Time for a brutal, mind bending, shocking story. It was my brother Ben who alerted me to Dan’s accident. Mutual friends through south west hero Tom McConnell, Ben asked me if I knew Dan and knew what had happened… That’s when I looked on his Instagram and saw everything.
It’s the story of how a near-death accident with horrific injuries can be handled with the positive mental attitude one learns from a life of BMX. As Dan says, it may have been a climbing accident but it’s been BMX the whole way.
Interview by Robin Pearson
Photos by Paul Foster / Tempomedia (unless credited)
“I fell 25 metres off the side of the mountain.”
– Hey Dan. For people who might not know who you are, who are you?
I’m Dan Oakaby, I’ve been riding for over twenty years. I grew up in the BMX scene around Exeter, which was amazing, it kept me stoked on BMX. With riding I got into the mechanical side of things and I’m now head mechanic for a main car dealer. All my holidays and spare time from work are spent exploring with my bike, meeting people all around the world.
– Tell us about your accident. Give us the whole thing.
We organised a weekend climbing trip to the Lake District, just wild camping in bivvies in August 2020. Just to have a good time, some adrenaline, hanging with friends. I’ve been climbing for a few years, I’ve found it’s something I really enjoy. In the same way as I look at BMX, it’s all about the adventure and the journey.
We climbed all day on the Saturday, did some big routes, it was amazing, then went swimming in a river in the evening, then to the pub in the valley. Woke up on Sunday morning and headed into the mountains again, climbed loads of routes, everything was going well, the weather was perfect.
Last route on Sunday evening, I climbed up to the first pitch and then something happened. I don’t know what. I fell 25 metres off the side of the mountain. What helped me and what saved my life is the fact that I was hitting rocks on the way down, slowing my fall. But of course, my body was breaking as it was hitting things. But yeah, those impacts saved me from death, as crazy as it sounds.
Climbing in the Lake District the day before the fall.
After the drop, the damage and injuries my friends witnessed… They’re still in shock about it. The recovery those guys have gone through… Those guys are my best mates who I’ve been riding with for years, on roadtrips and stuff forever, they’ve got the spirit. Tom had to run down to a farm at the bottom of the hill to get phone signal as he still had shoes on, Rowan had to stay with me, Josh was still up on the climb, stuck.
I had blood pouring out of my head, I couldn’t breathe, I’d punctured both my lungs, my body was just shutting down. Tom finally got through to the emergency services. The Langdale Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team arrived. Eighteen of them turned up, doctors, an anaesthetist, they all had to climb up to where I was. They had to cut me open there and then to release blood pouring into my lungs, as both had collapsed, give oxygen, I was obviously out for all of this. And then we had to wait for the helicopter, which was a coastguard helicopter with a winch, that had to lift me off the side of the mountain. This whole process took three and a half hours. Three and half hours of hell, basically.
“I would’ve had a brain injury, but I was wearing my helmet. My BMX helmet. With all the stickers and everything. Without that, I wouldn’t be here now.”
I was airlifted from the Lakes up to Glasgow. I was with The BEEP Doctors crew, which is a volunteer doctor group that works in partnership with the rescue team. I stayed in the hospital. I was put into a two-week induced coma. My ribs had to be rebuilt, my eye socket had to be plated, my wrist had to be plated. They found that my ribs had almost pierced my heart, they’d actually grazed the outer lining. There were 40 staff who assisted me that night. I was in hospital for a month.
Glasgow’s main hospital there was the best thing that could have happened to me, the staff there, the way they looked after me, the facilities, everything was top grade, I couldn’t believe it. My wife Mary had to spend a month up there with me, at my brother’s wife’s family house.She has been amazing, looked after me so much. She loves me and my BMX and got respect.
After the time in Glasgow, I had my own plane to bring me back down to Exeter.
I got taken to Exeter hospital for two days and then I was released! And I’ve been home since. I lost all my weight, all my muscles, so I’m in the process of getting my fitness back. With what happened to my lungs I have to be careful not to rush any of that.
– Horrific. Lucky to be alive!
Yeah, and I was about to lose my left eye. They had to work so hard to keep my eye, same with my lung.
Also, I would’ve had a brain injury, but I was wearing my helmet. My BMX helmet. With all the stickers and everything. Without that, I wouldn’t be here now. The damage on the helmet was phenomenal. It’s the one I’ve taken all around the world with me. The red one! I’ve been told that it did genuinely save me, as the quality is higher than a normal climbing helmet.
