With time, with all the climbs, the walks, we end up merging with the mountain itself, we became part of the various granite walls that rise before our eyes.
For the last months we used the days to discover more and more of the hidden places of the mountain, we climbed each week more and better. Our minds, hands, our bodies, adapted to each climb better, to each roughness, to each small hole, to each crack.
On that day, the milder temperatures took us away from the more technical climbs of the Zêzere Glacier Valley and invited us to revisit “Erika”, the first route we opened on the south face of the most beautiful granite needle “Cântaro Magro”.
The day would be long, the 8 pitches that separate the ground from the top would take us several hours. Still, it would be less than we've come to bear. Yes, to bear. “To bear” seems like a verb that doesn’t combine with a happy awakening, full of energy on a perfect day, when the clouds decided to travel to distant lands and the sky was tinged with that deep, perfect blue, typical of true mountains.
After a short drive, we carried our backpacks and enjoyed the tranquillity that the moment provided as we approached the beginning of the route. We crossed the obstinate brooms that insist on covering the already insipid trail, all the way to the base of, perhaps, my favourite wall in Serra da Estrela.
A perfect day was foreseen, we were motivated, very motivated to climb the 265m ahead of us.
After so many days of climbing, we felt stronger, faster, even more elegant.
Paulo touched the granite of the first pitch and progressed gracefully through a slab that was never easy for us to cross. This time, contrary to what we had hoped for, the slab continued to prove difficult. Still on the floor, I was delighted with all the peace that special places make us feel.
A little later I also sailed through that small sea of granite with an almost smooth surface, that “almost” that in climbing, still allows us to progress.
50m from the ground, on the first belay, I felt confident. Confident enough to defy the second pitch, a 6b+ that covers a beautiful crack ending in easier ground.
I placed all the gear in the harness, I whitened my nervous hands with magnesium and started to climb the vertical wall. My brain betrayed me, the difficulty of the first moves took away a good part of the confidence I felt until then. I kept going a little more forward, until I reached what looked like a hard move. With no prospect of placing a nice protection nearby to gain some confidence, I decided to give up. “Try, don't try, you can, you can't”, the fearful part of me got the better of it. Seconds later, I was at the belay again, passing all the paraphernalia I had hanging in my harness to Paulo, who would evidently climb that pitch with lightness and grace.
The place where I gave up moments before seemed to have changed, but it didn't. The nervousness I gained in the first meters of the pitch blurred my vision for a foot hold that now, seeing Paulo climbing, seamed evident.
I regretted having given up.
The crack was climbed with effortlessness and speed, as if there hadn't been a small piece of rock that had been forgotten since the last time Paulo climbed that pitch. He then continued through the easiest part, after protecting on the only bolt of the pitch. He kept going confident until he stopped to place a cam. My eyes abandoned the wall as I looked down to check the rope for a moment. I heard a scream, loud…long…terrifying. I already know the tone. I've heard it in the past. I held the rope tightly until I felt the tension of the fall. I looked up and I saw Paulo upside down. His eyes and face were the perfect demonstration of horror. He screamed with the tone of guessing that life was changing in that single moment. “My leg is broken, oh nooooo, not again!!! I broke my leg…noooo…”.
There we were, crushed by a tremendous unfair universe. The panic took control of Paulo, still upside down, subjugated by pain. He kept on screaming. His screams expressed an excruciating pain, both physical and soul pain. That pain, far greater than any scream.
Me…me…I was also in panic but I could never show it in that precise moment. I held the rope tightly and saw Paulo's left foot hanging, turned, suspended only, attached to the rest of his leg only by the flesh, by the skin. I demanded maximum concentration from myself, I don't know where I got the strength to react.
“Paulo, you’ll have to calm down” I screamed. “You have to calm down, we have to get out of here!”. I felt his pain growing at every passing second, a pain that was mixed with panic, anxiety, everything one would expect in a situation like this.
“Paulo, you have to calm down and turn up! I’ll have to lower you to me”. I'll have to bring you down to me.”. I yelled at him with the clear voice of someone giving an order that must be carried out. “CALM DOWN NOW! You'll have to turn, or I'll have to lower you like this!”. My aggressive tone of voice worked. I don't know how he managed it, but even in an unbelievable pain, I saw him turn and then I slowly lowered him to me.
I erased all the thoughts of a future that, in a split second became a different future. I don't know where my strength came from, the less I know where Paulo got the strength to help me helping him.
