In The Bubble The day that changed Andy Earl's life forever. Nick Brown and Suzan Dudink in association with
Everybody has a story worth telling. My story started in 2005, when I first met Andy Earl. It's a story about life, love and how unexpected events, big and small, can change our lives forever.
Written by Suzan Dudink It was at the Urban Climber event in 2005 when I first met Andy. He and his friend Percy Bishton set the problems for the Dutch national bouldering competition. I'm not sure why Andy came up and spoke to me that night and neither is he. He later told me that he never usually spoke to girls he'd never met. But that night he did. He asked me if I liked the competition and I replied with a simple yes. I can't remember us saying much more to each other that night.
I was keen to improve my climbing and so a few months later I decided to email Andy as I had heard he was a climbing coach. My email asked him for a training program (there weren't any professional climbing coaches in Holland back than). His program worked really well, so I emailed him back once more to thank him, and that was that.
Andy is one of the most accomplished male British competition climbers. For nearly ten years he was very high in the world rankings, producing some of the best results the Great Britain bouldering team had ever seen.
This photo by Alex Messenger is of Andy competing in the Climbing Works International Festival (2008) in Sheffield, where he placed third amongst a very strong field.
It wasn't until the preparations of the next Urban Climber in 2006, that I saw Andy again. A good friend and I were testing the boulder problems for the Dutch Nationals that year. Late at night we arrived at a warehouse in an industrial estate where the problems had been built earlier that day. When we entered the warehouse I saw Andy and Percy. I wasn't sure Andy would remember me, we only met once a year ago and only had a few email exchanges months before. Assuming he didn't remember me, and not wanting to make a fool of myself I decided to 'casually' ignore him. Thinking back, I was pretty shy and nervous around him that day. I can't remember if we spoke to each other at all that night. At that point it looked like our paths had briefly crossed and were moving in opposite directions. We would probably never see each other again.
On Christmas day (2006), I unexpectedly received a text from Andy saying 'happy x-mas'. I never thought he would think of me, especially not on Christmas day. I was in Fontainebleau when I got his text, and he was in England. It turned out he, and the rest of the British team, were coming to Fontainebleau the next day. Since we would both spend our Christmas holiday in Font, I could see no reason why we shouldn't meet up with each other. So, we picked a venue and a time.
It was a cold but sunny winter's day, perfect climbing weather. I arrived at Bas Cuvier, the area where Andy and I were supposed to meet. I had a quick look around, but couldn't see Andy. So started to climb. While climbing, I heard a loud echoing scream coming from the forest. It turned out the scream of frustration came from Andy who had fallen from the top of the boulder problem 'Neverland'. Not long after Andy came walking towards me. I don't know why, but it felt very awkward. We had seen each other twice before, exchanged some emails and texts, but we didn't really know each other. So again, we just said 'hi' and went our own way, again.
We kept emailing and texting each other occasionally, but it wasn't until I visited the Peak District in February (2007), when things started to change. Andy was the only Brit that I 'knew' so I asked him if he could show me around. We met at Sheffield train station. I remember him wearing a black E9 hoodie, and white sneakers. He walked towards me, said 'hi' and gave me a kiss on the cheek (he gave me a kiss!). Straight after we drove to one of the climbing areas in the Peak district. I was amazed by the amount of people that knew Andy. Everybody we saw greeted him in person. I wasn't at all aware how well known he was in England and the rest of the world for that matter. Later that same day we kissed each other for real for the first time.
My visit to the Peak was confusing. What was it with this British (Geordie) boy that turned my head upside down? My life was in Holland. I had to try and forget about this Geordie, but I couldn't. A few weeks later I found myself at the airport of Milan waiting for Andy and his friend Martin Smith. I really tried to forget about Andy but he kept coming back to my thoughts. If I would meet him one more time, while climbing together in Chironico, maybe I could close this chapter properly. What was supposed to be the end of chapter Andy Earl, became the start of it.
