Waking up to the dull ache in my upper legs served as an instant reminder of a harrowing ordeal during the final day of the Winelands Open in Porterville. The mild hangover of celebratory relief brought some respite: There is something quite unique about the experience of watching a really close friend going through some apparently fatal manoeuvres on a cliff at speed flopping around like a rag-doll absorbing multiple hits from immoveable chunks of the mountain.
The task committee set a creative task that gave you a world of choice cancelled by the conditions that confined us to a high speed ridge race with the wind strengthening cross-on from the south. On a regular day as leader of a competition I would regard this as a gift, but not this day…
There were three of us racing hard in front of the field half way through the last task. We had taken the turn point on the ridge and were headed back when Andrew took a violent and irrecoverable collapse meters from the cliff on the northern side of a big gorge. By the time he took a third full body blow tumbling down the cliff my mind had already accepted that no animal could survive such violence. I watched Stefan Schmoker take a fatal hit in Valle in 2009 and this seemed ten times worse. It took about a minute of frozen animation and horror before the unexpected and desperately urgent appeal came through from Andrew on the radio in ragged anguish: 'Please send the chopper now!'. Before I knew what was happening I exited my spiral dive and flared hard hitting the steep slope in the only spot of the lee that seemed like it might accommodate a landing and thumped in about 100m above and to the north of Andrew's position.
Crashing madly through the fyn-bos and hearing Andrew telling me not to panic brought irrational relief. I squashed the standard retort thinking there could be no head injuries if he was conscious enough to be insufferable at a time like this. If the truth be told, my premature relief was absolute.
Andrew is probably the toughest bastard I know. Strong, fit, resourceful and determined with a lifetime of war stories to be told. I found him lying on his side on steep slope clinging to some roots. I quickly wedged some flat rocks under his butt to stop him sliding. He had managed to unclip his harness and dig his radio out before broadcasting a concise self-appraisal (which turned out to be accurate) and urgent instructions to despatch a helicopter. All within a minute of coming to rest. Between a rock and a hard place doesn't even come close! I did a quick check trying to remember my trauma training as a medic in the army in the early 90’s. What was it that SOB corporal Schutte taught us?
I checked his head, eyes, pulse and breathing before looking for breaks. The wrist was easy to spot: off-set by an inch and pointing at a funny angle. I felt two broken ribs and he 'reported' sensitivity on his spine (ok, so he shouted at me). I couldn't hear any gurgling in his chest and his abdomen seemed normal with no whining when I prodded looking for internal injuries. Andrew was in huge pain which was growing. The pain was clearly communicated by the timbre of his voice when he told me it was too painful to speak.
I was feeling inadequate and cursing myself for not having paid more attention during my military training, but I came to the conclusion that he would probably live and walk normally again so I provided some shade with a packing bag and went and stood to one side to take a deep breath, to speak on the radio and to make some phone calls.
A couple of pilots hung about and guided the medics down to us. We had a drip up in minutes and then broke out the morphine and dormicum. I knew the morphine was kicking in when Andrew started speaking again (in a clear voice). The helicopter arrived within the hour and dropped two more rugged mountain rescue types.
The morphine didn't last long as the wrist was niggling. Rob, the medic, had pumped enough morphine into Andrew to paralyse a horse along with enough dormicum to pacify an injured elephant. Yet Andrew still grabbed my arm and looked at me with pin prick pupils and the slit blue eyes of an addict and almost begged me to do something about the pain in his arm. There was nothing more to do so I told him to 'suck it up' and 'stop whining' which earned a dazed look of loathing just as the helicopter returned to pick up the 'package'.
I had the dubious privilege of scrambling back up the mountain with Andrew's kit.
Walking down the mountain with two sets of kit was not an option so: I looked for a launch place; bunched my glider with a wing tip presenting into the howling wind; strapped the extra glider to my caribiners on my lap; and executed a sit-down-wingtip-reverse-pull-up-off-a-cliff-flying-backwards launch that no-one teaches and which would have made Mike Kung proud!
Andrew ended up with a messy fracture of the left arm/wrist; fracture of L1 vertebrae; two broken ribs; three broken toes; and a cracked sternum. He has survived five hours of surgery and is in good spirits recovering in Cape Town.
As for the competition… It doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore but our team won any way and they gave me enough points for the last day to win the overall individual competition. The biggest irony has to be receiving the Andrew Smith Trophy for the best performing south African on a serial wing (which happens to be the end of a wine barrel some forty inches in diameter weighing in at thirty pounds). As if I need a reminder of an excessively emotional day.
Many thanks to Waldo and his team for a world class comp. Thanks also to RobM, Nicky, Henry, Khobi, Dudley, Rob and the rescue team among others who were willing and able to step up on a rough and demanding day.