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A Shock to the System

Climbing & Photography in The Dolomites

Jane Courtnell

I am a 24 year old climber and all around outdoor enthusiast. I have a degree in Biology, but I specialised in Environmental studies due to my love for the outdoors and nature. Since graduating, and moving up to Wales from London, I try to spend as much of my free time as possible outside in the mountains or at the coast. I am lucky enough to have the Snowdonia national park and the north welsh coastline on my doorstep.This is great for my outdoor sporting pursuits and my enjoyment for photography. I am currently working to achieve my Summer Mountain Leader Qualification, and Rock Climbing Instructor Award in order to be safer and more knowledgeable of the mountainous environments in which I spend a lot of my time.

Travelling to the Italian Dolomites was filled with excitement and apprehension. This was to be my first big climbing trip. I had only been climbing for a year up to this point. Climbing had redirected my life onto an unplanned road, defining it and enhancing it into one big adventure. It was from climbing that I discovered a whole new world, a vertical world and with that a passion for photography. I enjoyed capturing my climbs, seizing time in an image to display the breathtaking exposure and scenes from high up in the mountains.

We arrived in the Italian Dolomites on September 15th 2018. We were welcomed by the rich deep blue skies characteristic of most European autumns. The Dolomites were by no doubt awe inspiring. Towering peaks chiselled out from the earth’s crust shot out from the lush green valleys. These unique geological features dominated the landscape. I looked at each cliff face as we drove down the winding passes, picking out potential climbing venues.

On our third day, we sat on a plateau eating half melted waffles and sipping lukewarm water whilst gaping up at nature's masterpiece before us. I took out my camera to get some shots of the views, playing around a little using different angles. This day was our easy day, deciding to take a break from pure rock climbing to tackle a fairly easy scramble, Via Ferrata. We wanted to bag another summit, to see the breathtaking views that often come with any peak, like a package deal. I craned my neck to make out a route up our next objective, a mountain shaped like a pinhead, pointing up as if it was trying to poke a hole in the sky. Leading up to the summit was hundreds of metres of a sheer, steep and barren cliff face. Apparently, there was a defined scramble line up there, aided by sections of Via Ferrata.

Up We Go

I had my doubts, but despite them, there was a route. We geared up and were soon scrambling over exposed drops offs. It was fun, zig zagging up rock gullies, half scrambling and half dangling from ladder rungs. As we came close towards the summit, we took a break to catch our breath and appreciate the surrounding landscape. I was excited to reach the summit so I could take some more photos. However, there was a smaller peak in front of our objective peak, which we would somehow have to get around, or over. To get around, we could make out a slightly flattened route engraved into the mountainside. It wasn't really a path but we couldn't seem to find an alternative way. This seemed our best bet. I started off, trying my best to lean into the mountain as much as possible. Any misstep would lead to a long fall into mountain rubble.

As we came close towards the summit, we took a break to catch our breath and appreciate the surrounding landscape.

As I walked on, my partner Jamie called out to me. I turned. As I turned, I was shocked to see him and his brother, Daniel, crawling up the rocky slope. They were not going around the first peak, which I perceived to be the easiest and safest way. No, they were scrambling up it. What were they doing?

Jumping to Safety

It seemed they were going to reach our objective second peak, by summiting and going over the first. Maybe they had decided this was the better way after all. I didn’t particularly want to follow. The slope was horribly angled, like a slide that would throw you out towards the drop below. It seemed rather threatening to me. I knew, to Jamie and Daniel, who were more experienced, the slope was nothing. Jamie called to me saying to go around if I didn't want to follow. But I didn't want to be the only one in the group not to follow. Maybe I was a ‘’wimp’’? I needed to confront my fears, move past it, right? I kept repeating this as I nervously stepped up onto the slope to follow them upwards. On hindsight, this was a mistake.

