The account that follows was written by Dirk, my mother’s beloved partner of many years, and was one of the pieces he read out at her memorial. It is a shortened version of the full story he wrote of the days leading up to the accident, and the accident itself.
“Tessa and I loved climbing. She found a physical expression and competency in the mountains best described by what I call her 6000 ft smile – the higher, wilder, and more remote – the bigger the smile.
I had often talked of Scotland. I had lived there in ‘86, spending my spare time climbing and exploring. The beauty of the Highlands, the lack of a law of trespass, and the fact that the Scots take pleasure from people in their hills, drew me back.
Last year we met new friends, Rick and Hillary, who have a croft (Li) on the very remote Knoydart Peninsula, not far from the Isle of Skye. What more could one ask for?
We flew to London, joined Tessa’s daughter Laurel and her family, travelled together by train to Edinburgh, and all descended on Rick and Hillary’s Edinburgh flat. The weather had been foul, was foul, and was set to remain foul. We spent a couple of days there, Laurel running the Edinburgh half-marathon and Tess and I bicycling all around the city and grabbing a break in the weather for a little climb at Limekilns, across the Firth of Forth. We then had to wait out a big wind and rainstorm before travelling, with Laurel, Clive and children to Glencoe, taking a slow road towards Li. The weather did not make for much. Tess and I drove down to the head of Loch Etive and, between squalls, caught a glimpse of the Etive Slabs, which we had hoped to climb. Dripping, miserable, impossible.
A couple of days later we headed to Arnisdale, and were finally taken across the water to spend a few days at Li.
The weather persisted but we were able to take some short walks in the hills and ponder the history and ecology, past land use and its impacts on the landscape. Evenings over good food, bottles of wine, readings. As the dusk lengthened Rick and I would go off and light a fire in the Tipi he had erected for Tessa and myself, and there we would commune in a brotherly way over a bottle of whisky, leaving Tess and Hillary in the warmth of the croft house.
A weather window promised and we re-crossed the water and drove via the ferry at Glenelg to Skye, with Laurel, Clive and their children heading back east to explore Clive’s family roots.
These were to be our days alone – always special after times of gathering.
We stocked up on oatcakes and whisky in Broadford and headed for the Cuillin Hills and the campsite at Glen Brittle. Early season, uncertain weather and lots of fine camping. We pitched our dear little tent and headed up towards Corrie Lagan – to get some exercise along with some understanding of the mountains surrounding us and the route we might climb.
The beauty of Skye, with the views out over Eigg and Rum, immediately reasserted itself in me, and took hold of Tessa. Her 6000 ft smile was firmly in place. We tramped up to Corrie Lagan, munched oatcakes, reviewed maps and route books and then scrambled across rocks and slabs until we found ourselves below the Cioch and what must be the most popular route in all of Skye – the combination of Cioch Direct, Arrow and Integrity – that would take us all the way to the summit ridge. Technically very very easy, the sort of climb we would probably undertake without ropes back home – but a fun way to climb the mountain. We were into fun!
Back down to the tent, content to know where we were headed in the morning and with our simple and undemanding plan. It rained in the night and we were disappointed at possibly having to re-plan our day, but the sun started breaking through as we took a slow breakfast of bread and cheese and two pots of coffee. Packing carefully and making all shipshape, we left camp shortly after 10 am.
Nearing the route we saw that the mountain was already busy. Another party was heading up an even easier climb to the right, and a small party (Mark and Carole) were preparing to climb our route, Cioch Direct. A third party came up behind us. This is Britain, where queuing is endemic.
We prepared to climb with obvious enthusiasm, chatting to Mark and Carole about how we might interact on the route, especially if we found that we climbed much faster. They were very warm to us, understanding, and willing to share the rock. As it happened we moved ahead very quickly. I led the first pitch of 35 metres, Tessa the next 40 metres onto a wide blocky sloping ledge with the obvious break for the third pitch up above. The climbing was really easy, but fun, great friction on the gabbro. The rock could be very slippery when wet particularly as the route was so popular that some of the grips had become polished from wear. An infamously slippery section lay somewhere above and, although completely within the range of Tessa’s capability, it was my task to lead this.
Tessa belayed with a long sling around a big block. Carole came up behind and she and Tess discussed where she could sit comfortably. I was already scampering up, placing occasional bits of protective gear. Then, as I weighted and started to move onto a big slab of rock above me it was as if the whole mountain started disintegrating in front of my eyes and this huge slab slid away from underneath me, breaking my leg and descending in a literal avalanche onto the ledge below. I screamed out of warning and fear for those below – and fell. I knew this was bad. A great crash of rock, and imprinted in my soul are grains of sand, like ball bearings, on the freshly exposed rock beneath. My fall was short – perhaps just 3 metres – when the rope caught me. Tessa was holding me from the belay, somehow. By rights I should have crashed the 20m I had climbed, back to the ledge. I looked down and could see that Tessa had been hurt, she seemed unconscious at first, but I was held tight. She came to, and although I knew that she had been badly injured, I thought we would be ok. Carole had also taken a nasty rock on her helmet, and, unbeknown to us, Mark had had his hand smashed by a rock 40 metres below. Carole and I yelled for rescue. With so many people around we thought this would come quickly.
What happened from there is a long story and those who wish to can read my more detailed account. I was hanging from my blue rope (we climb with two) and could not figure out how to get down. Tessa was conscious and communicating with me. She was clearly in pain, but managing this. She asked after rescue and she asked if I was ok. I did what I could to reassure but time dragged, and my offering was not much. Eventually, after an hour or more, other climbers (Martin and Sam) came onto the ledge. I had managed by then to regain some sense and had put in extra protective gear in a crack I could feel below waist level, so that, should the blue rope – still tied tautly to Tessa – fail, I would not fall to the ledge. Tessa had, apparently, also found the strength to tie me off so that I was no longer dependent on her holding me.
Martin could see that Tessa was weak. Carole had been close to her and had comforted her but could do little more. I was pretty useless up above. My broken leg was not especially sore but any thought of banging or twisting it took all the courage out of me. I rigged my second rope through the new protection I had placed, Martin cut the blue rope, and managed to lower me some of the way down. I had rigged this rope badly and it jammed. In some frustration Martin left me to provide assistance to Carole. I was eventually able to fit another cam, pull up a loose length of rope and lower myself the last five metres, to be next to Tess. By then she was quiet, calm and heavy, her head had slipped forward against the rock wall and I could only put my arms around her, and hope.
The rescue took hours. Writing about this has been an important part of my own process of understanding what happened. Three RAF and rescue helicopters swooped in and out but focused on people below. Our ledge was hard to reach, the weather deteriorating and the rescue dangerous. Eventually medics arrived, strops were fitted around my legs and chest and I was lifted away from the Tessa I loved. I had to know that she was dead, but the enormity of this has, even now, still to sink in.
I was flown to the little Broadford hospital. The Afrikaans-speaking doctor saw to my x-rays, received news, and gently but clearly confirmed that Tessa was indeed dead. I could only nod numbly. I don’t know the details but she died of multiple internal injuries. I am assured that, while initially in pain, this pain would have seeped away. I am consoled that, as she always worked things though in life, so too she worked through her death.
I wanted to be close to Tessa, and was told that she would probably be brought to Broadford for the night. That made me easier. Later that night I heard the clatter of a helicopter. This came in to the landing pad outside my window, hovered and slowly descended to rest, idled for ten minutes or more and then took off again. Perhaps they had brought Tessa to the hospital but it was my belief that Tessa was finally going away from me forever, and the emptiness of loneliness and loss started seeping into me, an emptiness it will take a long time to come to terms with.”