A Family Affair: Rocky road to romance

Paul Pritchard was left partly paralysed after a rock-climbing accident in Tasmania. He returned a year later and fell in love with nurse Jane Boucher who had helped cared for him. Paul, 32, and Jane, 24, now live in Llanberis, Gwynedd
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Paul:

I STARTED climbing at 16 and immediately got into it. As the years passed I went climbing trips in the Himalayas, North America and Patagonia, and became very experienced.

In 1997 I won the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature with Deep Play, a climbing book I wrote, and decided to spend the money on a round-the-world trip with my then girlfriend Celia Bull. We'd been going out for five years and did a lot of climbing.

We arrived in Tasmania in February last year specifically to climb the Totem Pole, near Port Arthur. It's a 220ft by 12ft needle of rock in the sea, about 50ft from a cliff. As I was starting to go up, a rock the size of a TV set hit me on the head. When I came round, I was hanging upside down and blood was gushing into the sea. I was petrified it was going to attract sharks.

Celia turned me the right way up and climbed to the nearest ledge 90ft above and started to pull me up. It took three hours - it's amazing she managed it at all. I was slipping in and out of consciousness, wondering why my right arm and leg weren't working. She ran eight kilometres for help while I lay on the ledge. A helicopter tried to rescue me but it was too difficult. Luckily, the only climbing paramedic in Tasmania was available and he managed to reach me and lower me into a boat. I arrived at the hospital, 10 hours after the accident. The hole in my head measured 10cms by 5cms, and I'd lost half my blood. I had six hours of brain surgery. I was in hospital for four weeks, and at first I couldn't even speak and I was convinced I would be in a wheelchair for life. I was crying all the time. Celia was smashing, really supportive, and spent most of the day with me. Jane was one of the nurses who looked after me. She was kind - they all were. The three of us decided to keep in touch when we flew home.

I spent seven months at Wirral Neurological Rehabilitation Unit, at Clatterbridge Hospital in Merseyside, learning to walk and speak again. Then I was allowed to spend weekends at home with Celia. We were driving back to Wales one day when she stopped in a lay-by and said things weren't working and she wanted to end it. I burst out laughing because the accident had affected the emotional part of my brain.

After a couple of weeks, I realised she had done the right thing, and she'd been very brave. We're still good friends. Soon afterwards, Jane and her boyfriend came for a visit while they were travelling around Europe. I went back to Tasmania in February for a BBC documentary, and I stayed with Jane for two weeks. Soon I realised I was falling in love but I tried to stop because I knew I was going home. I was gutted at the airport.

I had found somebody I loved, which isn't easy. I had been concerned I wouldn't meet anyone because of my disability. The left side is fine, but I need a splint on my right leg and I walk with a limp. I have a bit of movement in my right arm, but can't move the hand.

Two months later, I went back to Hobart to see if we really did have something. We had a fantastic time. She's kind, fun-loving and generous. And she doesn't get impatient. I'm slow but she never finishes my sentences like some people do.

We decided to give it a go and she flew back with me in May. I've never been so close to anyone. We share lots of laughs, and the odd tear. She's beautiful. We will spend the rest of our lives together. Meeting her has made all the pain I have been through bearable. I lost a lot in the accident, but I've gained a hell of a lot being with Jane. Next year we hope to walk part of Kilimanjaro together.

Jane:

I'D ACTUALLY met Paul briefly before the accident when we were both climbing a local crag. He was just another climber. A few days later I went into work and heard there had been a terrible accident and Paul became one of my patients. He was a nice guy, but didn't fancy him. I invited Celia to stay at my house because I knew Paul would be in hospital a long time. She was very stressed.

When they left we kept in touch with the occasional e-mail and postcard. It was nice to see Paul standing when I visited them in July last year, though his speech was stilted. I was sad to hear about him and Celia splitting up. When I got back to Hobart my boyfriend and I split up almost immediately. We'd spent three months together and it had shown up our differences. I was nervous before Paul came to stay the first time. I didn't know him well and I was worried we wouldn't want to do the same things, and it would be awkward. We went to my family's holiday home by the sea for a couple of nights, which was great fun. It was so exciting to see him walking again.

About a week later, Paul said he was trying to stop himself falling in love with me. I was flattered. I thought he was a lovely man. I was falling for him too - he had this amazing love for life and really embraced it. But I didn't want to get involved because he was going back to the other side of the world. We e-mailed or rang each other every day and I suggested he came over. We got on so well, I handed in my notice at work and came back with him. I was sad to leave my family, but I love it in Llanberis. The mountains remind me of home.

It's wonderful being with Paul. I know I've made the right decision. If there's such a thing as soulmates, that's us.

`Totem Pole and A Whole New Adventure', by Paul Pritchard is published by Constable on 23 September, priced pounds 16.99

`Wild Climbs', which follows Paul's recovery and return to Tasmania, can be seen on BBC 2 on 19 November at 7.30pm

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