Accident Analysis: Ankle agony at Arapiles

Sunday 19 September 2021, 5:59pm -- Pete Harris
Pete's swollen ankle in the Gums campgrounds at Arapiles

The Cankle, a day or two post-injury

Creator: 
Pete Harris

Everyone enjoys a little voyeurism from time to time, and if it can be combined with a spot of education, then we all come away a little better off – regardless of your proclivities. As such, here goes a brief accident analysis of a climbing fall – replete with (mildly) gory details, some photos, and some lessons from the trenches.

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A couple of years ago now (back in the good old days before pangolins put paid to international travel), I was party to one of the many infamous New Zealand Easter expeditions to Arapiles. I’ll save from extolling the virtues of how wonderous the Promised Land is, in light of the two-year hiatus most of New Zealand has had from the Best Western crag, but needless to say, back in 2019 the weather was perfect, the days long, gravity low and company exceptional.

Pete Harris on Have a Good Flight (25), Arapiles

Pete Harris on the climb Have a Good Flight (25), Arapiles

The authour on 'Have a Good Flight' (25) at Arapiles in 2019

Creator: 
Erin Specht
Even yours truly, in something of a coup, was climbing better than average – likely due to a combination of a rapid weight loss program that would put Jenny Craig to shame (kidney infection, thanks TWALK), and training for a longish run around the same time. Fast forward to about day five of the trip, and after a jaunt up Aardvark (interestingly, not as closely related to a pangolin as you might expect), we wandered around to join the queue for super-classic, Tannin, on Red Wall. A surprisingly smooth onsight had me feeling fairly satisfied with the state of the nation, and with Team New Zealand having since arrived and taken over Red Wall, I didn’t hesitate to jump on The Wraith right next door, with the luxury of pre-placed gear.

The route description for The Wraith begins, “Once a ferocious reputation route…”, and it would have served me well to have a little more regard for that. Surprisingly, for someone who can barely remember what they did yesterday, I can still recall exactly how I messed up the crux sequence. While I recall paying a cursory glance at the pre-placed pro, subsequent events clearly show this didn’t pass muster. Mid-way through trying to untangle myself in the crux, I had that sinking feeling of sliding off some crimps, and next thing I know, I’m on a downwards trajectory with reasonably good prospects of squishing Jaz on belay in the process.

If you’ve ever wondered (very specifically) about the holding power of one set of lobes on your Black Diamond X4, 0.4 cam, I can attest to the fact it’s less than one Pete falling onto it from a metre or two above (more technically, likely less than 1kN). The 0.4 cam could not get out of the wall fast enough, but the day was somewhat saved by a small wire, which I no doubt welded into the wall for time immemorial. I cratered into a rather unpleasant, uneven landing just like a cat – feet first, before crumbling into an unceremonious heap.

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Key takeaways at this point were: thank god for helmets (RIP my beloved pink meteor), force transfer manifests in funny ways – such as very tight Velcro climbing shoes spontaneously ripping off your foot, and why on earth do we still have a tailbone.

Subsequent takeaways in the immediate aftermath included the following pro-tips:

  • In a busy ED such as the Horsham Hospital, it’s handy if you can tell the triage nurse that you just had a fall from about 8 metres up and hit your head – you’re almost guaranteed to bypass the queue of people who have been waiting for hours;
  • Doctors and nurses are much more concerned about your neck/head and cankle following such a fall, than they are about your coccyx – even if you continually tell them that your arse is in fact the thing that hurts the most;
  • Helmets – wear them kids – no-one thinks you’re cool with a head injury.

Pete's Ankle post-accident

Pete's swollen ankle in Horsham Hospital

Pete's ankle in the immediate aftermath in Horsham Hospital, before the bruising (and pain meds) kicked in

Creator: 
Jaz Morris
In all seriousness, I do want to reflect briefly on what was clearly the singular screw-up in this situation: namely climbing on someone else’s preplaced gear and not checking each and every piece as if I’d just placed it. The route had been led, lowered, climbed on top rope, and lowered again – all through the same gear. No matter how good such gear was initially, all these things could affect the gear, and regardless, I should have checked the gear I was climbing on.

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Despite the impact primarily affecting my right ankle, imaging over the next few months showed little, and I was fully weight bearing shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, I had a lengthy history of spraining my right ankle fairly regularly over the previous 10 years (the first, when it got stuck beneath a rock on the Tasman moraine – I went forwards; my ankle did not). In the six months that followed, the ankle continued to plague me – with further serious sprains falling down Lady Mac in Canmore, and – like a proper geriatric – at the bouldering wall.

Finally, with delays due to some other medical crises, I finally had surgery in late 2020. Largely from the 2019 fall, the impact of the landing on my feet had left me with a tear of my peroneus brevis tendon, severely damaged CF & ATFL ligaments, a crushed deltoid ligament, bone fragments in the joint, and tibial bone lesions (likely from the history of ankle sprains).

Internal Ankle Montage.jpg

Intra-operative images of Pete's ankle

A montage of intra-operative images of Pete's ankle - with obvious bone spurs/fragments, and the final image showing a bleeding crater, created to form a nicely lubed joint surface

Creator: 
Image supplied

Somewhat surprisingly to me, despite the relatively minor nature of the surgery (cf: this one from the history books from the comeback queen – Rose) recovery has been a lengthy process. Given my reconstructed and intentionally tight ankle, it has been a process to regain both strength and mobility, running and climbing. However, just shy of a year since surgery, having heel-hooked my way across my first roof post-surgery on a recent trip to the Promised Land, it’s feeling like we’re rounding the bend.

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Arapiles 2021.jpg

Pete Harris climbing on Watchtower LHS 2021

The authour on Watchtower Left-side on a recent Arapiles trip

Creator: 
Erin Specht