Thursday 21st December
Today was a day I won’t be forgetting in a while (and neither, will my friends and family). A highly inspiring yet humbling mountain adventure, which it is with deep gratitude I am able to retell. Read on if you dare!
Dropped off by the early morning shuttle at the start of the Tongariro Crossing, I had two choices: hitch a lift to the village or walk 3 hours across the National Park. I chose the latter, lured by the prospect of a beautiful, peaceful walk, particularly after seeing the crowds marching the Crossing, and it was! I had the National Park to myself, as I navigated by the snowy peak of Mt Ruapehu with panoramas all around including four striking volcanoes (Mount Doom for LOTR fans). The winding, up and down, ankle twisting path was a mix of jagged volcanic rocks and half mud track, half ditch – hard to tell at times which part you were supposed to walk on and even harder to get out when it became a definite ditch. Walking times in New Zealand are confusing: at the beginning of the track it said 2 hours 40, but 20 minutes later 3 hours and 4 hours at the end! (For those interested, it was a most enjoyable 2 hours 50 minute early morning hike!)
Arriving in Whakapapa Village, I received mixed advice on climbing Mt Ruapehu… “You need an ice axe and crampons…”, “Sorry no guided tours yet, but there will be in 2 years time…”, “The mountain is sacred so we’re asking people not to go to the crater…”, but encouragingly the lady at the foot of the mountain explained, “You can go wherever you like… there are no signs yet, but everyone just makes their own paths in the snow.” She couldn’t advise how bad the snow was, nor how long it would take to reach the crater, and had no maps to sell, but suggested people were up there trekking and I couldn’t wait to see for myself! Some fellow tourists kindly offered me a lift (so I didn’t have to hitch!) and I climbed in my first chairlift, enjoying the views of the waterfalls and excitedly watching the snow drawing nearer! I’ve never walked in snow before, despite having climbed Everest to base camp and Kilimanjaro, but I have always longed to, so this was thrilling!
Hopping down from the chairlift and into the snow felt like magic! And as I walked high up on the mountain’s slopes, where the blue sky met the crisp white snow and an inviting challenge loomed above, I felt so alive!
At 2020m, we left NZ’s highest café behind (Google Knoll Ridge Café – I meant to take photos on the way back down) and started following a few wooden posts, but they quickly disappeared and the mountain was ours to make our own tracks. I soon got ahead of the couple I had met and let the fellow travellers enjoy their planned day trip without a tag-along! Instead, I headed on and up, taking advantage of rocky patches wherever possible, trying to pick out the easiest route. The snow was slippery and though fun, also tiresome, and the rocks seemed the safest option. I continued on like this, loving being out in the fresh air, albeit rather regretting bringing my heavy backpack with all my belongings from the last few days, including 2 books and a sleeping bag! Scrambling up the rocks was fine, but the snowy patches in between became harder and a little skid cautioned me and made me appreciate the reason for crampons and ice axes. But starting to feel like a true explorer now, I looked around for anything that could help me and picked two pointy rocks to use as ice axes. It wasn’t elegant climbing, but I made progress between the rocks and patches of snow, getting closer and closer towards the top ridge. Climbing in the Himalayas with a group of like-minded trekkers appreciating the breathtaking scenery was amazing, but at times it felt (and was) like a queue of rich tourists paying to be taken up to the top. Creating my own paths up the steep slope brought such an intrepid thrill: this was mountain climbing on a new level, a real adventure.
In Alexa Johnston’s biography on Sir Edmund Hillary (one of the books I was carrying with me!), she quotes Hillary on first glimpsing the Himalayas: ‘Our hearts were filled with wild enthusiasm… I felt a rush of emotion […] and wandered off by myself in the dust to revel’ in the moment. Indeed, enthusiasm took over for me at this moment and though I was well underprepared for a proper expedition, I determined to climb up to the next ledge, next crop of rocks, until the way became too difficult. Aware that I was exploring alone now, having left behind the other trekkers, I texted a friend with my location and the promise of a half-hourly update – a great idea, until you lose signal!
