When my friend David Venables suffered a horrific fall on the Strathfarrar Munros last October, he had no idea whether he would be able to walk mountains again. Such was the accident that consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon Colin Drury at Glasgow Royal Infirmary said: “I was amazed he had not sustained any life-threatening injuries. The worst injury, which was to his right knee, was also potentially limb threatening.”
Incredibly, on April 2, David walked to the summit of my last Munro, Beinn Na Lap at Corrour in the Scottish Highlands. It was definitely his slowest Munro walk and Beinn Na Lap is considered to be one of the easiest Munros because it has a total elevation of about 560m to reach the 937m top, yet it was extraordinary that David was able to complete the ascent.
To see his joy at being back in the mountains he loves so much – and to be part of his first hill walk since the accident – was hugely moving, heart-warming and up-lifting.
After the Munro, David said: “I am very emotional and I have not been able find the words to fully express what it meant to be able to join Fiona on her final Munro and to have my wife Alicia by my side, along with 40 other inspiring people.”
Five months of painful recovery
David’s fall was only around 30m but he was unable to stop his momentum and sustained injuries that were described at the time as pontially life changing.
David was found by good fortune by a runner on the Strathfarrar Munro, who was able to raise the alarm. After a difficult and long rescue, Dundonnell MRT airlifted him to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. Colin said: “The mountain rescue team and orthopaedic team in Raigmore Hospital provided excellent emergency treatment to David’s knee injury and an elbow injury, which also required surgery. He also had various other upper body injuries including shoulder damage and some broken ribs.”
But it was the knee that was the main obstacle to recovery for David.
Colin, who is part of a team at the Limb Reconstruction Service at GRI, describes David’s leg injury to his right knee: “The shin bone had broken through the skin at the front of his knee and the lower half of his knee joint had shattered. He had also injured some of the ligaments around the knee.
“The scans of David’s knee and the associated skin injury meant this injury was going to be more difficult than average to treat. But when he was transferred to Glasgow Royal, we were able to have a discussion about what would be the best method of reconstructing his knee based on the specifics of his injury, his overall fitness and medical condition, as well as his preferences.”
After discussion, David and Colin agreed that fixing his injuries with internal metalwork (plates and screws) carried a higher than average risk of wound infection or breakdown. Instead, they chose to use a cage (Ilizarov frame), which it was hoped would reduce this risk.
Colin added: “[The cage] also had the benefit that I could construct it in such a way that it allowed his ligament injuries to heal and we were then able to modify it in the clinic to allow his knee range of movement to return as early as possible.
“It does require a certain amount of care and maintenance from our patients and, unfortunately, it is not removable until treatment is completed, which in David’s case was around five months. This process can take up to 18 months so it’s not for everyone.”
Colin has been very impressed by David’s recovery. He said: “David has been unbelievable. From the outset, he has been focused on recovering as best as he can. He has been very motivated but also realistic and that has made it very easy to look after him.”
David’s joy at first mountain walk
A few weeks after the accident, during a regular phone call with David he told me that his goal was to be at my last Munro. While I knew it was the target that my friend needed to focus on during his recovery and to get him through the physio and gym sessions, I didn’t dare to believe it might be possible.
We had walked and run plenty of Munros and Corbetts together over the past 15 years. It was just one of the many outdoor pursuits, David enjoyed.
On the Monday before the weekend walk of Beinn Na Lap, the cage was removed from his leg. David called me to say he was hoping to be able to make it to Corrour. He revealed a plan to travel by train with Alicia and then to walk a mile to the hostel. From there he said he would see how far he could walk up the mountain.
I think I knew then that he would make it to the summit, although I was still nervous if this would set his recovery back. David took his time, wearing a knee brace and leaning on a single crutch when required. He assured us he wasn’t in any pain. Above all, he seemed so very happy to be back on a mountain again and surrounded by outdoorsy people.
He had tears in his eyes as he made it to the summit and he walked through a celebratory arch of walking poles raised by friends before I made my own way through the arch on my last Munro.
Later, David said: “Five months ago, after a horrific fall on the Strathfarrar Munros, I wasn’t sure I’d be either physically or psychologically able to summit another. But if I was able to, then I wanted to do all I could to have a chance to make Fiona’s last Munro my first after the accident.
“I still can’t believe that, five days after my final surgery, we did it – and I say ‘we’ because without Alicia’s care and support over these tough months, it would never have happened.
“I also want to thank Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team and the helicopter crew for bringing me safely off the mountain and giving me the chance to enjoy being in high places once again.
“And to all my family and friends who have kept letting me know of their love and support, thank you so much. It has helped me more than you can imagine.”
David contacted Colin after reaching the Munro summit. Colin said: “It was great to see David’s massive pleasure on the summit of the Munro and also it is a real satisfaction for our whole team in helping him achieve that goal.
“It’s an enormous privilege to be able to see those sort of moments for our patients. It’s also great to show the nurses and theatre staff, as they do not usually see patients after they have left hospital.
“In the last couple of years, patients send us WhatsApp updates, pictures and videos of progress and even Strava segments and it really is something else.”
The full recovery for David is still unknown but certainly it is much better than he expected at the outset. He is hopeful of being able to finish his own round of Munros. He has 52 left to bag. Colin said: “Seeing how David has done so far, and in such a short time from his original injuries, I would be optimistic he will see that target.”
I am now sure David will complete his own round of Munros. What an amazing recovery and I have such great respect for David and Alicia. I spoke very regularly with both of them over the last five months and their incredible positivity shone through. Knowing how active David was before the accident, it is difficult to comprehend how he has managed to face the frustrations of being so constrained for so long.
My message to him is: “Don’t rush back with your previously usual gung-ho style. Definitely do not attempt a ‘reverse taper’! But do continue to take your time to build up to your comeback. You have been a brilliant inspiration and it will be a pleasure to join you on many more mountain summits in the future.”
You can still donate to David and Alicia’s fundraiser.