- UK-based environmental journalist James Fair knows from personal experience just how unpredictable working in the field can be.
- After years of reporting on wildlife conservation projects for BBC Wildlife Magazine, Fair is deeply familiar with the many dangers faced by biologists, ecologists and zoologists in their work.
- Two decades ago after a fall and ankle injury while working in Bolivia, Fair half-crawled nearly three miles to get help.
One fine day in late November in 1998, while standing on a knife-edged, precipitous ridge some 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level in Bolivia’s Cordillera Apolobamba, I came across a veritable latrine of sweet-smelling bear scat. I took out a couple of clear plastic bags from my small blue rucksack, and carefully placed the neat dung piles inside them, before zipping them into the rucksack’s top inside pocket.
Scat, dung, poo — call it what you wish, but I spent many an hour in that deeply folded terrain scanning the tussocky grasslands for any sign of it. I was working with a Ph.D. researcher named Susy Paisley, who the year before had trapped and radio-collared two male Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus), South America’s only species of bear. Collecting the scats — let’s call them that — meant we could not only see what they’d been eating (mostly terrestrial bromeliads known as puya), but DNA analysis would tell us which of the two bears had been marking out his territory on this particular ridge, and our knowledge of this enigmatic species would be extended a notch or two.
I nearly hadn’t gone down that ridge. I’d never been this way before, nobody knew I was here, and I didn’t have one of the two-way radios we usually used to stay in touch with each other. But it looked safe enough, and I had a feeling about it. For a month or two, I’d been repeating the mantra, “Go the extra mile, Go the extra mile,” while searching for bear scats, and here was evidence of its essential truth. I’d probably only descended half a mile, but I’d found them — it was great place to have a bowel movement, that’s for sure.
Once I’d packed the precious parcels, I stood up and gazed out one more time over the cloud and rainforest that stretched out before me like rumpled green velvet. Job done, time to go home.
Even today, more than 20 years later, I still have a vivid memory of what happened next. As I turned to head back up the hill, some rocks beneath my feet gave way, causing me to stumble and lose my footing. I fell back and suddenly found myself falling further than I had expected. “Oops,” I thought. “Don’t twist your ankle.”
I dropped some 6 feet, 2 meters, or so, nothing that was unduly alarming, and I briefly landed on a small ledge. But by now I’d attained quite a bit of gravitational momentum and there was no stopping me. This time I went over a vertical precipice, rotating in mid-air and landing with a bone-jarring crunch on my head, after which I started to cartwheel in a shockingly carefree fashion. I recall hitting my head at least once more and wondering how many more times it could happen before my neck snapped like a dry stick.
In terms of thoughts going through my head, that was all I had time for.
No flashbacks of my life, no poignant recollections of loved ones or loves lost. Within what seemed like seconds, the slope bottomed out, and I came to rest in a crumpled heap. My memory here, again, is quite specific: my first reaction was to wiggle my toes to see whether my backbone had survived the assault unscathed. They moved. Perhaps I was OK.
Well, not entirely. Looking back up the hill, trying to identify where I’d come from and how far I’d fallen, everything was out of focus. Closing one eye after another revealed the vision in the left one had been knocked askew. Plus, there was blood coming out of my mouth and from some unidentified region at the bridge of my nose, and my breathing was labored and painful. I think it would be fair to say I was also in a state of shock, having narrowly (or so it seemed) survived a roughly 100-foot (30-meter) fall down a near vertical slope in a remote valley in the Bolivian Andes.
The notion that I could, or even should, have died seemed unescapable.
As I staggered to my feet, I realized my back had been so twisted and wrenched that it felt as if it had been tied into a figure eight. I could barely stand up, let alone walk. It was only 2 or 3 miles (3 to 5 kilometers) back to the two small stone cottages that counted as “home,” but that was a small comfort.
I crawled much of it, and at one point halfway back up the ridge I’d plummeted down so rapidly, I collapsed in sheer frustration at my snail-like progress. Mountaineer Joe Simpson’s epic account of walking back to base camp after crushing his knee and then being dropped into a crevasse, after summiting the previously unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash of northern Peru, as recounted in Touching the Void, flickered into my consciousness, along with the Boney M song he couldn’t get out of his head, “Brown Girl in the Ring.”
If Joe could walk 5 miles (8 kilometers) with a completely mangled leg, I reasoned, I ought to be able to so with back pain and blurred vision.
And of course I did. Pusupunko, as we called our tiny collection of thatched stone cottages, was deserted when I arrived back, so I collapsed on my bed and waited for Susy and her field assistant, Natalia, to return. I remained more or less immobile in the bed for the next three days, and once I could walk without feeling like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I hiked back to the nearest village some six hours away and left Pusupunko, never — so far — to return.
I’d like to say that my closest near-death experience taught me an invaluable lesson in appreciating the value of life and the need to make the most of it. I’m not sure it did that. It certainly taught me not to go stumbling around crumbly rocky ridges in search of bear latrines, because it’s simply not worth dying for the odd double helix of ursine DNA. But that’s not a life lesson that comes in use on a day-to-day basis. I suppose it’s been a good story to dine out on over the years.
After I’d recovered from the injuries (and had my eye seen to; all those thwacks of head on rock had caused a major retinal hemorrhage), I returned to the U.K. and landed a position with a major British wildlife magazine, my first proper job as an environmental journalist. I’d like to say that my career soared like an uncaged bird thereafter, but I think it’s been more akin to the looping flight of a European woodpigeon: up and down, up and down, with the occasional breather on less-than-lofty tree perches.
Occasionally, the episode reminds me of the potential pitfalls of fieldwork, and of course, challenging terrain is just one of many dangers faced by biologists, ecologists and zoologists going about their business. My job reporting on wildlife conservation projects for BBC Wildlife Magazine took me all round the world, including close encounters with forest elephants in Gabon and polar bears in Svalbard, but there were no real risks to worry about there.
Just occasionally, too, I do recall the mantra that had caused me to end up on that exposed rocky ridge, and while I still shudder at the idea of my crippled body lying helpless at the bottom of the hill, my back broken, condors circling menacingly above, I also smile at what I’d been saying to myself just before I fell. “Go the extra mile, go the extra mile.”
And, as I work on this or that story, it might just prompt me to redouble my efforts.
Banner image: The high mountains of the Rockies. Image courtesy the University of Colorado-Boulder.
About the reporter: James Fair is a wildlife conservation and environmental journalist based in England and a regular freelance contributor to Mongabay. You can find his stories here. You can also find him on Twitter at @Jamesfairwild.
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