He was then laying down on that tiny platform of the first belay, as I grabbed the phone to get help. I dialled the emergency number but could not get connection. I tried again until realizing the emergency number was not working. I called the commander of the mountain rescue. I was unlucky, nobody answered. Suddenly we were out of network, surprise! In a moment, sights of different futures invaded my brain. I thought them all at once. I might have to lower him to the ground…no, I cannot take the chance of him fainting while hanging. As hard as it is, the safest can be me going down and trying to get to the road as fast as possible to ask for help. I have to leave him here. I then heard a noise coming from the mobile phone, we had network again! I called two friends that were spending 4 days of holidays in Serra da Estrela, luckily, they answered. I knew I could lose network at any time, “Nuno, I have to be fast! We are on the first belay of Erika, on the south face of Cântaro Magro. We had an accident and Paulo is really bad, his left leg is broken. We can’t get out of here. We need a rescue”. In short words, Nuno said he would give the alert. I also remembered to call another friend, also a climber of this region. He answered and I passed him the same message. It was 2p.m.
Amidst the pain, dark thoughts, anxiety, my love Paulo managed to maintained a surprising clarity of thoughts. “Daniela, look I could pass out at any moment. We will have to stabilize my leg”. I looked around, there was nothing. Nothing stiff enough to make a kind of splint. “Use my sneakers, put one on each side and fasten them with climbing slings”. His mind clarity impressed me. With a pair of light sneakers, we improvised a kind of splint. The screams that invaded the entire space planted darkness in my heart.
Suddenly my phone rang, it was the commander of the mountain rescue. “Daniela, my men are on the way. What do you need, exactly? Where are you, exactly?”. The answer was peremptory, despite the disbelief in what I was about to ask “We need a helicopter, it’s the best way to take us out of here. Paulo has a broken leg, he’s in a very bad shape”. I gave him all the instructions on how to get to us the fastest way.
The commander of the rescue team started a sequence of efforts to manage an helicopter to take us out of that situation. Knowing that the rescue team was on the way, I prepared our climbing ropes for them to jumar to us and I placed an extra pair of cams in the belay. Some moments after, two men from the rescue team were next to us. The sneakers were finally exchanged for a real splint and Paulo was placed on a stretcher that fit into that tiny platform where, at the time, there were four of us.
Time in these situations always goes by slowly. Four hours passed between Paulo’s fall and the helicopter rescue, four long difficult hours to bear. Despite the endless pain, Paulo's state of mind was surprising “Make sure they are all safe on the belay…equalize the belay with the cams above…remove that rope that is doing anything, it only gets in the way…see if the stretcher is not attached to nothing underneath, for when the helicopter comes…”. The experience of the most experienced of us all was a constant presence.
Four hours went by, four hours in which my concentration had to overcome all the miserable, sad, black thoughts that didn't want to abandon me.
Finally, sometime around six in the afternoon, the helicopter pulls the stretcher that rises into the air. I felt a mixture of relief and reluctance, after all, the stretcher was in the air, spinning, not on safe ground. I rappelled and then ran to the road as fast as I could. I can honestly say that I never got up from that point to the road in so few minutes. I wanted to see Paulo, caress his face, his heart, before they took him to the hospital.
When I reached the road, the apparatus was endless, there were more people from the rescue team, firefighters from different corporations, civil protection, I don't know how many people mobilized, but there were dozens. The Air Force helicopter had already landed nearby. Paulo would be changed to another helicopter to be transported to the hospital. I arrived just in time. Enough time for us to exchange looks, to give him warmth, affection, love. We were both shattered, “we” had broken a leg and broken our connection to the future. My heart shrunk with pain. I was crushed at not being able to do anything else. Paulo, in addition to all the physical suffering, was also feeling sorry for me, the pain of concern for me.
The helicopter lifted. The sky was still blue, the sun continued to illuminate the granites in this beautiful mountain range. For the first time, the beauty of the mountain did not warm me, it was as if I ignored it, as if we ignored each other. And that was the moment I finally allowed myself to cry, to break, to let go. That was the moment that I allowed myself to Feel what I felt.
My love, my rope mate had fallen. In a perfectly vertical pitch, he slammed his leg on the only small platform that could come his way. What greater bad luck could happen?
Looking at it from a distance, rationally, that situation couldn't have been worse. The law of probabilities would dictate that in that fall, Paulo would just hang from the rope, shake his hands, catch his breath, and go straight up, as in any climbing fall. The universe did not conspire in our favour.
What is there to learn?
Nothing. Strictly nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is nothing to learn from unlikely, improbable bad luck.
The “What ifs” still roam my mind in the darkest nights, suffocating my thoughts. What if fear hadn't seized me, what if I hadn't given up? What if I had continued to climb that pitch?
This “if”, my fear that made us change places, insists on visiting me. It insists on crushing me, sometimes with violence.
I don't get rid of the ghosts. The night, the silence, bring the images of a tremendously unfair past. What if I hadn't given up?
My fear changed our future.