Of course this story from July 1986 almost inevitably involves a girl and an attempt to impress her. This attempt ended badly. Kathy and I met on the very first day of term in our first year at Bristol University where we were studying biology. She and I were in the same tutorial group. As well as studying the same subject, we also spent a lot of our free time rock climbing. Kathy was much (very much) better than I was, and this was a time when there were very few female rock climbers. The presence of the Avon Gorge within the city meant that rock climbing was a popular sport among university students. I really started rock climbing once I realised that what I really preferred to spend my time doing – walking and hiking around the countryside – was regarded as stunningly uncool. Rock climbing with its constant frisson of danger was extremely cool. My only problem really was that I have always suffered from vertigo! But I persisted.
The other person who features in this story is Gray Williams, Gray and I knew each other because we both played rugby. Gray and a few friends started ZooGym a rugby team all of the members of which were drawn from either the Zoology Department or the Welsh Society (y Gymraeg being the welsh word for Welsh). I had put myself up for the team in my first year, and as I played number 8 while Gray played scrum half we had got to know one another quite well (if you do not know why that is the case then you obviously do not play or watch rugby). Gray was doing his PhD at Bristol studying the ecology of Littorina snails in the intertidal zone. His study site was in Pembrokeshire and I would sometimes travel there with him as a field assistant. In the summer of 1986 he wanted to conduct a big experiment using cages and was looking for a few people to help him for a week and Kathy and I volunteered.
The arrangement that we made with Gray was that we could go rock climbing on a few evenings. Pembrokeshire, after all offered some of the best rock climbing in the country, and we could walk down to Stackpole in an hour or so from Orielton Field Study Centre where we were staying. So that was how Kathy and I ended up climbing together for the first time. We did one route that Kathy led, which pushed my abilities to the limit but we completed it without major difficulty. The difference in abilities was obvious both in terms of what we could climb but also in the research we had done. Kathy had done her homework and knew what she wanted to climb, for me the main point of being there was to be outside with one of my best friends. And so when Kathy asked me if I would like to lead something I had no idea what was here or how hard it might be. I just ended up plumping for a route that Kathy had described as a classic as we climbed down to the foot of the cliff.
What happened after that was almost inevitable. I started up the route and for about a third of it everything was going okay. But the situation rapidly deteriorated after that. Kathy had given me some of her new climbing anchors which were a new design – so called ‘friends’. This was necessary here because the cracks tended to be tapered outwards and so the usual types (which rely on being jammed into a crack that is narrower at its mouth than it is deeper inside) would not work. These so called ‘friends’ were on a cam and could grip on the side of an opening crack. I had never used these before (partly, to be honest, because they were very expensive) and only had a hazy notion of how to use them safely. Things started to unravel about ten metres up as I fumbled around trying to get one of these friends to lock into a crack, finally I achieved it and looped to rope through the karabiner. But it had taken a long time and I was getting tired. This was the crux of the climb and I managed to get another few metres, but by this time adrenaline was making my legs shake. I badly needed to get more protection into the cliff and tried several times to persuade another friend to stay in a crack. I could get nothing to grip. I looked down, it was a long way and nothing softer than solid rock. I knew I could go on no further and I started to climb down, but this was too hard. I lost hold of the cliff and fell. Normally this can be saved by your climbing partner, the rope attached to the upper climber runs through the protection placed on the climb and down to the other person. As long as the last piece of gear is closer to the upper climber than the ground then a fall can be arrested before that climber hits the ground. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case.
I crashed into the ground, a very hard rock platform at the base of the cliff. As often happens the brunt of the fall was taken by my hands which I had instinctively thrown out as I fell. There was a lot of pain in my hands and arms, but I was at least alive. I tried to brave it out and claimed that I was not really hurt. Kathy was furious and did not hold back on expressing her opinions about how stupid I had been as she scrambled up the cliff to take out the few pieces of protection I had managed to insert into the cliff. I just managed to climb up the easiest route to the top of the cliff and we spent a miserable night in a tent at the top of the cliff before walking back to Orielton the next morning.
We had a few more days work to do before returning to Bristol. I should have gone to hospital but I did not want to, I was trying to keep up the pretence that I was fine. This continued to such an extent that I went on a two-week trip to the Austrian Alps with another friend immediately after returning from Pembrokeshire. Incidentally this trip was also rather disastrous, as I managed to drop my rucksack with all my money, my passport and many other things from the first peak we climbed down thousands of metres to the glacier below. This meant that I had no means of paying for anything, and ate almost nothing for the remaining time.
I was finally forced to go to hospital when I got back from Austria, mainly because it was obvious something was wrong, my right wrist was swollen and badly bruised. My parents made me go and get an X-ray at Nevill Hall Hospital where a broken scaphoid was diagnosed in my right wrist. My arm was put in plaster but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the broken bone never fused. And ever since then I cannot bend my right wrist back beyond about 45˚ and it aches whenever it is cold or if there is high humidity. A constant reminder of youthful stupidity.