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Saturday 28th March 2009

Saturday dawns to clear blue skies and not even a wisp of valley cloud.  The perfect day to be rescued.  Everything that can be is still packed from yesterday, so there’s nothing to be done except lie listening to Radio Australia and admiring the view for the last time. 

The hours creep past slowly, even with the radio.  I’m too on edge to doze: too alert for the sound of choppers, and every gurgle of the creek has by ears pricked, scanning the sky … disappointment.  Lunch time comes, and I’m beginning to worry: if they check the huts as I’d expect, then they’ll fly to Brodrick, find intentions for Fraser, fly there and find intentions for here or the Karangarua.  So hut 3 will either be Christmas Flat or the Horace Walker visible below.  Either way, they should be here within an hour of beginning to search.  The weather is perfect:  no excuses there either.  So where are they?

By mid afternoon the conclusion is unavoidable: nobody is looking.  Plenty of possibilities as to why:

No backup:

-         Has Dennis has quit work or been taken ill and not passed on the responsibility to  anybody? I had no backup / second responsible person to cover this eventuality.

-         Has the sole copy of my intentions sheet been lost? 

Ambiguities on intentions form:

-         I didn’t write the year-month-day of my exit and panic dates, just the name of the day.  Are they’re assuming I meant next week? 

Presumption of skills / knowledge of responsible person:

-         Maybe Dennis, a non-tramper and non-hunter doesn’t realize what he’s got to do.  Did I explicitly say to him that he must call Search and Rescue?  Or did I assume he knew?  I don’t recall.  It makes me think of first aid training where it’s drummed into you to explicitly state: ‘go and call 111’ – not to assume people know what to do. A tramper / hunter would know.  But would a townie ex-programmer?

-         Again, as a townie, maybe he’s just ‘giving him a few more days, just in case’ – not realizing that when someone gives an out date and a panic date the difference between the two is just that.  Again – I didn’t explain this to him explicitly.

Or maybe he’s just forgotten.  Who knows, in the end it’s immaterial.  The circumstances in which I find myself are the same. It is likely to be some time before people come here looking for me.  The dog has already been two days without food.  I have 6 days of food left, but only gas for two: I need firewood, and might need more food to get me through. If I’m going to make the food last longer, I will need warmth. This spell of favorable weather will break eventually:  snow is a real possibility in early April here at 1600m – and more cold means more food.

All of which will be solved by reaching the hut.  There is firewood, there.  There will probably be food. There is shelter able to withstand the worst storm.  And with luck, one day soon there might be people and rescue – especially with the roar due to start at any moment.  I lament the loss of my leghold trap in the storm: the final fallback when all food is gone. Possum for tea: yum.

That said, there will be possums for the dog, but so far in her life she has yet to catch one unaided.  Hopefully she learns, as it would be a tough decision to share my own dwindling food supply with her.  I notice then that her ribs are already visible: dogs are famously resilient to times of famine, but how much can she take?  For the first time I realize she too could be a food source … the inevitable question: when do you eat the dog?  Do you wait until all other food runs out, by when she’ll be nothing but skin and bone, or start on the dog-steaks as soon as possible, whilst meat and fat remain?  Hopefully she’s not looking at me asking the same question!

Time to pack.  Time to take responsibility for yourself.  Time to get off this mountain.

The tent is down, everything packed:  17kg, more or less.  Too much.  Unpacked again on the rocks: what to leave, what to take.  Abandon all maps but the Karangarua.  Book. Swazi top and pants.  Used bandages, towel, spare t-shirt. Decide to wear my heavy Thar jacket instead of packing it.  The pack now down to just food, stove, waterproof, thermals and one change of clothes.  The bare minimum.  The remainder placed in a plastic bag and buried in a hole to be ‘collected later’ – I’m not about to leave $100 of maps and even more in Swazi gear on a mountainside!

I swing the pack onto my back one-handed – a good sign.  The walking stick fashioned out of tent-poles and bandages:  4 lengths of pole, chest high.    Ready to go.  Take 3 steps: the poles flex, I stumble and fall.   No go.

The poles are re-tied 2 segments long, 6 thick.  Bend now, ya buggers!  Only thigh high, but now stable enough to support my weight.  We sidle off, heading left across the face.  Each step chosen carefully to keep the weight on the left of my broken ankle.  Place pole, place foot, test both, weight on pole and the good foot moved.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.