Mountains always have false summits – I find that expecting them and looking forward to the new view helps you persevere without too great a disappointment. Therefore, when I reached the first top ridge, I was excited by the perfectly untouched blanket of snow I saw, covering a small depression in the land, and pressed on, finding a safe way down to walk, skip and badly cartwheel through this sheltered valley. I was still amazed by how delightful it was to step on flat, fresh snow and also relieved to be out of the strong winds that could get quite forceful in exposed places. Furthermore, when I reached the next ridge, it was a rush of elation that overwhelmed me, that I could now see the real summits, the crater and the lake. Yes it was far, but just the sight was exhilarating.
At this point (some time before 4pm) the route became more troublesome and I became unsure: approaching the summit directly on was not an option due to a serious vertical drop in the rocks, but I still had time to explore before resolving to turn back. I made some headway down some initially gentler slopes, before everything changed. Curious to see over the edge, desperate to find a way down, I stepped on a flat patch of icy snow, unaware and unprepared for any danger……… It’s hard to explain the next few moments: my feet flew out from underneath me, my bum hit the snow and I saw the rocks at the top of the cliff edge hasten rather quickly towards me… and then I remember no more. No collision. No pain. No fear even.
The next thing of which I was aware (some 45 minutes later) was an odd sensation in my mouth of seriously messed up teeth (missing or intruding deep into my gums), then deep cuts bleeding down face, and then that I was perched all too precariously on a rock a little way down that steep vertical drop! Unexpectedly however, practical needs predominated over the sheer terror I would normally experience at the sight, mention or even thought of blood or any damage to my teeth. In fact, even as an adult, I dread any such accident happening to me or anyone I am with; I can’t even watch hospital scenes or gory injuries on tv without quietly diverting my eyes from the screen! But sitting there in a bloody state, I didn’t get overwhelmed by shock, disgust or trauma, but just kept focused and very slowly shifted to find my small first aid kit and bandage up some of my bleeding wounds. Thankful now to have my whole rucksack with me, I carefully put on some more clothes and wrapped up in my sleeping bag trying to keep warm. At this point, I was perhaps a little dazed or in shock, so I sat tight. I had tried to phone emergency services, but there was no signal so I supposed I just had to wait. Who knows how conscious I was throughout or how much time passed, my thoughts were somewhat confused.
Eventually though, it became clear to me that I was unlikely to ever be found where I was perched and while it would have been easier to stay there and wait, I kept thinking of the dear Fergusons who had shared the last month travelling with me and were the only ones who knew where I was, so with their love in my heart, I drew all my strength together to sit up and look around at the options. It did not cross my mind to attempt to climb back up to the icy ledge where I had slid; I never even looked up at how far I had fallen, so the only decision was which route to scale down. Testing each rock with a foot or hand, I used all my climbing skills (practised recently at my niece’s birthday party for the first time in 10+ years) to start descending. The rough volcanic rocks were full of excellent pockets and easy grips, but were often loose and quick to start a small landslide. I didn’t allow myself to think or entertain fear – trembling legs and sweaty hands are no help in climbing – so whenever I felt it coming, I pushed it away and thought about what I had to do. It was getting harder and I was now regretting the heavy pack on my back, but I just had to get down and to signal.
What happened next still feels utterly and eerily surreal, unbelievable, like I’m telling the story of some fictional character, not me…
As my hands found and tested a perfect, large grip and I tried for a little too long to securely place my feet, I heard the terrifying, crunching sound that could only mean one thing…
And it did…
The huge rock to which my hands clung crumbled away from the cliff face. I had no time to move, I just recollect falling backwards in slow motion, somersaulting…
…maybe 4 times…
… and miraculously landing feet first in the soft snow.
