Hanging on: An injured climber’s rescue story
A climber is trapped on the side of a cliff with a badly fractured ankle – and no phone signal to call for help. Here’s what happened next.
It was a bright, sunny day on Friday 28 January, and Polly and her husband Hugh were heading off on a weekend break. ‘I'd taken the day off work – we were going to Dorset to climb because we knew the weather was going to be really great,’ she recalls.
The pair arrived in Swanage, a coastal town in Dorset, ready to climb at Anvil Point. The steep cliffs, not far from the Anvil Point Lighthouse, are very popular with climbers. ‘You get a completely different perspective on the cliffs and sea when you’re a climber,’ says Polly. ‘I just love outdoor climbing – I’m a big one for nature.’
The plan was to abseil down the cliff and then climb back up. ‘We were traditional climbing, where you leave nothing behind you at all,’ Polly explains. ‘The leader places their gear in the rock as they climb up, and the second person takes it all out. You leave the cliff as pristine as when you found it.’
‘We got there, set everything up, and my husband abseiled to the bottom of the cliff,’ says Polly. Then it was her turn. But as she began to lower herself down the cliff, the abseil swung. ‘I knew something was a bit wrong. I’d swung and wasn’t facing the cliff. I thought: “I need to get myself in, I need to get my feet back against the cliff.” As I started to swing my body round, I looked down at my legs. I could see my ankle was broken. I had an open fracture. My foot was pointing completely the wrong way. I was so shocked – I had no idea that had happened.’
‘That was my only moment of real fear’
‘I wasn't in pain at all at this point, I was just surprised and shocked,’ remembers Polly. ‘I could see I was losing quite a lot of blood, so the thing I was most worried about was fainting and losing control of my abseil.’
She shouted down to her husband, Hugh. ‘That was my only moment of real fear,’ she says. ‘I was worried Hugh was too far away to understand what had happened, but he immediately shouted back: “OK, don't worry, I'm going to tie the abseil off.” He placed loads of gear in the rock to secure the abseil at the bottom, which meant I couldn’t slip down it.’
The thing I was most worried about was fainting and losing control of my abseil
Reassured she wouldn’t fall or lose control of the abseil, Polly turned her mind to her fractured ankle. ‘I decided it was important to get my leg up, not have it hanging down. I wedged my good leg against the cliff and put my broken leg on top of it to keep it up. There was a good hand hold on the cliff, so I braced myself on that. And I had the abseil rope in my other hand. What I didn't want to do was swing against the cliff. That would have been really bad.’
Calling for help
With Polly hanging from the cliff, it was up to Hugh to call for help. But there was no phone signal at the bottom of the cliff and their only climbing rope was with Polly. ‘I was taking it down with me on the abseil,’ she explains. There was only one option: Hugh would have to climb up the cliff, alone and with no equipment. ‘I could see him climbing from where I was,’ says Polly. ‘I knew he could do it, as he's an experienced climber. But even so, he was doing it without any protection, while feeling very nervous and tense.’
As soon as Hugh reached the top of the cliffs, he checked on Polly. ‘He could see that I was alright – you know, all things considered,’ she remembers.
There wasn’t any signal at the top of the cliffs. Or at the nearby carpark where Polly and Hugh had been earlier. Hugh sprinted towards the Anvil Point Lighthouse, which was a few minutes from where they’d been climbing.
‘So then I was completely on my own, hanging off this cliff with an open fracture,’ recalls Polly. ‘I was bracing myself for him to be gone for ages. But luckily, there was an emergency phone on the lighthouse that put him straight through to the Coastguard.’
The lifeboats appear
‘Hugh came back, and we waited, and then we saw the lifeboats. The big all-weather lifeboat, and the smaller inshore one. I can't tell you how relieved I was to see them,’ remembers Polly. ‘I knew there was no way they were going to be able to rescue me from a lifeboat – I was really high up the cliff. But it was evidence that someone knew what was going on. Someone in authority.’
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the lifeboats
Swanage RNLI's inshore lifeboat carefully approached the foot of the cliffs. ‘One of the crew members came ashore and started signalling to me to check I was OK, which was really reassuring,’ says Polly. ‘And then the Coastguard arrived.’
Polly had been hanging from the cliffs for quite a while by this point. She was in a lot of pain, tired, and starting to feel cold. And it was getting increasingly difficult to hold her position against the cliff. ‘I think I was hanging there for about 2½ hours. My good leg was still braced against the cliff with the bad leg resting on it, and it kept shaking. I was worried it was just going to go, and I would bash into the cliff.’
My leg kept shaking … I was worried it was just going to go, and I would bash into the cliff
Just as she began to worry that she couldn’t hold that position for much longer, a Coastguard cliff rescue technician abseiled down to her. ‘She put me in a sort of sling,’ remembers Polly. ‘And I suggested tying my legs together, which she agreed was a good idea. And then she cut the rope I was on and abseiled really slowly, really skilfully, down the cliff with me. The lifeboat crew were at the bottom waiting. She said they’d have pain relief at the base of the cliff, so I was thinking “that’d be good!” I couldn’t wait to get down there.’
You can see the moment Polly and the cliff rescue technician reach the bottom of the cliff in the video below.
The crew takes the lead
‘Once we were at the bottom of the cliff, the lifeboat crew were in charge. They got me lying on a stretcher and tied me on,’ recalls Polly. ‘We were on a platform, but there was still a bit more cliff below it and then another platform, which had waves breaking on it. That’s where the lifeboat was.’
The Swanage RNLI crew members at the bottom of the cliff, Becky and Phil, began the tricky task of passing the stretcher over the gnarly rock beneath them and onto the inshore lifeboat.
‘The thing that amazed me was the lifeboat crew’s decision-making skills – what they were going to do and how they were going to do it,’ remembers Polly. ‘And they were so coordinated. You could see they were assessing the risks of different options all the time, incredibly fast. I found that very interesting and so impressive.’
Crew Member Becky Mack adds: ‘We don’t do these sorts of rescues often, but we know there’s always a chance of being called to climbers – it’s a popular spot for it. We practise extractions, although you never really know what you’ll need to do until you get there.’
The inshore lifeboat powered Polly to the Shannon class all-weather lifeboat, which was waiting further out to sea. ‘They passed me very carefully – they were trying so hard not to make it painful. It was really sweet, actually,’ she remembers. ‘I was on gas and air by this point and they kept telling me to take deep breaths, which calms you down.’
Once aboard the Shannon, Polly was taken inside the wheelhouse to warm up. And with their casualty safely onboard, the all-weather lifeboat made its way home to Swanage Lifeboat Station. There, Polly was greeted by her husband Hugh, taken by ambulance to the waiting helicopter, and then flown to hospital in Southampton.
The following morning, Polly had an operation on her ankle and stayed in hospital for just over a week. She’s since had a second operation and is still on crutches. ‘But I’m well on the mend now, out and about,’ she adds. Good news, as Polly is the CEO of the housing homelessness charity Shelter and has a busy schedule to keep up with.
Has she been put off climbing at all? ‘No! I’ve been doing a tonne of physio to keep myself strong and fit. The thing about climbing is, you have to learn to control your emotions – a very useful skill in life. I think there will be more of that. But I don’t want to stop climbing and I’m pretty sure I won’t.’
A message for the crew
‘Hugh went to thank the crew and give them a present from the both of us. But “thank you” doesn’t really cover it. They inspired me so much with their amazing teamwork and leadership skills, their courage, and the fact that they’re all volunteers. I’m passionate about charity – it’s the sector I work in – and I think they epitomise the best of charity in this country. I have so much respect and admiration for them.’