Thinking back, I've probably never been in love with a person as much as I was with Andy. Nobody else ever made me feel the way he did and still does. His 'boyishness', his looks, his body, his sense of humour, his 'Britishness' made me want to be with him so much. I felt like another person when I was with him and I liked being me when I was with him. He made my life feel special and times with him were exciting and memorable. I was just so ridiculously in love with him.
Andy climbing one of his hardest additions to Northumberland - Blood Sport. Located at Shaftoe, it features extremely powerful moves and weighs in at a lofty Font 8B.
Andy Earl on The Young (E8 7a) at Callaly Crag in his home turf of Northumberland.
The UKC logbook description for this, Andy's own route, says: 'An utterly inspiring highball (E8 7a) face climb, rightwards up the shield to a good hold, then weaving left and right linking subtle protuberances, a long way above a decent landing.'
For several years Andy led the pack with his desperate and high routes/highballs in Northumberland. These ascents were often the focus of a set of stunning images created by local professional photographer Mark Savage.
Not long after Andy and I started dating, Andy travelled to La Reunion to compete in his 'farewell' world cup. Andy had been competing in world cups for over 4 years when I met him. He is probably the most successful male British competition boulderer ever. Being British champion three years in a row, making it to the final of world cups frequently, coming second in the European championships and being ranked within the top ten of the world for quite a few years. Despite his good performances, he never came first in a world cup. Something he had dreamed about for a long time.
Andy hadn't really trained for this competition. The weeks and months running up to the competition he had mainly spent with me, or at work, but he seemed to be in good form. The world cup in La Reunion was streamed live on the internet, which meant I could watch it back home in Holland. I can't remember much about watching the climbers, other than Andy winning the Semi Finals. I just remember I didn't dare to look at the scoreboard, a friend of mine had to do it for me. The competition came to an end. My friend looked at the scoreboard and with a big smile she told me Andy had won. How I wished I could kiss him and tell him how amazing this was. Not long after my phone bleeped. It was Andy, he texted me he had won. It made me smile, he was still thinking of me even though we were almost six thousand miles apart.
Andy, focused and preparing to compete, is seen here stood next to Jerome Meyer - one of the finest competition climbers in the world.
In the year that followed, Andy and I would see each other every fourth night, either in Amsterdam or Newcastle, or at a climbing venue somewhere in Europe. Finally, in May 2008 I moved over to England. Leaving everything I had in Holland; my house and belongings, my University job, my friends, family and Dutch citizenship. The only 'thing' I did take with me was Fonz, my dog. Andy had already taken her to England a few weeks before, he said he wanted to make sure I had enough incentives to do the crossing.
Not long after I moved over, Andy, Chris Graham and Darren Stevenson got the opportunity to build a bouldering wall in Byker, Newcastle. Andy used his inheritance from his grandma to build the wall, to invest in his future. Nobody could have anticipated how important this investment would become in the years that followed; financially, physically, socially and mentally.
It took us four months of hard work to build Climb Newcastle. Most people wouldn't have worked as hard, would have probably taken days off, but Andy didn't. He had set himself a deadline and there was no way he wouldn't meet it - even if that meant he had to work past exhaustion. Andy is one of the most determined and hard working people I know.
All this time, Andy made sure I wasn't getting too tired or bored, he always looked after me. He ensured I had enough breaks and that work didn't overshadow the rest of my life in England. It hadn't been long since I'd moved over and he wanted me to like his country and the new life I was living. Starting up a new business and a new life combined with all the physical work eventually drove Andy to exhaustion.
The years that followed were really good. Besides working at the wall, which had become very successful, I started lecturing and tutoring at the University again. Being able to combine work at the wall with work at the University was fantastic. Besides that, Andy and I worked as freelance route setters and climbing coaches. Our work allowed us to go away frequently. We tried to go away every month. Sometimes for a two day trip to the Peak or Wales, but usually we would go away for a week in Europe, sometimes even further. All our trips were climbing related. Our longest and furthest trips were to America and South Africa in 2009. The latter was special because neither of us had ever been to South Africa. It was probably the only trip for which I had really trained hard. My training and Andy's belief in me, resulted in an ascent of the original sequence of the boulder 'Tea with Elmarie', a stunning Font 8a+ and probably one of the hardest problems I've climbed.
