Derby Mountain Rescue Team member and former Royal Marine Pat Parsons recalls the moment his perfect life changed forever, his rescue and recovery from a serious climbing accident, and ultimately how this led him to join the MRT that had been there for him.
“How lucky can you be?” This was my retirement dream and I was finally living it – taking people climbing for pleasure and actually getting paid for it was about as good as it could get - my cup was overflowing. Or so I thought.
The suddenness with which blissful contentment can be replaced by despair was the thing I found most shocking. There was no warning, no preamble, no time to think about what it all meant.
My first memory was just sitting there, covered in ropes at the bottom of the crag, stunned. It was like waking up from a dream and not quite knowing where you are. The dream evaporated however to be replaced by reality – and increasing pain. Looking down to my feet, they somehow felt detached, as if they were no longer mine and subconsciously I registered this to be an ominous sign. My next thought was for my clients, they looked at me aghast. I know that look; I’ve seen it before and I don’t like it. I try to reassure them that all is well and it was not their fault that I fell off.
A piece of rock had snapped off and within a couple of seconds my world had changed forever. The fearless marine was about to morph into something much more vulnerable.
Pat Parsons; Royal Marines Mountain Leader
But that was all in the future; the present situation demanded some speedy but careful action which was provided in full by the Derby Mountain Rescue Team. Subconsciously I think I knew I had broken my back but I didn’t want to face that yet and the MR boys had me immobilised on a stretcher and pumped full of morphine in no time at all so that when the helicopter arrived I was positively buzzing with the excitement of the moment.
They had done their job magnificently and had expertly and compassionately reassured me through some moments which should have been quite terrifying. At the time, I took their actions for granted but in reality, they had just performed a small miracle.
In hospital, I had plenty of time to reflect on the facts that led me here. I’d been climbing and mountaineering for 37 years and was just starting to believe I was getting the hang of it. Big mountains and big adventures from a life of soldiering had shaped me and prepared me for any challenge a Royal Marines Mountain Leader could expect to face.
Pat Parsons climbing Phabrang in India, 1980
But that had just changed: how was it going to help an ‘incomplete paraplegic’ with a burst fracture of the T12 vertebra, which was the diagnosis and my new reality. I left hospital after 2 months and over the next year or so I learned to walk again progressing from wheelchair, to crutches, to sticks and considered myself very lucky to do so. My spinal injury was a permanent one which left my legs and feet partially paralysed and I learnt about the bowel & bladder issues and pain management that spinal injury patients routinely have to deal with.
Denial worked well for a while but soon the reality of my new situation hit me hard. Confidence and self-esteem were shredded and there had to be a grieving process to let go of the old me before the recovery could begin.
Pat's only photograph of himself in a wheelchair
The accident was a turning point and ever since I have doggedly propelled myself along a road to recovery. This road takes the form of a series of milestones, each of which is like a building block for something new. It’s not about re-creating the past because that has all gone. It’s more about adapting what I have left and restoring my self-belief and confidence. Unsurprisingly, mountains feature heavily along this road, as they did before.
The first milestone was just standing up from my hospital bed and walking a few steps to the window to see the world beyond. It exhausted me but it was a triumph – like all the subsequent milestones: riding a bicycle, rock climbing again (with adaptive foot-supports), climbing mountains like Triglav and Mt Blanc and more recently cycling across the length of the Pyrenees. And every time I get frustrated by my lack of mobility (which occasionally happens!) I just remind myself how much worse it could have been and how lucky I really am. I rejoice in the moment.
Pat Parsons still on the journey to recovery; ski touring in Norway, 2018
I was told by the medical people that after a couple of years my recovery would plateau and there would be no further improvement. It is now 10 years since my accident and I know that this is simply not true; for I shall never step off that road to recovery. Some call it ‘recovery through adventure’ some just call it ‘adapting’; it may be physical it may be psychosomatic - doesn’t matter. In great part, it’s a state of mind. Ironically the limiting factor for most of my milestones has also been a state of mind – that of my own lack of self-belief: “I just can’t do it” I would say. To which one of my best friends replied “Bollocks, you bloody well can climb Mt Blanc – and you will”! And he was right, thank you for that JB!
This lack of self-belief manifested itself recently when we were out walking in the Peak District. We came across a Mountain Rescue exercise which really pricked my interest. I commented to Nicky, my wife, “I would have loved to have joined the Mountain Rescue” and, in a similar vein to my friend JB, she replied “So bloody well get on and do it”! She had just turned the key and opened a new door.
I am now a proud member of the very same team that came to my rescue all those years ago. I’ve completed the training and have been awarded my red jacket and have been truly humbled by the commitment and professionalism demonstrated by these unpaid volunteers – heroes every one of them. I have learned many things with the Mountain Rescue, including the art of followership (which I am rather enjoying!) and, while occasionally I struggle to keep up with them, I also occasionally have something to offer and this is proving to be another huge milestone on my road to recovery. So now, more than ever perhaps, I say to myself “How lucky can you be?”
Pat Parsons is awarded the 'Red Jacket,' July 2017
Pat Parsons runs mountain holiday company Middle Mountains along with his wife Nicky, and is a member of Derby Mountain Rescue Team