Naked - Helicopter Rescue in the South of France

© David Coley

David Coley writes about an accident in la Calanque, France which could easily have been prevented - due to an oversight which many of us are guilty of. This article first appeared on Cold Mountain Kit's website.

Half the people around me were naked. Now you don’t get that at Stanage, even on a summer’s day. Climbing on the nudist beach of En Vau in la Calanque had initially felt surreal, but after a week had become almost normal. As had being somewhere where the weather was always perfect, the sea only a few yards away. 

En Vau is a limestone fiord with piles of single and multipitch routes at modest grades.  © David Coley
En Vau is a limestone fiord with piles of single and multipitch routes at modest grades.
© David Coley

Time for one more route before lunch. Then a snooze in the shade until four, then maybe one of the longer routes up to the rim. Helen can’t be bothered to follow and just wants some food, so she lowers me back down and I strip the draws off the bolts; a line of naked bolts amongst a sea of naked people.  

Why am I falling?

I hit the deck knees locked, legs straight, and my spine seems to crumble. The pain is impossible. I open my eyes to a roof of nakedness bent over me: chests, breasts and a dozen mouths speaking French. 

I can’t move my legs, the pain is too much. It hurts just to breathe. Helen is waving her arms and talking French at speed. I’m ignored. I don’t speak French so I just lie there incapable even of thought, just dealing with the pain.

After a while some guys from the forest service turn up. Then I’m hit by the scream and downdraught of a helicopter. I try and turn to see, but can’t rotate my head. The roof of naked people is replaced by one made of uniforms. 

One of the uniforms is definitely in charge. I think she asks me questions, but I’ve no idea what the words mean, and she doesn’t speak English. She gets out a tiny syringe and I understand the word “anaesthetic”. 

I’ve never discussed it with a doctor or a paramedic, but I’m guessing an injured person isn’t always rational, doesn’t always know what's best, after all, that’s why we have medics – they know what to do and we don’t. I refuse the anaesthetic. I’m convinced I need to be able to feel my back, feel the pain, to be able to tell the doctors at the hospital what I can and cannot feel. She shrugs and thrusts a monster of a drip needle into my arm. I’m sure my mum uses thinner needles to knit with. I flinch and the pain in my back is insufferable so I involuntarily wrench my arm and the needle gouges through my flesh. I flinch again and a comic feedback loop is setup: pain causes me to move; movement causes pain.

In the end it subsides. I realise the anaesthetic was just a local to stop the needle from hurting, and I decide to leave the medicine to the pros.

Some of the uniforms straddle me to lift me onto the stretcher. The lift is textbook. I’m kept perfectly flat and the lower hurts less than breathing does. More pros doing what they have trained for. I feel safe.

Need some sun? The Endless blue of la Calanque.  © David Coley
Need some sun? The Endless blue of la Calanque.
© David Coley

I’m on the floor of the chopper. Not some big military beast, but little more than a glass bubble with a motor. Helen gets to sit up front and enjoy the ride over the Mediterranean. She gets sunglasses. She gets headphones and a microphone so she can hear and be heard. I get to lie on my back, immobile and blinded by the midday sun. I shut my eyes. The doctor slaps me hard in the face. I flinch and open my eyes. My back spasms. I screw my eyes shut. She slaps me again. My back spasms…Another comic loop. I have no idea why she doesn’t want me to close my eyes, maybe she thinks I’m becoming unconscious. I ask for sunglasses, but no one can hear me over the engine. By the time we get to Marseille it feels like I’m snowblind.

We land and I’m gently extracted from the chopper onto a trolley. Then the fighting starts. Raised voices become screams. Screams lead to pushing. Pushing to punches. Apparently we have landed at the wrong hospital and they won’t have me. I need to go to another hospital. The chopper won’t or can’t take me. Why this leads to a punch-up between my rescuers and the hospital staff I don’t know. I’m left lying confused in the sun. The endless sun. Please someone send me a cloud. Finally I’m loaded into an ambulance and we head off through the Marseille traffic to another hospital. The driver seems to be practicing for a Gran Prix, I’m sure the wheels are screeching on the corners and he hits the brakes every few seconds, then I shoot to the end of the trolley and my spine is compressed. I scream. 

The journey is endless. But there always is an end. Nurses simply lift the sheet I’m lying on with no attempt to support me, my spine bends in a perfect arc and they drop me from what feels like thirty feet onto the X-ray trolley. Bam. For the first time I start to wonder if I’m going to get out of this walking or in a wheel chair for life. 

They go to cut my climbing harness off, I won’t let them. More stupidity. They manage to undo the buckle and yank it off. More pain. I’m x-rayed until I glow. 

A few hours later the doctors say my spine is kind of ok and kind of not. At least that’s how Helen translates it. Her French is reasonable, but I guess doesn’t cover words like **** and ****. I’m told to keep my back flat and immobile for a week to a month. They kick us out of the hospital and the real fun starts. 

