a large snowfield might have been and what further hostilities might have awaited me over the ledge below had it been positioned a mere six inches in either direction. It may have buggered my coccyx, but in all likelihood, its small and timely intervention in my ad-libbed descent down the north face of Corno Stella forestalled buggering the rest of me to boot.
Though rarely prone to bouts of positive-thinking, in this case, I couldn’t deny the obvious blessing attendant to the breakage.
Kieran Cunningham is a freelance writer, editor and former mountain guide based in the Italian Alps. He spends most of his time climbing, mountaineering, ice-climbing, and ski-mountaineering in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Scotland.
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