I scrambled up, poking each rock before transferring my weight on that arm or foot. Some rocks were loose, adding a bit of Russian roulette with each one I tested. I looked up and saw my partner dancing towards the summit. Effortlessly moving between the boulders. I couldn't move that quick and definitely looked less elegant.

Up, up, up I scrambled…

Until bam!

It all happened in an instant. No thought was fully processed in my mind. As I was crawling up the mountainside, eyes set down to the floor picking out the next hand/foothold, I heard a shriek from Daniel.


At that moment, hearing that one word, or from simply detecting a shrill of panic, my eyes snapped upwards to see a huge boulder pounding from the summit down towards me. It was going to hit me and knock me off the mountain. The boulder, the size of a TV set, bounced and flew up into the air, before crashing down and bouncing up again to fly up in the air once more. With one breath, I jumped. I jumped to the left, away from the boulder’s line. I didn’t think about jumping, my body just moved. In an instantaneous second my whole body coordinated itself to move the hell out the way of that boulder.

Unfortunately, though, my right hand wasn't quick enough.

I screamed.

I screamed again, and again, and again, and again.

I fell to the floor and scrunched my body up, my knees up to my chin, protecting my hand in a ball of me. I just screamed. I wasn't even in pain, I couldn't feel anything. I wasn't even trying to scream or processing that I was doing it. I guess I was screaming because I was desperate for someone to help me. My curled-up body rocked in shock. I didn't want to look at my hand. From it, a stream of blood was trickling down my leg. My mind was racing, waiting to feel any pain so that I could assess the extent of my injuries.

I guess I was screaming because I was desperate for someone to help me. My curled-up body rocked in shock. I didn't want to look at my hand. From it, a stream of blood was trickling down my leg. My mind was racing, waiting to feel any pain so that I could assess the extent of my injuries.

My partner hurried down from above.

‘Jane? Jane? What’s hurt, can you tell me what hurts’?

He started feeling underneath my helmet, my arms and legs to see if there were any other injuries in addition to my clearly injured hand.

‘Let’s see your hand’. My partner urged me to uncurl it from its protective ball I had created with my arms and scrunched up legs. I didn't want to move it or see it. I knew I had to though. After a long pause, I moved my arm outwards so Jamie could have a look. He frantically pulled out bandages from his medic kit, unravelling a long white bandage. Jamie gently held my wrist to wrap the bandage around my hand. I tried very hard to keep my head turned away, but I unwillingly caught a glimpse of the whites of bone. I wrenched. I didn't want to see anymore.

‘You will be okay, don’t worry’ Jamie repeated as I whimpered on.

Jamie then pulled out a climbing sling. Being a loop of material, the sling was pulled over my head and my arm then placed through. The sling acted as support and raised my arm to prevent inflammation.

‘We need to move’ Jamie stated. ‘Can you walk, just a bit to the summit?’

I nodded in agreement. I did need to move from this precarious position. With the help of Jamie and Daniel, I slowly made my way up to the first summit where I sat down to try to gather my thoughts and comprehend my situation. I was passed sweets to keep my blood sugar up, and jackets were tied around me to stop my body temperature dropping too much with shock. My group talked about how to get down.

The Downclimb

‘We could call the mountain rescue?’ exclaimed Jamie.

I looked up, ‘for a hand injury, seems a bit over the top’ I mumbled. My hand was starting to hurt now, I could feel a throbbing moving from my fingertips up my arm. But it was just a hand injury, which to me didn't justify a helicopter. We all agreed to try and get me down off the mountain ourselves. My partner tied another sling around my waist, to act like a lead which he would hold to help steady me as I attempted to climb down the mountain.

We started downclimbing. I moved extremely slowly down from the peak, mainly scraping over the rocky terrain on my bum. The slope became steeper towards some via ferrata ladders. I would have to climb down the ladders with one hand. The pain was really getting bad. It felt like someone was whacking my fingers with a hammer. Boom. Boom. Boom. The throb vibrated up my nerves, pulsating through my whole arm. My stomach churned, a twisting nausea from within. I shivered. I just wanted to go home. The thought of having to climb down this mountain on ladders with steep drops and one hand made me feel overwhelmed. Tears shot out from my eyes, down my cheeks. I didn't want to. I didn't want to walk anymore.