Phew! My first thought was of relief: gravity had done the last tricky bit of climbing for me! But there was also incredulous praise that I had survived unscathed, un-paralysed, on my feet, my spine, neck, legs, arms still moving. The ankle I had landed on felt a bit sore and the other foot was missing a shoe, but it too came tumbling down a few seconds later, landing not far from me. Oh, and then there was the blood I soon noticed, this time pouring from a deep gash in my head. Regretting that I had packed no long bandages, I remembered my training, any material item would do, and found a perfect-sized bright pink travel towel that I fastened fast around my head. It worked. Phew, I breathed once more.
All in one piece again, I now stood in the valley beneath the large crater and the numerous summits. I admit, ascent to the crater rim was still tempting (and with hindsight may have placed me in a more obvious location), but I knew I needed to head down to signal. Thus, after attempting to capture the cliff face in photo, I plodded, skidded, slid and sledged through the snow, covering ground rapidly and still in spite of everything (and perhaps very much on an adrenaline rush), enjoying this extraordinary mountaineering escapade. Enraptured by my surroundings, standing on the slopes of such a prominent peak, alone and at one with beautiful nature, I revelled in the incredible opportunity, and took another picture! In her book, Johnston aptly asks why mountaineers climb: ‘Why expose yourself to uncomfortable and dangerous situations, risking everything just to stand on top of a mountain?’ No doubt everyone has their own personal reasons, but many of Ed Hillary’s rang true: ‘a sense of satisfaction in overcoming difficulties, the joy, akin to dancing, of controlled rhythmic movement, a stimulating contact with danger, a wealth of beautiful scenery and a release from the tiresome restrictions of modern life’. He speaks of ‘a spiritual lift’, ‘intellectual ecstasy’ and that it is ‘an act of worship just to sit and look at a high mountain’. Now I’m certainly no mountaineer of Sir Ed’s calibre and do not pursue mountaineering with such single-minded devotion (and nor would I have the capability to do so), but mountain walking for me, be it in Scotland or the Himalayas, lifts you up above the clouds, out of the dark ditches of life, spurred on by the pull of satisfied accomplishment, into such elated freedom and heartfelt worship at the immense, awe-inspiring, and humbling wonders of creation. Injured in so frightful a way that would previously have sent panic through me, yet I stood there (and took a photo), marvelling at the wondrous place I was in!
I reached the end of the snow and with still no signal, my prayers were becoming more desperate. Scrambling down the rocks, aware of the ankle pain now, I could see another drop ahead where the gushing mountain stream I had been walking alongside completely crossed my route. I hobbled past a couple of pouring waterfalls, which I admired and photographed, but could not see any way forward. Then, just at that moment, my phone came to life, beeping crazily with texts from Mary, surprising me, as my phone is always on silent! My heart rejoiced that I had finally reached a pocket of signal and I called the worried Geoff and Mary, who were already on the phone to the emergency services. Hearing their voices was such reassurance after so long, and knowing that rescue was on its way was a huge relief. However, the signal cut out almost immediately, and I wasn’t able to text or load a photo from Google maps as the emergency services required. In fact, although it was so clear in my head where I was, which way I’d gone, how to reach me, it was difficult to convey this without a clear map, and the mountain was, I guess, quite big!
Now 6pm and having made some contact, I settled down on a dry rock, as flat as possible, but it was not comfortable, the sleeping bag was slippery and I was constantly nervous of falling. I phoned emergency services (111 in NZ) several more times, increasingly concerned that I had heard no helicopter, and desperate to clarify exactly where I was, but I don’t think all my snippets of information made any sense and I needed to conserve phone battery. After some time and a stroke of genius, I opened the compass on my iPhone and found what could possibly be my GPS co-ordinates! Thank you Apple – how clever and life-saving technology can be! So again I phoned, and this time the police explained that it was too windy for the helicopter to fly, but a search and rescue team were out looking for me on foot. This was both concerning yet hopeful news: at least they knew where to find me and were on their way, but would I actually be found?
