Andrew Collins' Warrumbungles Rescue

Andrew Collins was winched from the Warrumbungles recently. This is his story.

In the gathering dark of October 6 this year, my climbing partner and I scrambled onto the summit of Belougery Spire in the Warrumbungle National Park. On our last visit to the summit of Belougery, about 10 years previously by a different route, we had used two ropes. This meant we only needed to make one abseil on the descent. This time we only took one rope because we knew an additional abseil anchor point had been added to the descent route. This would mean two shorter abseils.

We had set off from camp before sunrise to climb “Out and Beyond”, at more than 300 metres one of Australia’s longest rock climbs. After signing the visitors’ book and taking in the amazing view of the Warrumbungles from the summit, we switched on our head torches and located the fixed abseil chains that marked the top of the descent route.

I abseiled first and the picture I took at the bottom of the first abseil shows us all smiles as my partner arrived, ready to pull our rope down, find its middle-marker, thread it through the abseil chain and throw the two even ends over the edge in preparation for doing the final abseil. After that we could scramble our way down and back to the ridge where we had earlier left a water bottle, and then on to our camp, a hot meal, a comfy bed and a well-earned sleep.

I have been climbing, caving and canyoning for more than 40 years. I have done probably well over 1000 abseils and never had a serious incident. It was late, we were tired and quite thirsty. But I was euphoric, and we fell into the trap that catches out so many mountaineers after they achieve their primary objective. Set auto pilot for the comparatively easy exercise of descending down the mountain, dreaming along the way of the food, warmth, comfort and safety that awaits at camp. Complacency had crept into our decision-making. Lack of attention to detail. Lack of regard for stock-standard routines that cause minimal inconvenience, but ensure safety. Like tying knots in both ends of the rope before tossing them over the edge. Like locating both ends of the rope and then coiling it from those ends, ensuring that the last coil picks up the mid-point of the rope. Like double-checking each other’s actions. Like all the things that hindsight screams at me every time I go backover what went wrong, any one of which would have averted a very near fatal fall.

The reality was the rope lengths weren’t equal. We had failed to accurately locate the dark smudges that mark the middle of the rope and hadn’t tied knots in the ends, which would have jammed in my abseil device and prevented my fall. I hadn’t ever needed knots in my previous 1000 abseils, so had foolishly discounted the possibility of making my first mistake on this particular night. As a consequence, when I got 10 or 15 metres down the cliff, I suddenly found myself free-falling backwards into the night. 

My partner suddenly saw and heard the loose end of the rope screaming through the ring of the abseil chain and made a futile but courageous effort to grab it and stop me falling. She received rope burns for her efforts. In a flash I disappeared into the darkness along with the rope, and the light-hearted, relatively care-free atmosphere of our big day out. My partner kept a climbing journal. This is what she wrote: “I assumed it was a fatal fall as there was no response from him, just a gurgling laboured breathing. This stopped after five min. After another 10 min the sound of rustling came from below, followed by moaning.”

I slowly regained my senses and the enormous weight of a dead climbing companion and good friend had been lifted off my partner’s shoulders. After an hour we engaged in a typical concussion conversation where the same questions are repeated endlessly. My conversation went along the lines of: “Where am I? What happened? Who are you? I thought we were kayaking.” After a while I regained my senses and diagnosed that I had probably broken up to six ribs, but apart from that I wasn’t too bad.

Sometime during the night I decided it was up to me to get back to camp and raise the alarm, as my partner was now stuck on top of the spire, with no rope, no water and (I thought) no way down. My recollection is that I collected the rope, carefully checking that I had the half-way mark this time, set up an abseil and descended further down the cliff. After getting the pain and my breathing under control I did this again until I could see from the silhouette of the ridgeline above me that I shouldn’t go any lower. As an indication of how badly smashed up I was, both physically and mentally, my memory is that I went a considerable distance and that it took hours, but apparently I only moved about 15-20 metres!

I laid out the rope underneath me to provide insulation and comfort and decided to rest until first light when I would bea ble to see the actual descent track. I had resolved that I would crawl a few kilometres on my hands and knees if necessary, to raise the alarm. Every couple of hours throughout the night my partner would yell down to me and I would yell back. Her last yell just after first light woke me up, so I’d obviously been able to get to sleep for a while at least. 

She then devised a brilliant and rather daring method of clipping together into a long daisy chain all the small pieces ofclimbing protection and slings that she had collected as she climbed the last pitch the previous day. She estimated she had enough gear to get to a smalltree growing from a crack below. She made it to the tree, secured the daisy chain of gear, and then went back up to the abseil point above to release the top of the chain. By doing this it would now become the bottom of a chain secured to the tree. Monkeying down the makeshift daisy chain allowed her reach the bottom of the abseil.

As she recounts: “I got to my mate and we decided to try and move him to the prominent pinnacle at Belougery, allowing easier emergency access and a cool gully for him to rest in. It took an hour or more to get there through scrambling and setting up guiding ropes for him, but we made it. Stashed water from the previous day was a saviour! I raced over to the hut and raised the alarm. Within three hours he was being choppered out. Parks, emergency chopper crew and volunteers were fantastic!”

The various pains I could feel in different parts of my body had now convinced me that I was too badly smashed up to walk out by myself. I now know that I basically shattered my T4 vertebrae and accompanying ligaments so I might have rendered myself a paraplegic if I had tried to walk out and fallen in a way that impacted on that part of my spine. I was hopeful that I had just broken a few ribs but in reality I had broken three ribs, my sternum and coccyx, fractured three vertebrae, and my helmet had chopped off a bit of my ear. My helmet has a big split, so presumably I can thank it for saving my life, before cursing it for chopping off part of my ear. Despite my best efforts, the local flies found my injured ear to be irresistible and the medical staff at John Hunter Hospital convinced me that their children (which were up and wriggling and nibbling within 24 hours) were doing more good than harm. So I put up with the maggots until the operation to sew my ear back together a couple of days later.

The first people to arrive on the scene, around 11.15am, were local rangers who had hot-footed it up the track. It was great to see them. About 12.30 the first rescue helicopter, from Tamworth, appeared overhead, but without winch facilities it had no chance of getting me out. It did, however, manage to drop off a couple of very welcome paramedics, who looked after me and stayed with me until the Newcastle-based chopper with its winch was able to reach me at 1.44pm.

I’ve done numerous remote area first aid courses and helped in a few wilderness rescues, and I was very impressed by the competence and professionalism of all the crew who helped in my rescue. They’re a credit to their respective services and largely unsung Australian heroes. I’m humbled and immensely grateful for their selflessness and generosity of spirit.

I’ve since become aware of the huge number of people who turned out to help me, most of whom I never met. I don’t have the resources to thank them financially and odds are I won’t meet most of them again in order to personally thank them. I’m thinking that my thanks is going to express itself by becoming more involved with my local rescue organisations and to bring myself up to more advanced level first aid qualifications.

This will make me more useful and able to help others, including usually fiercely self-reliant people who, like me, never really imagine that one day they might be in need of the assistance of strangers as they lay broken and in pain at the foot of a cliff or some other lonely bush setting. Strangers, whose selfless compassion should give us all heart and reason to take pride in being Australian. Not in some vacuous jingoistic way, but proud of the fact that so many people in our society demonstrate in the most practical and selfless ways that empathy, compassion and a sense of community solidarity are alive and well. This is evidenced not only in the actions of the volunteers and professionals involved, but also in the generosity of those who contribute financially to the rescue and emergency services.