Maybe if we had had a car waiting for us and a house not far away this might have been reasonable. But we have neither. We have no money except for a little change, no home. All our stuff is on a beach a helicopter ride away. We reason no hotel will take us with no money or ID, and we feel the need to rescue our possessions. I’m naked except for a pair of shorts. Helen is wearing a bikini. At least I still have my harness. I can’t stand, so I leave the hospital on all fours. The bus stop is right outside. 

In Tom and Jerry cartoons we never see the maid. She is just a pair of legs and a hemline. My view of the world is much the same. I wait for the bus on all fours comparing the calves of the others in the queue. Pinstriped suits, brief cases, stockings. Why would anyone wear a suit or stockings in summer in the Med? But then they have jobs, they aren’t dossing on a nudist beach. They have homes to go to with nice flat beds to lie on. They will never need to do this. 

I crawl onto the bus and lie down. A while later we repeat the process and get the train out to Cassis. We don’t have enough for tickets so Helen jumps the barrier and I crawl under it. My knees have started to bleed and I’m getting used to having my nose only 18 inches away from piles of dog poo. Helen negotiates the fare with a taxi driver and we end up at the harbour our money all gone. 

The last sightseeing boat into En Vau has departed, but a kindly fisherman calls up on a radio, it turns around and picks us up for free. Nearly home.  

The beach. The accident happened just right of the bush on the far side of the beach.  © David Coley
The beach. The accident happened just right of the bush on the far side of the beach.
© David Coley

Now there isn’t a jetty at En Vau. You simply jump over the side and wade ashore holding your sack above your head. Maybe the captain is in a rush after losing time to come back and pick us up, maybe because we have no luggage and are almost naked he thinks we will be happy to swim to shore, maybe he thinks the English guy who is too drunk to stand needs a swim to sober him up. I fail to notice how far from shore we are and haul myself over the side planning on using the buoyancy of the water to support me while I walk/crawl to shore.

When my feet fail to find the bottom I start to panic and thrash about, setting my back into spasm. I can’t coordinate my legs to swim, and the pain is too much anyway. I go under. I thrash some more and I’m back up, gasping. Down again. 

I can’t believe I’m going to drown now, after all this effort. Helen comes to the rescue, pulls me to shore and I crawl up the beach vomiting seawater. Safe.100 metres to the tent hidden in the bushes.100 metres to my bed.100 metres until I can lie down and not move. Ever.

“Bonsoir Monsieur. Your friends, ze ozer English climbers, they take your tent and all your zings to the hospital in Marseille.”

Wet, cold and naked, except for shorts and bikini, we lie on the beach exhausted and too tired to care. 

Our English “friends”, whom we had never spoken too, but who felt a national bond of responsibility returned via a very long hike over a massive hill with our possessions in the early hours. They had had a tough time of it, having driven into Marseille looking for “the” hospital, not realising this was a bit like driving into London and looking for "the" hospital. Luckily our new French friends looked after us until our stuff arrived. We had been surviving on whatever was cheap all summer, they cooked us one of the finest meals I have ever had. A miraculous series of seafood dishes appeared thanks to their single gas stove and a spear gun.

The reason Helen dropped me was classic: no knot in the end of the rope. It also didn’t help that our rope was shorter than the ropes the locals were using.

About the Author

David Coley has climbed in many parts the world, never doing a first ascent of anything noteworthy, or anything very hard, but trying to overcome the limits of a serious lack of talent by understanding how to tie knots, build belays and keep moving at all times. He loves climbing in a three or rope soloing long routes and has a strong belief that if you know what you are doing with modern equipment you can get up some surprising things without being strong or talented. He maintains the educational climbing resource and is the author of the e-book High: Advanced Multipitch Climbing alongside Andy Kirkpatrickwhich you can buy here. 

With thanks to Cold Mountain Kit

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30 Jun, 2015
Gee whizz! What a crazy story (with a clear take away message - tie a bleedin' knot in the end of the frickin' rope kids!) Enjoyably written, but describing a total nightmare situation. I've climbed there three years in a row and never noticed the nudists - just families with kids and climbers. I guess you guys just got lucky :) Good luck with your recovery.
30 Jun, 2015
And also purchase travel insurance?
30 Jun, 2015
in all fairness i had travel insurance when i had a similar experience Down Hill biking in the Alps and landed heavily on my head and had to get taken down the mountain on a spinal board to this grotty little local surgery where they did some neck x rays , when they had decided that i hadn't done any spinal injury just really bad whip lash and concision ( but no broken neck so that was good :D ) , they just sold me a neck brace and ye just kinda was abandoned several valleys away from where i was staying and as i didn't have my bank card i had to Waite in the surgery for my mates to drive 3 hours with my card so i could pay ... then had to go with my prescription to buy proscription pain killers and pay for the neck restraint at the pharmacy. the insurance just let me claim back the £300 when i got back as the surgery was to small to process the insurance and they just cant be bothered. the care was pretty awe full tbh all they did was make sure i wasn't in a really bad way didn't check for other things didn't say what to do about the concision or what my mates should do other than if i was sick again come back.... bit shit but i survived haha. and still ride down hill bikes :P was a total pain in the neck ....
30 Jun, 2015
30 Jun, 2015
A great story...... Just when you thought it couldn't get worse! Steve
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