I must have sat there a long time, but it strangely seemed to pass reasonably quickly. My head was a frantic mess of thoughts and emotions (and pain): a replay of the day’s events, praise for the adventure, thanks for the escape, mixed with extreme pleas to be rescued, and soon! As I reflected on it, there were already so many miracles and are undoubtedly many more of which I’m unaware: that I experienced no extreme pain; that the cut (which I later found out went down to my muscle) had narrowly missed my left eye; that I had dressings and tape to patch up the bleeding; that the deep gaping cut in the back of my head (requiring 10 staples and internal stitches) seemed to have stopped bleeding; that I was conscious (!); that I had had the confidence to rock climb some of the way down; that I had had a soft landing of snow; that I had somehow landed on my feet (thanks to some trampolining practice); that I was still in one piece(!), able to move and walk on my ankle; that I had a sleeping bag and more clothes; that I had a rucksack to protect my back; that I had the mental strength to keep going; and that I had finally found signal! My begging prayer to God was that He had not saved me thus far to be left abandoned on a mountainside and I desperately pleaded to be rescued before it got dark (amazingly too, it was the longest day in NZ).
And then the sun set. A sheet of darkness drifted down from above. The sky glowed red (and I took a picture!) and the black covers were pulled up, the mountain was tucked in for the night. I wondered if the rescue team would continue? How long would they persevere? Could they ever possibly find me? I was hidden on two sides by huge slopes and now it was completely black, even my sleeping bag was grey. Again I felt fear pressing in, but I rejected it. I had just been reading a Christian book about struggles with anxiety and depression, stating that fear is not from God (2 Timothy 1:7) and so I rejected it as much as I could, focusing my mind determinedly on anything else. The NZ police were extremely helpful encouraging me to call back every hour to update, promising help was on the way, and telling me to shine my phone torch every 10 minutes. These small things helped me stay focused, as my mind babbled away to myself or God, I kept repeating, “I can make it through the next ten minutes, the next hour.” Most thankfully, I had warmed up in my sleeping bag and thermal liner; mentally, shivering there in the cold could have pushed me over the edge, but in spite of the fierce cold winds I urged myself that I could probably survive this summer night – besides, I had survived colder up Everest!
In the middle of nowhere, the stars are breathtaking. A quick glance upwards and I was filled with new comfort and appreciation; at least I was sharing these rare moments surrounded by such sublime natural beauty. Occasionally, I thought I saw a light; it must have been a plane (or my hallucinations), but each time I flashed my torch wildly. One light beam was particularly persistent and I waved my torch and shouted as loudly as I could, but the waterfalls drowned me out and I didn’t dare believe that this time it could actually be what I hoped for. The light beam continued on and off and eventually… eventually… I heard a shout, a muffled shout… I’m not sure I could clearly make it out or remember, but it didn’t matter; it was real… a real voice… it really was people!
There are no words! The utter relief. The ecstasy. The joy. After 8 hours of waiting and over 10 hours since the fall, it was insanely good to see people again. There were garbled exchanges of thanks and delight from them too that their search was over. According to the news reports, I had a blood-covered face and head, but I wasn’t cold or asleep as some suggest! My rescuers, two volunteers from Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation (RARO), offered to help me stay warm where I was for the night, or climb up to Whangaegu Hut which happened to be only an hour away. Neither option was entirely satisfactory – I wanted to be away from here, medically seen to and sorted out immediately – but to employ any more effort sitting and not slipping on these rocks felt too big an ask. So together we trudged over the rocks and up the scree slope, zig-zagging where it was too steep and avoiding rockfalls and landslides, using the guys’ arms and ice axes for support. It was really hard work, but they were so encouraging: sympathetic, chatty and entertaining – a welcome distraction. When I saw the hut, a short 50m descent, my ankle suddenly became acutely painful: I had exhausted every ounce of mental strength, but I was out of danger and soon in a bed. Even though I couldn’t sleep with a bleeding head through pain or worry, I could lie down safely, rest and give thanks.
