Drama on Fairfield

Fairfield, in the Lake District is a great mountain for groups; it can be a classic horseshoe route (immortalised in song by Chumbawamba), which starts and ends in Ambleside or can include a scramble down to Grisedale tarn. With reasonable viability it also gives fantastic views across to Helvelyn. All in all a great way to start a walking week with people who need to be eased into mountain walking in Britain.

This story takes place 15 years ago, before the almost universal mobile phone network coverage or indeed the ubiquity of mobile phones.

I had met the group of 14 the night before, they were all Americans and they all seemed like a pretty good humoured bunch. There was no reason to suspect that the relatively gentle day on the hill I had planned was going to turn into a bit of a nightmare.

During the booking procedure all my clients had to fill in a medical declaration, enumerating pre-existing conditions, medication needs etc. nothing stood out, so I had nothing to worry about on that front.

One of my clients was a regular with the company and on this trip she had persuaded her non walking brother, let’s call him Chuck, to come  along too. I wish she hadn’t …

It was a fine early April day with conditions ideal for a hill walk; clear skies and a mild breeze which still carried the sting of winter but the promise of spring. There was no rush and everyone seemed happy with the relaxed pace, which gave them the opportunity to take in the scenery and left them with enough breath to talk about it.

We were nearing the summit before I started to have concerns about Chuck.

He was starting to look anxious and despite the cold he was sweating. I walked next to him, crunching our way through the thin layer of old snow to the summit. At the high point everyone indulged in happy banter, congratulating themselves and each other for reaching the top. Everyone that is, except Chuck. He was now holding his chest and complaining of pain, he was still sweating and his eyes widened with fear. I immediately suspected a heart attack and got him to sit against a padded rock with his knees drawn up in the deck chair position. From the reaction of my other clients I realised that I was on my own with the treatment and indeed would have to look after them as well (although one of my clients was a doctor). I knew that controlling panic in the group and offering reassurance to Chuck was what I had to do. As Chuck started to calm down and the pain eased, the story came out. He was not having a heart attack, he was having an angina attack, his first. Chuck had been diagnosed as having angina and had been prescribed nitro-glycerine tablets but he had left his pills at the hotel. The attack was brought on by the unaccustomed exertion of the walk and the anxiety produced by being high up.

Within half an hour everyone was feeling much better and I decided that we should move off. I carried Chuck’s rucksack and helped him down, by the fastest route, to the road and before too long we were, at Chuck’s insistence, downing pints of Old Peculiar at the fist pub we came to.

I had to treat the rest of the group as casualties as the angina attack induced panic in them. They were certainly in no condition to make decisions.

Lessons learned; never trust people to tell the truth on medical declarations and do not expect help from medical professionals on holiday, particularly American ones. The only thing I would do differently (not an option at the time) would be to use a mobile phone to get help.