They had to cut it off me but I’m so glad they were able to keep it and give it back.
– What state are you in now with the injuries? What’s still affecting you?
The big one is strength throughout my whole body. And then my ribs, because of my punctured lung on the left, that holds me back walking long distances and everyday exercises. Because of where my wrist was plated, the motion is restricted. Every morning I’m doing physio and stretching, trying to get the movement back in my wrist and to help my lungs.
– How has the recovery been so far?
That’s the crazy thing, all the doctors I’ve met, (and I’ve met a lot now) I’m a miracle to them – they cannot believe how fast I’ve healed, they’re blown away by it. I’m thinking to myself, why? I don’t have a super healthy diet or anything, but I think it’s the BMX mentality, I’m used to it and I’m determined to heal. The love and support from the BMX family, from people around the world has been incredible, I’ve been amazed by it.
“When I came out of the coma I was thinking, P.M.A. Positive Mental Attitude. You’ve got to be Positive, you’ve got to be Mental, and you’ve got to have Attitude!”
I mean I’ve been to hospital a few times before with BMX injuries, so when I came out of the coma I was already thinking, P.M.A. Positive Mental Attitude. But then I broke it down and made it my own: you’ve got to be Positive, you’ve got to be Mental, and you’ve got to have Attitude! That was my thing. That’s what kept me going.
This year I want to do a charity event for the Langdale Ambleside mountain rescue team and for the BEEP doctors, and at the same time make it a BMX jam, have bands playing… All the good stuff. Obviously if it wasn’t for those guys I wouldn’t be here, so I want to support them and give back as much as I can.
Even though it was a climbing accident, it’s been BMX all the way through. Climbing with BMX mates, wearing my helmet, PMA coming out of hospital, support from the BMX family.
– Do you think you’ll have any lasting issues, or do you think you’ll be 100% one day?
I don’t know at the moment. I’m having lots of check ups, especially for my ribs. Because of the way they broke, they’ve been plated around my body which affects the strength of my lung, so the main thing is being out of breath due to the oxygen level I can take in.
Also my head. As I hit my head, or rather my face, so hard, it shook and disturbed the outer shell of my brain. I’m closely monitoring everything that I do, I’m seeing occupational therapists, they’re doing tests. With my wrist, it’s the strength and flexibility of it. I can eventually have that plate removed in the future. I need that movement and strength to be able to ride BMX again.
– Tell us about the scars that you’ve now inevitably got.
On the bottom part of my eye I have a big one, above my eye I have another big scar, where part of my skull came through my eyebrow… As I say, my friends were there on the mountain and had to deal with seeing all that. Blood pouring from my head and everything.
On my body I have two scars on where they had to cut me open on the mountain to release pressure. Above that I have a big one, more than 30cm long, where they rebuilt my ribs.
– Any leg injuries?
No, and no spinal injury either. They locked my spine to be sure, and for the induced coma, so I have a scar on the back of my head from that. It’s the craziest thing ever, I fell from that high and didn’t get any leg or spinal injuries. What I’ve said to other riders since my accident is that I’m used to falling from riding… Maybe that helped with the outcome somehow.
I did have a GoPro on. There might be footage of me falling. I don’t want to watch that… Not for a very long time at least.
“I’m so glad that I didn’t have this catastrophic accident on my bike.”
– For those interested, what kind of climb was it?
It was trad climbing, a multi pitch climb. Basically there were two climbers and you work up. There were three pitches, I was going to get to the first pitch, make a three point anchor and then beelay the next person up, then that person would carry on to the second pitch. The bit I did was easy, in a way that, when I fell I hit stuff on the way down. If it was a hard first pitch, I would have just dropped.
I am scared to climb again, yes. Depending what kind of climbing it is. I will climb again, maybe bouldering or something. But trad climbing again, that’s a big question. I wouldn’t want to upset my family by trying to get back into it.
– Looking forward?
I’m so glad that I didn’t have this catastrophic accident on my bike. If I did it on my BMX then in the future I’d be scared to ride it, but now I’m stoked to ride again and I know it’ll be the best release.
– Give us a list of thanks and appreciations.
The main ones: Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team and The Beep Doctors. Both charities. My wife Mary, Tom Mcconnell, Josh Beale, Rowan Beale, The NHS, my mum and dad, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Glasgow, and the helicopter team.
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