Friday 22nd December
Dawn eventually came. I could hear the wind whirling outside the window, but most wonderfully the news came through that a helicopter was attempting to land. Being carried up and around the mountain for several hours would not have been anyone’s preference! Instead, I hobbled and was chair-lifted into the front of the helicopter, with a first-class view over the mountains and national park, all the way over Lake Taupo back to Rotorua. It took about an hour and the pilot did point out that you could pay for decent helicopter rides – I needn’t have gone to such extremes!
Being wheeled into the Emergency Department on a stretcher, images of hospital tv series rushed through my head and all of a sudden the significance of the last 24 hours became all too real and my first (memorable) experience in hospital was beginning. But that’s a whole other story and not one I wish to remember. Suffice to say, I still don’t like hospitals and especially not needles, cannulas, stitches, staples; in fact, the whole ordeal was far more traumatic than being alone on the mountain – the poor doctors and nurses! I am hugely grateful to all of them though for fixing up my injuries: a fractured ankle, rib, maxilla (upper jaw), a stitched up chin, deep cuts sewn up above and to the left of my eye, and a deep gash in my head sewn and stapled back together, swollen lips and gums, bruised and numb head, scrapes and bruises down one side of my body and blood still matted in my hair; only the sore or missing teeth have not yet been fixed.
After one night, I was free to be discharged. It was a long night, but for once I was grateful for the time difference, as all of England were at this time awake. I received lots of (worried) but lovely phone calls and amusing messages and videos, making me laugh, smile and feel very loved. Most impressively, I received a beautiful bunch of flowers less than 12 hours after speaking to some friends – the miles between friends can be so quickly covered these days. And as for now, I’m recuperating nicely. The dear Fergusons who drove 5 hours to be with me, comforted and entertained me for two days in the hospital, and have done many more things that cannot be listed, are looking after me so wonderfully. The 5 children stayed up to welcome us home, not skirting away from looking at me as I did with myself for the first four days. They jump to help me out, play games with me, joke and laugh and most of all accept me (as they always have done) into their family, only occasionally hopping away with my crutches! How blessed I am to be here in such a relaxed and adaptable, loving, warm family as I recoup.
As I conclude, I am most grateful to the volunteers from RARO who searched for so many hours to rescue me. I did worry whether they’d find me, whether at some point they’d give up, decide it was too difficult, miss me in my dark grey sleeping bag cocoon. But no, willingly (and enthusiastically) they gave up their evening at home just before Christmas, traipsed through the night, hauled me up to the alpine hut, slept only a few hours, before helping me once again to the helicopter. Then, guess what? They headed off back to work! What amazingly generous, spirited people to do all that for a complete stranger; we certainly have a lot of quiet, anonymous heroes in this world, and I (along with my friends and family) am most truly thankful. As my Dad put it, they save accidents from becoming tragedies – what an incredible Christmas gift!
From the beach on Christmas Day, wishing you a blessed holiday season and all the very best for 2018!
The Rescue team:
Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation (RARO) is the search and rescue group of volunteers (inc. Mark and Hogi who rescued me) that work on the mountains in the central north island (NZ). Police also engage the services of various helicopters and pilots to help when they can and in my case they used the Greenlea Taupo Rescue helicopter.
On request, they provided bank details, explaining that, while in no way required or expected, any donations are very much appreciated and would be used to help with training or purchasing of alpine rescue equipment to help others in the future.
My aunt also kindly found this link to donate to the helicopter rescue team: https://www.rescue.org.nz/media/woman-survives-multiple-falls-and-a-night-on-mt-ruapehu/
Some of the news articles:
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/100162112/i-didnt-know-if-i-would-be-found-relief-as-uk-tourist-rescued-on-mt-ruapehu (This is the interview with the journalist I did – only had time to phone one!)
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11964905 (New Zealand’s most popular daily newspaper – rather a sensational report!)
References (formatting long forgotten and lacking in WordPress!):