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A Cautionary Tale

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A Cautionary Tale

By Rosie Rochester on 31st July 2020 Advice

A Cautionary Tale

Before things turned nasty!

With three decades of backcountry adventures, mountain safety survival courses and outdoor qualifications under my boots, I was given a sharp poke in the ribs reminder by Mother Nature this weekend on just how quickly things can go bad in our NZ mountains. Obviously I was overdue for a refresher course in not underestimating weather conditions & decision making, and it was scheduled for Saturday. Nobody is immune. It’s our ability to keep a level head and not panic in despite of the danger we face that gives us the best chance of survival. The decisions that we make in these crucial moments decide our fate. Never never underestimate the power of Mother Nature! We are but a small speck of dust in her storms eye! Let me share my tale with you, some of you may need to hear this!

It’s rare, but sometimes I get a leave pass from being a mum of 5 & it’s always an epic adventure my soul craves when I can get away. The weather forecast wasn’t fantastic, I’d briefly studied it, but it looked passable (Mistake #1)

With four seasons in each hour-type conditions I headed off. A few days' supplies on my back and plenty of warm alpine gear, my first goal was climbing Tunupo Peak in the Ruahines. I was soon greeted with stunning views & leatherwood and alpine plants turned ice sculptures...  it was mind blowing amazing. Conditions were challenging underfoot, my toes frozen solid & screaming at me in my trail shoes. No, I didn’t wear my boots, running was the plan (Mistake #2) but capturing frolicking photos in the snow with my self timer still seemed a fun priority! Things got wild at the summit, 1570 metres up & the temps were well under zero, throw in the wind chill too.

I decided to push on as my planned route across the exposed tops and then down to Irongates Hut wasn’t too far (Mistake #3). Visibility was haphazard and it was insanely windy & cold, but I was confident I’d get across these tops quickly. Checking my navigation often I set off as quick as I could, but it was incredibly slow going in the snow, ice plants under foot, trying to find a route, minimal visibility, but I was making forward progress and running on some sections that I could. The wind was freezer blast ferocious atrocious now, nowhere to shelter and it was starting to be a battle to move. I just dug deep and pushed on, reminding myself it wasn’t too far across. I saw ahead a large rocky outcrop, so I stopped there and huddled over to get some respite from the gale. I removed my jacket and put on all my extra layers & puffer jacket, 5 layers on my head, raincoat back on, shoved some chocolate in my mouth, but it seemed strangely frozen and was near impossible to get down. I couldn’t stay still for long, I was starting to shiver badly so back out into the furious icy gale I went. The uncovered parts on my face were getting battered and I tried to cover it up with my thin buff, made a mental note to buy that warm balaclava I’d been meaning to.

OK, so now I’m getting scared. These temps were so far below zero, exposed and completely vulnerable to the elements, I knew in this moment this blizzard was threatening to take me out. Hypothermia is cruel, she eats her young. I knew every minute here was precious and I didn’t have long till she took me down & devoured me. My hands are so frozen my fingers won’t work, but I manage to call my lifeline, Curley. It goes straight to his answer phone. F**k I think, I’m on my own. I redial, 5 times each time getting the answer phone. On the 7th attempt he picks up, we can’t really hear each other through the wind, and I’m not making much sense, but he can tell I’m in trouble. The clouds had just lifted for ten seconds, It gave me a glimpse of how far across across the tops I still had to go. I’ll die, I know I’ll die if I carry on I’m thinking in my head.

“I can’t make it, there’s no way, it’s too far, I’m too cold, the wind.... I can’t make it” I’m having trouble speaking at this point, my words sound slurred, stringing together a sentence seems hard. “ I think I should turn around & go back but I don’t think I can make it back up to the summit, I can’t get back up there, I don’t think I can do it, & the conditions back up there will be way worse”. It's only about a 100 metre vert climb to get back up, he can see on the map, but it seriously looks like Mt Everest to me in this moment. My coordination seems askew and my body is feeling unusually weak. Either option seems impossible, but carrying on across the section of tops I know I have zero chance of survival, and option 2 -  climbing back up to Tunupo summit and then down to safety -  is my only chance.

The phone cuts out. I push my distress aside, the only thing I can do right now is to dig deeper than I ever have before. I put one foot in front of the other, looking for footprints to return the way I’ve come. It’s hard work, there’s snow /ice covered plants I’m scrambling over, I’m falling often, each footstep I’m sinking deep in the snow, my heart rate is through the roof, visibility is next to nothing. I find solace in some of my footprints to follow. The ice gale is battering me sideways but I push on, there’s no way I’m dying today, this is not how my story ends.

Through the white out, just ahead, suddenly pops out the ice covered weather station on the summit, the relief that I have made it back to the highest point is almost overwhelming, I know in this moment I’ll survive to tell this tale. I’ll gonna be ok. Curley gets another call. “I can see it, the summit, it’s OK, I’m here, it’s OK, I'm OK now, I’m gonna be OK” ...

I have shared this story so hopefully, other than shaking your head, you too will bundle up some takeaways & learnings and put them In your survival sachels. To all my running and mountain climbing buddies, just because we may only have limited time to get into the mountains, don’t, and I repeat don’t let your craving for that adventure override your sensibilities and that less-than-ideal weather forecast. Don’t wear running sneakers in the snow at this elevation, and if the weather gets wild don’t, don’t push on, there is always another day! That mountain is going nowhere! Those trails and that adventure awaits you for next time! Turn around and Go Back Down! Down to those rivers and those valleys and safety from the elements that await you! Frost bitten toes is not a great souvenir, but a good reminder of a day that could have ended very differently.

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