Progress is slow but steady: the dog yipping and running ahead with her usual show of patience.  The first stage involves sidling across the steep tussock slopes to where a good ridge leads down to the boulder strewn chopper-pad-plateau 100m below.  40 minutes and we’re there, stumbling, cursing the thigh high tussock, but the first flats achieved.  I stick close to the creek: at the worst I want to be able the throw up a camp at any moment, so water is essential.  The boulders I had been admiring from above are even better than I had suspected: 3 excellent rock bivvies present themselves: large overhangs, dry sandy sleeping platforms beneath, the creek running only meters away. The dog darts into one, yapping, growling: nose shoved down at a hole at the rear: possum sign on the platform explains why.  Out of reach. Sorry LD but I’m afraid we’ll not be getting that one.

Next: the drop-off into unknown territory.  The faces below the flats were invisible from my eyrie.  The dog cuts across the creek and trots confidently down the ridge on the true right.  The map consulted, I call her back: the slope flattens towards the left of the valley and we head that way, dropping down ridges and cutting left every time bluffs are encountered.  Five or six creeks drain the flats above, cutting deep chasms into the hillside, and soon we’re committed, stranded on our ever steepening ridge and heading down into the unknown. I establish a rhythm leg, stick-leg, leg, stick-leg … progress is fast on the gravel ridge-line.

Bluffs.  Drop-offs.  Stranded.

But at least I can see.  The next ridge to my left drops steadily to the scrubline, a good route throughout.  But between us lies 100m of canyon-like gut – the nearest crossing over 100 vertical meters above on the boulder-plateau. The climb back is slower, agonizingly so.  The slope too steep for my broken ankle, and soon it’s back on all fours: elbows and knees on the gravel.  Counting the paces to ignore the pain.  Objectives: that rock, that tussock.  5 more rests to go, 4 …

Reaching the plateau and it’s not over.  The creek must be crossed: a trickle connecting a series of deep pools in a wide v-shaped channel of smooth, bare rock.  The last 5 meters sliding on my backside down wet rock, culminating in the inevitable splash into the pool at its base.  Scrambling out, the clothes are soaked, but the pack dry and no further injuries: at least the water gave a soft landing.  More elbows and knees up the marshy gut to the ridgeline. Knackered.  But a broad, well traveled deer-track awaits: a welcome highway.

The climbs and soaking have tired me, but I press on: wish to reach the scrub-line today, at least.  It’s more good progress down the deer-track, worn clean to gravel and dirt, and by 6pm we’re beyond the land of ridges and canyons.  The last of the tussock ridgeline fades into a steep face of sub-alpine scrub, fractured where the half-dozen creeks drop in a series of waterfalls to the valley floor below.  400m away, beyond the right-most creek, a good grassy ridge leads unbroken to the valley floor, terminating on the clean moraine wall which holds back the blue-grey glacial waters of the Douglas Lake.  The very route the dog had suggested at the rock bivvies several hundred meters above. If only I knew when to believe her!  The remainder of the face is scrub-covered, broken and slow going.

To our left, we spot a grassy platform atop one of the falls, and drop down to camp for the night.  The platform turns out to be anything but flat: there’s a good 2 foot drop between the head and foot of the tent. But I have shelter and water and I couldn’t really give a damn. I share a muesli bar with the dog … feeling guilty for the thoughts of before?  A frost starting already outside, she crawls into my sleeping bag and immediately slides down the steep slope to my feet.


Sunday 29th

I’m lying there in the morning frost looking at the good tussock route down the true right to the lake.  There’s a lot to be said for a known good route, even if reaching the start would mean a long sidle.  The true left, above my creek, looks good on the map though, and we’re here already.  Decisions.  Finally make up my mind and pack the tent.  I’ll climb to a knob 100m to the left of my camp and spy out the slopes to the left, and then decide.  Stiff in the morning cold, and after a night scrunched up at the foot of my sloping tent. The climb to the knob is slow going. To see nothing conclusive.  The scrub face below is punctuated by a series of grass-banked creeks and shingle slips, all providing easy access through the otherwise solid scrub.  But further down the slope steepens, the curve of the face blocking views of the lower section dropping to the valley floor.  Good, tall bush seems to start at this point so hopefully going will be easy, but what bluffs lurk unseen below?

The decision is made, I will sidle right to the grassy ridgeline spotted yesterday, and follow my known good route.  30 minutes of agonizing sidling follows: sidling right means the short waling pole is in my (broken) right hand on the upslope side where it can reach the ground – and provide minimum support for my broken ankle.  And all for nothing: we reach the creek which blocked our way yesterday, to find it running in a 5m deep rock cleft.  Uncrossable.

So it’s back across the face to my camp and into the scrub and slips on the other side.  Going is good at first, we attain a good creek with grass banks and low scattered scrub and follow it down, losing about a quarter of our altitude in the process.  Until it cuts right and drops in a series of waterfalls to join the main side-creek .  Cut left, onto the scrubby ridge and spy another creek beyond.  Bash though head-high solid scrub.  Force back intertwined branches with each step.  Good and broken leg made to work alike.

