Today I’m learning how to use crutches and I feel so lucky I’ve never needed them before. Credit to anyone who’s used crutches for an extended period of time – I really feel for you! It looks like i’ll be stuck with them for around 6 weeks due to a big tear in my calf muscle. And all because I tried to start a new craze; the ‘Mountain A Day Challenge’.
My friend Marina and I were supposed to climb a different mountain every day for a week. We had a great climb on Monday when we took on Esja. But it all came to an abrupt end on day two when I tried to race her son Svenni to the top of Helgafell. I was convinced Svenni had thrown a rock at me because that’s exactly what it felt like when the muscle ripped. And I feel pretty bad for accusing a 10 year old child of foul play, but I was so confused about what had happened!
To begin with we were quite optimistic; I slid down as far as I could on my backside. And then Marina had a go at carrying me on her back. But very soon we found ourselves on slippery broken rocks and realized it was way too precarious, so we resigned ourselves to calling the Icelandic mountain rescue service.
This is where things got interesting… As soon as the word of my predicament got out, the mountain rescue service, police force, fire service, ambulance service and media turned up for the occasion!
The first to arrive were a couple of breathless doctors who hiked up on foot carrying big bulky medical cases. They immediately got to work trying to find a vein to pump morphine into, but I’d been sitting on an exposed ridge in cold and rain for a couple of hours so this proved to be rather difficult. I don’t suppose veins enjoy staying close to the surface when it’s so chilly. After three painful attempts the doctor asked me “has anyone told you, you have terrible veins?!”.
It got to the point where he was pulling my arm out taut and almost bending my elbow back just so he could wiggle the needle in deeper. Admittedly, all his jabbing around became more painful than the injury he was treating, so eventually I asked if it was really necessary. He was very strict and confirmed that, yes it was. So I sat still and went to my happy place until he got what he needed.
The real fun started with the arrival of the helicopter. There was nowhere flat for it to land so all the medics had to abseil down on ropes to get me onto a stretcher. It was all very dramatic, like watching a SWAT rescue operation. One second there were just a couple of us on the mountainside and the next there were men everywhere. It was a bit of a shock to be engulfed in the roar of a chopper and blasted with icy air from the rotor blades after sitting on a silent mountainside for so many hours. It was as if we’d stumbled into a category five hurricane! My poor friend Marina (the Mother of my child competitor) had been waiting with me and was shivering even before the whirlybird turned up. But instead of being wrapped up in something warm she was given the job of sheltering me from the freezing air whilst they prepared the stretcher. Honestly, I felt rather sheepish as I knew she was colder than me – she’d been complaining of cold even before we started the trek!
Once on the stretcher I was swaddled in a woollen blanket with just a tiny slit around my eyes. It’s an odd feeling to be injected with a tranquilizer and then be placed into a straight jacket. It did cross my mind that I might be having a psychotic episode and was in the process of being carted off to the mental ward! But I was so high, I didn’t really care. Instead, I just enjoyed the experience of having my face buried into the warm and rather plesant smelling armpit of a man crouched over my face trying to shelter me from the helicopter gale.
And then just like that, I was whisked into the air and could feel myself dangling helplessly around on the rope. The last thing anyone on the ground heard of me was a muffled scream fading into the distance as I was carried away across the lava field.
I’m not sure how long I’d been swinging flimsily back and forth through the air, trailing beneath the chopper, but it became apparent that the rotor blades were getting uncomfortably close. It’s quite unnerving to lie on your back staring at the dark silhouette of giant blades against a barren sky, and to know you’re moving steadily towards them.
There came a point where I was so close to the blades that I gave myself up to being completely consumed by them. It was like I was a disposable character in the SAW franchise. Why couldn’t I be the hero for goodness sake! But then the stretcher swung underneath the body of the helicopter and I was stuck there for a while before a pair of hands pulled me around to the open door. For a moment I anticipated a new deadly scenario; death by accidental skydive. Because as they hoisted me in, the pallet tilted and I felt myself begin to slip out feet first into the void. Fortunately they steadied me quickly and finally I was safe inside the solid interior.