But I had to, and I did. I lost balance a few times. Whenever I tipped a little too far to the left or right, I instinctively tried to grab the ladders with my bad hand. This sent a jolt of pain shooting through my body, ending in a pathetic weep. I felt pathetic. I kept telling myself to pull myself together. It was just my hand.

Minutes soon slid into hours of down climbing. The sun was creeping lower and lower in the sky, and I was getting slower and slower. I kept stopping to sit every five minutes, to regather energy and stop myself from being sick. ‘We are taking too long, we are not going to get down before nightfall’, Jamie said whilst looking at his watch. We need to call mountain rescue. He looked at me, concern written across his face. I disagreed. How annoyed would the mountain rescue crew be when they discover it was just a hand injury. I wasn't bad. I was just being weak.

I didn't have the energy to argue though and let Jamie ring the rescue services.

This on hindsight was a very good decision...

Life's Lesson

I have always known that there were inherent dangers in mountainous environments. Avalanches, landslides, storms, falling from great heights and even flooding (Mountain Partnership, 2015) are to name a few. But I never thought anything would ever happen to me. Naive logic, I guess. I even contemplated not buying insurance before my trip due to the expense, thinking what were the chances? I did, and I will never contemplate not doing so again. Although my accident was not fatal, it could have been a lot worse, which I try not to think about too much. I like to look back on the event as it unfolded, to acknowledge each mistake and its potential bitter consequences, marking each as a ‘lemon’.

Avalanches, landslides, storms, falling from great heights and even flooding (Mountain Partnership, 2015) are to name a few. But I never thought anything would ever happen to me. Naive logic, I guess. I even contemplated not buying insurance before my trip due to the expense, thinking what were the chances?

Lemon one. We all had let our guards down. We all labelled the day as ‘easy’ compared to our previous days’ climbing. This peak consisted of a relatively simple scramble with some Via Ferrata support. However, the dangers were still there. We didn't perceive them highly enough, and as a result did not act in caution when we needed to, potentially taking unnecessary risks.

Lemon two. I succumbed to peer pressure. I followed Jamie and Daniel up the first summit when I preferred to walk around. Going up the slope to the first summit didn't feel right to me and I should have trusted my gut.

Lemon three. Rockfall is a prevalent danger in the mountains and can be fatal. From 1951 to 2006 in the US alone, 46.4% of mountain deaths were due to falling rocks or slipping on rocks (Steph Abegg, 2018). We should have been wary, especially when moving up the steep rocky slope to the first summit. Shouting ‘below’ makes others aware of any falling rock. Daniel shouted which saved my life by giving me time to react and move out of the way of the falling boulder. To try and prevent a rock fall yourself, tap any precarious looking rock before transferring your weight to make sure it isn't loose.

Lemon four. We nearly let a manageable situation become unmanageable. We should have called mountain rescue as soon as the accident had occurred. It wasn't a serious situation at the time, but down climbing into the night as the pain in my hand was becoming worse, and I was slowly deteriorating with shock, was making the situation less manageable. Most injuries on a mountain are justifiable reasons to call the mountain rescue service. If you are ever unsure, then calling the rescue services and describing the situation enables experts to assess the best cause of action (Scottish Mountain Rescue, 2019).

I am happy to say that my camera stayed intact and I am now recovering. I am having intensive physiotherapy to get my hand movement back. Although I am not recovered enough to go back to climbing rocks, I am enjoying running, walking and taking photos in the mountains once more.


Mountain Partnership, (2015). Disaster Risk Management. (Online). Available at:

Steph Abegg (2018). Mountaineering Accident Statistics. (Online). Available at:

Scottish Mountain Rescue (2019). When Should I call for help? (Online). Available at:

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