And so it goes: gully, steepens, break left to the ridge.  Gully, steepens, break left.  Always keeping that option open: where a gully tightens or threatens to enter a canyon we break out.  An escape route must always be present: forcing downhill though this solid scrub is painful and slow; climbing up it on elbows and knees after getting bluffed would be impossible.  We only get one shot at this, so must get it right.

Finally, after the worst section of scrub yet we arrive, on all fours, at the foot of a fuscia tree.  Ahead an open forest floor drops below a low canopy, patchily lit by leaf-scattered beams of sunlight towards the valley floor below.  We’ve reached the good bush.  The frequent trees and low canopy provide ample handholds and support and the going is great for an invalid – walking pole superfluous.  We drop, losing altitude with ease, and frustrated only by the slippery forest floor of peeling fuscia bark.  Glimpses through the canopy show the valley floor getting closer and closer, and confidence soars.  100m to go, the slope steepens. 50 and its close to vertical.  40m and the floor is in sight  I’m climbing from tree to tree – lowering myself down the vertical slope a trunk at a time.  10 vertical meters above the creek and the trees stop, give out to fern and flax.  All or nothing: no going back from here, I remove my pack to reduce weight and toss it to the ground below.  Grabbing fern and flax alike, I lower myself hand over broken hand to the valley floor.  

Made it!  Nothing but river flats between me and the hut now.

Almost nothing.  We continue down the side-creek I’ve followed from my eyree camp 600m above: 1km of bush-bashing, creek wading and slithering over slippery river-bank rocks before reaching a series of interconnected tussock clearings, and then the Douglas itself.  

The river is dropping rapidly: losing a meter in ten through a series of rapids.  Uncrossable.  Heading downriver, hoping to reach flatter sections or the valley we run into the base of tall bluffs. The deep pool at their base is easily swimmable, but unreachable beneath a 2m waterfall in the river itself.  The hut taunts me, less than 1 km away across the flats beyond the flow.

Back upriver, and things aren’t improving.  There are several places that could be crossed with two good legs: where good rocks provide bracing against the strongest flow.  But hopping on one leg, unable to see smooth surfaces through the milky water on which to brace my bad ankle … no go for sure. At worst, we could swim the Douglas Lake itself: cold for sure with glaciers at its head, but ‘doable’.  So upriver we continue. About one kilometer beyond where we started and an opportunity presents itself.  The river flows fast, but smooth through 100m of straights.  Rocks at its head force the main flow from my bank towards shingle fans on the far side.  The perfect place to swim: 100m of clear water with the current to aid my crossing.  A gentle, shallow exit point and shingle banks to catch me it all goes wrong. I lower myself into deep, still water, protected by rocks.  The comforting feeling as the pack hits the waterline, providing buoyancy – lifting me to the surface.  All I have to do is propel and steer!  Out, past the rock barrier and I launch myself into the main flow.  Arms and legs pumping, the current taking hold, pulling me downriver, but towards the far bank.  Scratching, scrambling on my back – the dog seeks a flotation device of her own.  And then we’re there: knees scraping on shallow shingle banks.  Poles, tethered precautionarily to my arm, provide support, leverage; I’m up, walking, climbing the shingle banks and back on dry land.

Stocktake:  all broken bones feel just as before – no further damage their.  My ‘good’ knee is in agony though – bashed against a rock, or complaining after 2 days of abuse followed by submersion in ice-cold water.  But I don’t care.  There’s nothing but flats between me and the hut.  In a couple of hours I’ll be sitting dry in front of a roaring fire, a roof over my head and sampling whatever culinary delights have been left in the hut.  Paradise: and we’re nearly there.

My coat and long-johns are soaking, but the sun is out and a warm breeze blows.  They’ll dry quickly on me in this breeze, and it seems silly to risk getting my only dry clothes wet, or to soak the contents of my pack by stowing the wet ones.  So off I hobble down flats, dripping dry as I go.  A good clear walking track follows this bank, and I soon spot boot prints heading upriver.  Hopes soar: hunters up to the heads for the day?  Climbers heading for peaks above?  Either way they may well be back.  Round the base of low bluffs, and the hut is in sight 800m away across flats.  Energy flows, fatigue forgotten.  Leg, pole-leg, leg, pole-leg … the meters surge past.  100m from the hut and the track crosses a small creek.  I look down, negotiate slippery rock, and the look back up at the hut: so close.

To see the most beautiful sight in the world.  There, exiting the hut doorway with water bucket in hand, is a hunter.  Heading down the track towards me.  Salvation.  Rescue.  


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