Suzan climbing Tea With Elmarie in Rocklands, South Africa, spotted by Andy.
This is Suzan's hardest climb and she credits Andy for motivating and inspiring her to push her ability.
Before they met Suzan climbed around Font 7b. Tea With Elmarie is Font 8a+
I really loved the life we were living, but at the start of 2010 I felt something was missing - I felt as though my biological clock was starting to tick...
Being pregnant didn't affect me as much as I thought it would, I kept doing pretty much everything I did before I was pregnant and kept climbing hard until near the end of my pregnancy. I did stop climbing outside when I was about six months pregnant, but I wasn't too fussed about solely climbing inside, I knew we would go back outside as soon as the baby was a few weeks old. We had already booked our first family trip away; the four of us (Myself, Andy, the baby and of course Fonz the dog!) would go to Fontainebleau in February, a few weeks after our baby was born.
The weeks and months that followed featured everything life has to offer when times get tough. It was emotional, tiring, lonely, but also powerful and strengthening. When I look back at it now I think we all just tried to survive and cope with the changes in our lives those first few months. All in our own way, but all together.
Days after the event Andy was moved from intensive care to the high dependency unit where he stayed another week. Thereafter he was moved to another ward at the RVI where he had to stay for 5 weeks.
The effects of Andy's bleed were enormous. He couldn't move, speak, eat, drink or even breathe independently. But from the day he woke up, his eyes showed signs of recognition. I was convinced he knew who we were, because every time he saw us his eyes would light up and every time we left him he would look scared and sad. It was utterly horrible seeing him that way.
Andy had suffered a grade 5 V subarachnoid haemorrhage and fronto-temporal intracranial haemorrhage - the most severe aneurysm, in the left side of his brain.
It was an extremely serious injury and the outcome was uncertain.
After 5 weeks in the RVI, Andy was moved to Walkergate, where he stayed another 9 months. We've been very lucky living close to such good hospitals. Both the staff at the RVI and Walkergate have helped Andy tremendously in his recovery. I can't thank them enough for what they've done for us. Because he was such a hard working and determined patient, they loved working with him. They offered him speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and medical care on a daily basis.
I won't go into much detail about his recovery. I could write a whole book about it; the effort it took to drink without a straw, the months it took him to relearn how to produce sounds, the endless hours he spend trying to learn how to dress himself single handed. What I do want to say is that his recovery was very slow, very hard and faced many setbacks. Andy had to relearn everything, even the simplest things like swallowing, holding up his head, and making a sound.
Andy using the Nintendo Wii during rehabilitation.
Competitions between him and Suzan became quite heated. Andy won.
After a year or so, things got much easier. Andy was home for good and very independent, Amber started sleeping through the night and I was back at work. When I stopped living in the moment and started thinking about the future, things settled down. After a year, we were starting to think about the future again.
It is 10 years ago since I first met Andy at the Urban Climber in Holland. If he hadn't approached me that evening, my life might have looked very different.
He said 'hi' to me at that competition. And that's the day that changed my life.
Sometimes it's the little events that change our life the most, the simple 'hi'. The big events are just there to challenge us.
I'm very grateful for the life I'm living. I live in a beautiful part of the country, I enjoy my work, have the best family, friends and dog one can wish for. I climb regularly and I have the most amazing and inspiring partner and daughter ever.
And that's my story. I'm pleased with how it ends.
A UKClimbing Digital Feature by Nick Brown (Videography / Film Edit), Suzan Dudink (text) and Jack Geldard (Edit / Production).
UKClimbing would like to thank:
Mark Savage Darren Stevenson
Andy's recovery would not have been possible without the incredible support from everyone within the NHS, including the Walkergate Facility, Newcastle. If you want to find out more about how to help people with similar conditions, visit The Stroke Association
The full film version of 'In The Bubble' will be released on 23rd December 2015 - five years after Andy woke up from his coma