Tom Richardson 'Judgement Days' Extract

Mountaineer and author Tom Richardson experiences a near miss in the mountains. Was it simply optimism that saved his life?

I led over a couple of easy snow mounds and was about to start the steepest section on the ridge so far when Dave announced from below that he couldn’t go on. The altitude was too much for him. Initially I was shocked, but if he felt that he couldn’t, then he couldn’t. He knew best how he was. We would descend.

We paused for a few moments to take some photographs and absorb the view. Camp 2, far below, looked like two tiny brightly-coloured ladybirds on a huge sheet of white paper.

We began our descent with Dave going first and me behind. When we reached the notorious and now snow-free slab, we realised that we could not retrace our steps. Without the snow cover we could not cross it. After a bit of exploration we found a steep, loose gully leading down on the Camp 2 side of the ridge. I made a belay just below the top of the ridge and Dave descended with me giving him a rope from above. He down climbed about 30 metres before reaching a bank of snow that gave a route back to the ridge and the col. Below the snow bank there was a series of long drops towards the valley floor. Dave slithered the final few metres in the loose rock and snow before finally coming to rest.

It was then my turn to descend. I t was vital to do everything right. Panting hard with fear and the altitude, I secured myself with a sling and arranged the rope to abseil down the gully. As I was abseiling on the rope double, I only reached about two-thirds of the way down. Concentrating hard I carefully secured myself again, tied one end of the rope to myself in case I dropped it and pulled the rope through the anchor above. All went well. I set up a second anchor on a big rock spike to make another abseil which would get me down to Dave. I abseiled carefully, stepping down gently, finding footholds in the loose rock with my crampons to avoid putting too much strain on the anchor and to avoid knocking stones down onto Dave who was huddled at the side of the gully below me. I reached the snow slope not far from him. What a relief!

After catching my breath and exchanging a few words, I pulled on the rope to retrieve it from the anchor, but this time it jammed solid. It just wouldn’t move. So near to safety, I could have cried, but this time I was focused on getting down. I knew I had no alternative but to climb back up and free it. I tied on to one end of the rope in the vain hope that if it all went wrong something might hold me. I had to solo the steep, loose gully and if anything went wrong Dave could do little to help me. Breathless and frightened I arrived back at the abseil point. I secured myself again and unhooked the rope from the projection on which it had jammed below the anchor point.

I arranged the abseil again, untied myself and gently began to abseil down. About halfway down the block on which the rope was anchored and from which I had abseiled before suddenly gave way. I fell backwards through the air, off the cliff and hit the steep snow slope well below Dave. I tumbled down it initially head first on my back, but managed to turn round. My ice axe, attached with a sling on my wrist, was out of reach. The slope only had a light snow cover on it with rocks underneath. I started sliding fast towards the drop below. I clawed at the slope with my hands, my face, my feet, anything to try and stop. Eventually I did. Then a torrent of snow and rocks from above caught up and swept over me nearly setting me off over the lip, but I held on.

In my diary soon after the event I calculated that I must have fallen several hundred feet. Probably a wild exaggeration, but it was far enough. I stood up and brushed myself down. The only damage was a broken filter on my camera, lost sun glasses and a rip in my wind suit. Thank God for my helmet. I untangled the rope which had wrapped itself around my body and called up for Dave. I rather expected him to be sheltering from the onslaught at the base of the gully, but there was no sign of him. I couldn’t understand it. Could he have been swept down from his perch by all the rocks that came down with me? Oh God! With no real purpose I summoned as much breath as possible and called out his name in a hoarse croak. There was no response.

Eventually, much to my relief, I saw him far below underneath the cliff I had struggled not to fall off. He had witnessed the whole thing and had thought that one of the large boulders that flew past him, down the slope and over the cliff was me. He had found a route round to the base and was desperately searching for me amongst the debris.

Despite all of this we soon regained the ridge lower down and then the col. Not long after, Rod and Sue returned from their reconnaissance of the other peak. They had seen the whole thing too and, after checking that I was okay (which, I was surprised myself, I seemed to be), expressed optimism about a possible route to the summit.

Later again in my diary I wrote that, “I knew I wasn’t going to die when I fell.” As I write this now I would say that it is a great illustration of both the power of self delusion and the fact that I didn’t die, but doesn’t prove that my optimistic mantra was right. On the other hand optimism in the face of contradictory evidence might be the ingredient that makes you claw the snow to slow and stop you before you go over the cliff. Without the fight I think I would have gone over.

Judgement Days is out now on High Peak Books.


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