It was windy and had just started to sleet, I needed to find a sheltered tent site, I spotted something on the other side of a small scree slope behind three large boulders, each about ½ a tonne. I climbed the scree slope grabbed one of the rocks to climb over it when it moved. It was just balanced there! I stepped back, trying to not disturb the other rocks and push the first one back into position. Suddenly they all started to roll towards me, I did my best to get out the way and narrowly dodged the first two boulders but could not jump out the way of the last one. It rolled into my leg and squashed it between another boulder. Some how in the moment I managed to free my leg and came off extremely lightly, a small gash close to the bone and a sprained ankle. I don’t know how my leg was not squashed or broken into lots of pieces.
This was the first trip I had gone into the hills without my first aid kit and the one time I really needed it. Some steri-strips from a friendly climber sorted it out. I hobbled the twenty Km back to El Chalten the next day in 10 cm of fresh snow that had fallen that night. Back at Chalten I went to the hospital saw a doctor who advised me to do nothing and just take three precautionary antibiotics. I was shocked, the gash looked very angry, red and swollen. Two days later I revisited the hospital to get some more antibiotics and to get a second opinion. I took the steri-strips off this time to really show off the gash. By the time I got to the hospital the gash was oozing and gaping wide open. The new doctor ‘Doc’ decided stitches were the best option. It was almost four days since the accident. He said he would need to cut away the old tissue and expose the new, so that the skin could bond together. Doc cut away the old crusty parts of the gash then proceeded to soak it in hydrogen peroxide (this kills new tissue). Doc then soaked the gash in iodine (this also kills new tissue) and finally stitched it up. I asked for ten days worth of antibiotics because this is the standard amount prescribed in New Zealand. There was no questioning of allergies or correct dosages just a few pills thrown my way. I wondered about the health system in Argentina and worried about the gash and whether it would ever heal. Not only this but the antibiotics also had their own effect on my system.
I frantically dashed for the toilet but it was too late I had already soiled myself. I turned the shower on but there was no hot water, only a dribble from the cold tap. How could I clean myself and stop faeces from getting into the gash I thought to myself? I was starving having not eaten for six hours and had been cold all day sport climbing in an exposed location. I stood in the bathroom naked, cold and covered in my own faeces, a horrible smell entering my nose, making my stomach turn. In El Chalten and most of Argentina you are not allowed to flush toilet paper down the toilet as it can block the system, so you have to put the soiled paper in a bin next to the toilet. The bin odour was extra strong that day.
Doc told me to rest, but hanging around I felt like I was going crazy. I knew I shouldn’t be climbing but I needed to do something to keep sane.
Eight days later I returned to the hospital to get some supplies and have the stitches removed. I was fed up with the constant streams of diarrhea from the antibiotics I was taking and could not wait to finish them. I was about to drive 12 hours to Chile Chico on a nine day climbing trip, thinking my leg would be fine by now. I did not have time to get the doctor to remove the stitches so asked him for a scalpel, some dressings and a few more antibiotics. The gash should have been looking great at this stage but he still looked very red and angry with no real sign of improvement. I would poke at the skin around the gash and it would leave an indentation in my leg and stay that way for quite some time, not inspiring much confidence.
I removed the stitches in Chile Chico, in a tent, in the field by torch light. The next day while climbing I felt a wet sensation on my ankle ‘oh crap’ the gash was bleeding and my climbing shoe was becoming a sponge for all of the blood. The gash proceeded to ooze yellow liquid for the next 12 hrs and looked very sad and red.
At this point I was extremely over the gash and needed it to hurry up and heal, it had been fourteen days since the accident with no sign of improvement and I was over it. I decided to take the antibiotics I brought from New Zealand and redressed the gash.
I managed to climb for the rest of the trip without to much problem from the gash, but my ankle started to hurt more and more as the days went on….. it seemed the gash had distracted me from my ankle and as the days progressed the ankle started hurting more and more. This could also have been because I was jamming my feet into cracks each day and walking up and down steep rocky approaches to climb.
I got back to Chalten and went straight back to the hospital to get the gash dressed properly. I requested to see Doc, he looked at my leg and said ‘looks good, what we do now is pack it with sugar every day.’ I laughed nervously hoping he did not mean actual sugar and that it was some kind of joke, but out came the sugar. The nurse proceeded to pack it into the gash. I was sitting there trying to explain that it did not need sugar, all I needed was some steri-stips and that I could sort it out.
Each day I would get a message from Doc saying, ‘have you sugared the gash today? Send me a photo of you sugaring him’. I didn’t reply because I never sugared the gash, instead I taped him closed and covered him.
The next day I met a polish doctor in a bar, he looked at my leg and said ‘I have just the thing you need’ and proceeded to give me a small yellow pill. His instructions were to add the pill to ½ a cup of water, soak some gauze in the water and dress the gash with it daily for three days. He did not have enough English to be able to explain what was in the pill and what it was doing other then ‘it will work, trust me!’ in a very Polish accent
I did this. I felt as if I could trust him as he seemed like he knew his stuff.
A weather window presented itself and into the hills I went for six days to try to climb Cerro Torre. The gash had to face my smelly dirty socks daily. But the gash was actually looking better, the secret pill the Polish doctor gave me was working. It has now been five weeks since the accident and I am 98.9% better.
I wait, check the weather, ready for the next weather window and some luck to come my way…..