Churchman’s Brook accident ending with fractured heel and ankle

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Being fairly new to traditional climbing, I was keen to try out my new rack of climbing gear. I have over seven years of sport climbing experience but had only led my first trad climbs in Albany at the beginning of 2021. I had just returned from an exhilarating weekend with CAWA in the Stirling Ranges, where we climbed some stunning multi-pitch trad routes, and I was hooked.

Nailbite top-out: Lily, Michelle & Jiri

This was only my second visit to Churchman’s; the first time I successfully led Pink Knickers grade 12 on the Fang wall with my new trad gear, just prior to the Stirling Ranges trip. I knew that I needed more practice and experience. To date, I have seconded more trad routes than led, from Kalbarri to Albany.
I arrived at the car park to meet with two fellow climbers, Linda and Merel, who both have extensive trad climbing experience. We decided to try First Route, 30m of grade 15 on the Fang wall, as our first climb of the day.  I watched the first climber ascend, taking note of areas where I might possibly struggle. I asked her to leave gear above the small cave overhang (crux), and her anchor at the top. As she descended, she cleaned the rest of her gear to allow me to practice placing my own. As I racked up, inspecting the route, my fellow climbers pointed out a placement for a large cam near the start, which size I did not have.  However, I declined the offer to borrow a larger cam as I thought I could get gear in a bit higher.

After doing safety checks I set off, climbing past the lower large crack with the intention of placing gear in the narrower crack above. I had my left hand on a side pull and left foot on a small foothold. There was a ledge higher up where I thought I could get a secure right-hand grip, allowing me to free my left hand in order to place gear. In order to reach the ledge, I had to shift my left foot over to gain some height. I matched feet but as I reached up for the ledge, I found that it was very slopey, and I frantically grasped around trying to find a more positive edge.  As I moved my outstretched right arm, I suddenly lost traction on the left-hand side pull. I felt myself slipping and called out “falling…Oh s#2*t…falling!” It all happened so quickly – I recall trying to break my fall and then I was on the ground. Fortunately, I missed the protruding sharp rocks below.

My belayer did her job brilliantly and stopped my head and upper torso from hitting the ground, and so my feet took the force of the fall. I immediately noticed throbbing in my right ankle, and I felt a shooting pain as I tried to rest my left heel on the ground.  I did not suffer any abrasions or loss of consciousness. My fellow climbers made me as comfortable as they could after assessing my status. They removed my shoes promptly, and also the rope and gear. I kept my helmet on. Later they were able to remove my harness.  My belayer called the emergency services and using the Emergency Plus App was able to advise the call centre of the exact location of the accident.

Two paramedics arrived promptly around 20 minutes after the call. They did an extensive evaluation of the cause of the accident and the extent of my injuries. I was given some painkillers (fentanyl and paracetamol) to allay the pain.  The paramedics (Francis and Chris) realised that they would not be able to extract me on their own, and called the volunteer fire crew to help stretcher me to the ambulance. Four firemen arrived within 20 minutes and a makeshift splint was made to hold my right ankle steady and I had to wear a neck brace as a fireman used my trousers to lift me onto a stretcher. I was strapped down and carried out by 2 to 4 people up the steep and often narrow path to the ambulance.

It was taken to Royal Perth Hospital to be admitted to the orthopaedic trauma ward, which took 45 minutes. The accident and emergency department were extremely busy and I witnessed ramping of 10 ambulances first-hand. After thorough spinal checks, I was finally cleared. Nineteen X rays later a fractured left heel (calcaneus) and a shattered tibia with 4 to 5 fractures of the adjoining ankle bones (tibial plafond displaced fracture) was diagnosed. Around 7 pm, an initial attempt to decompress the fracture manually and then application of a cast was unsuccessful and the following day I had to have surgery to install temporary external fixation to hold the bones in place whilst the swelling subsided.

Photo: Jeff Robson

I was transferred to Bentley hospital for 18 days until the 31st of March when I was transferred back to RPH for surgery to fix screws and plates to my right ankle. The surgery was successful, and I was discharged 4 days later. On the 11th of April, I returned to RPH to have the sutures removed and the left heel X rayed.
Rehab and physiotherapy will be planned for my next appointment in May.
I would like to add that Merel and Linda have been incredibly supportive in recounting the accident that day and no blame or fault was placed on anyone but myself. I also want to thank the overwhelming response and concern of the wonderful climbing community in visiting, well-wishing and genuine messages and generous offerings of help, treats and support. I am doing well and on the road to recovery and return to the sport I love so much.

See you all very soon. Lily


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