First things first, I had a snug pair of ear mufflers placed around my head and then I spent the rest of the journey feeling like I was tucked up in a cocoon in a giant vibrating box. In my drugged up state I imagined I was a caterpillar in a chrysalis waiting to hatch. I was really getting into the idea that I would become a super-awesome butterfly when I noticed a man with a bushy red beard peering into my face and making a thumbs up gesture. I realised that I was shivering rather violently which seemed odd because I had felt fine on the mountain. I wasn’t really sure what to do so I just blinked my eyes at him like paralyzed people do to communicate in movies. I might have overdone it a bit as, after I’d been flapping my eyelids wildly for a while, he sat back looking vaguely perplexed. I wondered if he thought I was trying to communicate in morse code and the baffled look was him feeling uncomfortable that he didn’t know morse code. And then it occured to me that perhaps he thought I was coming onto him. Afterall, how often do women flutter their eyelids so frantically at men unless they’re speaking in morse code, having a fit, or flirting?
Eventually we landed and Mr Thumbs-up made an disturbingly hasty escape. Then lots of new faces appeared in white coats. I pondered whether my travel companion had radioed in about my over-enthusiastic eyes, and that perhaps I was being carted off to the mental ward. But while I processed this, the people in white coats placed me onto a trolly and began wheeling me along through pouring rain. At this point I felt completely paralyzed, like my limbs were no longer a part of my body. Rain pelted onto my eyeballs and yet I couldn’t move my arms to wipe it away. I also forgot that I had the ability to blink so I just let the stinging droplets pummel my pupils until we entered the hospital building.
I was transferred into a wheelchair and then realised that I was repeatedly being asked if I was ok. But I was so spaced out that I could hardly speak. So instead I just stared fiercely into the eyes of the person talking and tried to communicate telepathically. I willed them to understand that I was extremely fine. In fact, I was probably the best I’d ever been in my whole life!
Fortunately by the time a nurse could see me I’d recovered the power of speech but was shivering pretty hard. I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that I was soaked through with rain so I was given some nice warm, unflattering hospital pajamas to wear and immediately started to feel better.
The first doctor suspected I’d torn my achilles tendon but was confused when there was no pain in my ankle. So after a 2nd, 3rd and 4th opinion I was sent for an ultrasound. I had to lie on my front so I couldn’t see what the doctor was doing and there was an awkward moment when I thought the doctor had spit on my leg. The morphine lead to me to be very open about my suspicions and I asked him straight “Did you just spit on me?”. He was silent for a while before explaining in an embarrassed tone that no, it was just the sound of gel squirting from a tube.
Eventually, the medics agreed that my achilles tendon was fine (I had a lucky escape – it would have been awful if that had snapped!), and the problem was a rip in my gastrocnemius. (That big muscle at the back of the calf).
And there you have it. The inside story of what happened on the mountain! And although I’m pretty chuffed that the Icelandic newspapers reported on this ridiculous incident, my version probably makes more sense than the versions emerging from google translate! (I concede that the translated versions are vastly more entertaining though!)
I do want to say a massive thank you to Marina who made all the calls to the rescue services and stayed with me until the rescue team arrived. She also pulled some strings to get that chopper out to me super fast. Marina, you’re an awesome friend!
And thank you to the lovely family who sat with us for a while and gave me their packed lunch so that I wouldn’t get hungry out there! People are so kind and I was ridiculously grateful for those sandwiches hours later at the hospital!
And thank you to all of the rescue team and emergency services for looking after me so well. Not many people outside Iceland realise that these are volunteers. Yet they are so professional and world class at what they do. You’re my heros! Thank you for taking my plight so seriously and I’m sorry for making so many of you visibly uncomfortable.
And finally, to the doctor who against the odds managed to get morphine into my tricky veins, thank you for not giving up. It was totally worth the additional pain. That was SERIOUSLY good stuff!