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A climber repaired his broken leg and descended a mountain on his backside

Posted in Adventure, Bravery, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about mountaineering originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Emil Habl, picture, image, illustration

Emil Habl lost his balance and went crashing down the rock

Ever since he was a boy, nineteen-year-old Emil Habl had been “passionately fond” of mountaineering. He spent each summer holiday climbing the Austrian Alps near his home in Vienna, when he also collected specimens for his treasured botanical collection. Emil always made these climbs in the company of experienced Alpinists, but he secretly longed to scale the mountains on his own.

He finally decided to do this in June, 1899, when he took the train from Vienna to a village at the foot of the majestic Mount Rax. By then, Emil was working as a compositor on the Vienna newspaper, the New Free Press. He had been given a week’s holiday, and had told his parents he intended to make “the most interesting, that is to say, the most difficult” climbs.

Despite being warned about the hazards of such an undertaking, he refused to hire a guide or join one of the climbing parties. And, after booking in at his hotel, he set out at dawn on the 13th of June to try and conquer Rax single-handed. At first he found the going relatively easy as he followed the well-marked track. But before long he ran into serious trouble.

As he climbed higher the stripes of green paint which indicated the track grew fainter and fainter. It appeared they had been washed away by the recent rain, but Emil was too busy admiring the scenery to pay much attention to this fact.

“The shapes of the rocks were extremely bizarre,” he said, “among them being many curiously-formed towers and wild battlements. . . . Suddenly I found myself confronted by two gigantic and almost perpendicular rocks, which so completely barred the way that the only thing was to ascend one or other of them.”

Spotting some iron clamps set in the larger rock, he determined to make his way up the steep, smooth face. After two attempts he had climbed some thirty to forty feet, but, to his “dismay and disgust,” he discovered that he could not get any higher. Forced to descend, he put his foot on a loose stone and then stumbled heavily.

“My heart leaped with instinctive terror,” he said. “I lost my balance, and despite my efforts to steady myself with my alpenstock, I went crashing right down the rock, and remained there in a state of unconsciousness.”

Emil’s accident occurred at about 7.30 a.m. He did not regain consciousness until several hours later, when he found he was wounded in several places, and was bleeding profusely from a number of deep cuts.

“On trying to get up,” he stated, “I saw to my horror that I had broken my right shin-bone. It was quite impossible to rise. The break was about six inches below the knee, and at first glance I knew it to be a very bad open fracture – in which the bone stuck out through the skin.”

For the rest of the morning and afternoon, Emil lay where he was. He shouted for help until his voice grew hoarse and a deep depression came over him. The more he thought about his plight, the more desperate it became. For, out of all the accounts he had heard of mountaineering accidents, there was not a single case of someone with a broken leg crawling his way to safety.

Meanwhile the sky had clouded over and heavy rain began to fall. It seemed obvious to Emil that no one would come across him. He had strayed from the usual track, and even a search party would be hard put to find his position. So, although every movement caused him untold agony, he decided to make the descent on his own.

Before he could attempt this, however, he had to set and bandage his broken leg.

“In spite of the agony it brought me,” he said, “I rolled over and over the ground in different directions like a bale of goods. At last I managed to collect a sufficient quantity of fallen branches and bits of fir and moss. The next thing was to tear the sleeves of my shirt to use as bandages. Finally I was ready to set my leg, so that I could at best move more freely and with less pain.”

Fortunately for Emil he had brought with him a box of iodoform gauze and cambric. He used these to clean and protect his wounds from dirt and germs. He also packed an extra layer of moss around the break in his leg. Then, using all his remaining strength, he placed the bone in what he judged to be its correct position.

“Next in the queer operation,” he said, “came my alpenstock and some boughs in place of splints. I finally tied the whole together with string, my hat-line, and necktie. More than once the splints slipped, but at last I succeeded in making as good a job of the setting as the circumstances permitted.”

It was then that he began his painful and perilous descent. He inched his way slowly over the ground until he reached a sheer decline some fifteen feet high. There was no way round this obstacle, and the wounded mountaineer was forced to lower himself down the even face of the rock.

“I sought long and carefully for resting places for my sound leg and my hands,” he said. “And, having found these, and also proved every hold, I gently let myself down. When I had nearly reached the bottom, it was totally dark. The rain was now falling more heavily than ever.”

By the following morning the rain had stopped. Emil breakfasted on some wild strawberries and drank rainwater which he had caught in his hat. Then began another day of slow and tortuous progress as he slipped and slid down the side of Mount Rax. He spent a second night lying in the open, but was in too much pain to sleep properly.

“On the Thursday morning,” he stated, “I felt so tired and feeble that I was hardly able to advance a yard. Again I was strongly tempted to lie down and await the end. The sharp rocks had cut me so I could no longer slide along in a sitting posture, but was forced to lie on my back and push myself along.”

His back was now a mass of wounds, and his clothes had been torn to tatters. Once, after lying perfectly still for two hours, he thought he heard the sound of voices. He shouted out loud, but his cries brought no response. That evening he again made a meal of strawberries and rainwater, and for the first time since breaking his leg he managed to get some sound sleep.

At daybreak he continued his painful struggle down towards the valley. Finally he came within sight of some houses and his hotel. He called feebly for help, and this last effort caused him to faint. His call, however, had been heard by one of the maids who was on her way to work. She quickly gave the alarm, and a short while later Emil was taken on a stretcher to the Hotel Kaiserbrunn.

From there he was transported to a hospital in Vienna, where his anxious parents hurried to his bedside. Later, when he had recovered from his ordeal, Emil said that his love of mountaineering was as strong as ever. “The memory of those three terrible days and nights will deter me from undertaking difficult climbs by myself,” he vowed. “People tell me my feat was one of the greatest on record, and I have no wish to improve on it!”

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