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Sunday 29th March 2009 (continued)

The hunter spots the fact that I’m injured (I’m limping along supported on a 1.5 foot high stick made of tent poles, after all), disappears into the hut to reappear with a strong 6 foot wooden pole. He ushers me to a chair as his mate appears. Telling my tale and describing my injuries I get the feeling there may be a bit of skepticism, but that changes instantly when the bandages come off my thigh. A camera quickly appears and Exhibit A is soon photographed from all angles. They hunters have an undepleted 1st aid kit which we raid, and soon wounds are washed with antiseptic, bound in sterile dressings and broken joints rebound with clean bandages – or to be more accurate strips of muslin meat bag. The dog is tied up and hungrily eyes the two weka which live under the hut. An 800g tin of spaghetti is offered as an alternative and is gone in a flash. See boss: these people feed me, even if you don’t.

The hunters it turns out, are waiting for their chopper out which will come either today (Sunday) or Wednesday, depending on when the next party to hunt the block decide to start. They drag out a mattress into the sun and I doze comfortably through the afternoon in its warmth as we wait for the chopper. The hunters must have talked between themselves as I dosed, because on dusk with no chopper seen, they announce that they’ll walk out to the road the next morning and call for a rescue chopper to come immediately. Amusing in retrospect: I’d happily accepted a 3 day wait for their chopper to arrive, unconcered as I was about my injuries having lived with them for so long. To new eyes they were probably a little more alarming!

The hunters feed me up on huge meal of beans and rice (where’s the thar and venison? Call yourselves hunters!) – it takes several sittings to eat it all after a week on minimal rations. I stretch out luxuriously on a mattress opposite the fire: a soft, flat bed with no stones, a full belly and the warmth of a fire. What greater luxury can the world provide?

(I have to admit I’ve never found DOC mattresses to be either soft or comfortable before: but it’s amazing what a week on a bed of rocks can do!)

Monday 30th

The hunters are up and gone before first light, a 10-12 hour walk ahead of them. They hope for rescue today, but realistically they are unlikely to arrive long before dusk and I set my own expectations on the next morning.

There’s not much to do in the hut except sleep, read and eat, eat, eat. With my six days of food and another week or two’s worth left by the hunters there’s no need to skimp. I’ve not felt hungry since the accident, despite the small rations; but now, surrounded as I am by unlimited supplies, the hunger returns with a vengeance and we spend our day feasting on fruit salad, apples, muesli and, of course, the ubiquitous rice.

Eating aside, all there is to do is tidy the hut, stow my gear ready for the chopper, and tidy myself up ready for civilization: a shave and a wash – can’t arrive in hospital looking like a tramp. I write a brief account of my trip in the hut book. It’s short, by necessity of a broken arm, but to the point describing the fall, the wait, the walk out and the joy on seeing the hunters. It ends with the line ‘… but wait till I get my hands round the neck of the ‘mate’ who was supposed to call SAR’.

Dark arrives, as predicted, with no chopper and so another luxurious night is spent in front of the fire. The last night before rescue. Strangely, feelings of sadness and impending loss are stronger than the obvious relief and expectation of rescue. I have been entirely responsible for myself for the nine days since the fall: every judgment call, every challenge, every decision has been my own. Absolute freedom, absolute responsibility. I realize that very soon that freedom and responsibility will have to be surrendered: I will need to put myself entirely in the hands of others and become a mere passenger in this story, in which up to now I have been both protagonist and author.

Tuesday 31st

I lie in bed dreaming of choppers, waking with the realization that the chopper is real, clattering as it turns in the valley and sweeps down to the landing site outside the hut. I react in panic: I’m not ready, had expected another hour or two of twilight to stow my gear in my pack and get everything outside to be collected. I rush round the hut on my stick stowing sleeping bag and yesterday’s clothing, getting a rope on the dog. And so it is when the paramedic arrives: the supposedly badly injured patient rushing round the hut stowing gear!

I’m reluctantly allowed to hobble to the chopper on my own feet (what’s 20m more after all that went before) and sit in the back seat with the dog at my feet. She seems unconcerned by the chopper – was more worried the previous morning when the hunters left (‘but you’re the only ones who feed me’). I’m offered pain killers – which makes me laugh: in ten days the thought of painkillers has not even occurred! It takes two trips to get everything and everybody to the Karangarua bridge, as there’s two paramedics, the pilot, little dog and myself, plus my gear and that of the hunters – left behind to make for a quick walk out. We fly down the Douglas, then the Karangarua in clear morning light, tucking under the first reaches of coastal fog to land at the helipad at the end of the Copland Track. One of the paramedics radios to base: collected patient: suspected broken wrist, suspected broken ankle, cuts to the leg. Suspected? Do they think I’m putting it on?

A 4x4 is parked, unloading, right in the centre of the chopper pad but the pilot finds room to land nearby.

I sit on the DOC ‘Helipad - No Parking’ sign with the dog tied up beside me whilst the chopper returns for the rest of the gear. A paramedic remains with me and starts to look at the injuries: insists, against my protests, on removing the dressings on my thigh. You can tell he’s impressed. 4cm wide, 3cm deep, one four and one six inches long he states. ‘Not seen anything that bad in a very long time’ – asks if he can have a photo for posterity. The ankle’s next: swollen to twice its size of 3 days ago by the damage from the walk to the hut. The leg’s purple with bruising from the knee down, and I show him the darker patch on the ankle where the bone attempts to exit through the skin.

We sit and wait for the chopper – me repositioning my hand trying to get the circulation flowing again. Better look at that too, he admits, and removes the bandages. The wrist has slipped into its 1 inch dog-leg position and I can tell he’s impressed by this too. Definitely broken, he admits.

The chopper returns and the hunters’ gear is unloaded and left next to the DOC sign along with the dog: to remain there for a DOC ranger to collect. Little Dog’s been very good and loyal up to this point, but I’m not sure how she’ll take being left tied to a signpost in the middle of the West Coast with only sandflies for company whilst I’m choppered off into the blue yonder. You can get traumatized for life by things like that.

The journey to Greymouth is smooth and easy. I’m told to climb onto the stretcher this time and warned that it’ll be the last walking I get to do for a long time. We chat as we fly. The hunters apparently arrived at the nearest house to the roadend at 8:00 at night, having left at 6:30am – a 13.5 hour slog on my behalf.  

Yes: we would all have done the same thing in their place (or I hope we would).  But the point is that those two hunters are the ones who did it - a slog out through terrain as bad as it gets to save someone else - no, more than that, to give them the best possible chance even though they could justifyably have sat back and wated 3 days for the chopper that would come and collect them.  Do I need to ask if the media have got the right hero in this story?

Whilst they were slogging out, the chopper and crew had spent the previous day up the neighbouring Copland valley rescuing a tramper fallen from the track. Talk turns toless positive topics:  American tramper Ed Reynolds, now missing for over 5 weeks, and the search in the Matukituki and around. The paramedic has been reading up on possible tramping routes through the area, has read one route by the madpom!

At the airport, I’m secured to the stretcher and transferred into the ambulance for the 100m trip to Accident and Emergency. I need a pee, and am given a bottle to piss in. This is it, mate, this is The System. It’s all out of your hands now.

A&E brings a welcome surprise. I’ve spent some time on the west coast tramping and the like, and can’t exactly say I associate the area with beautiful women. The reason is soon clear, however: they all work in Grey Base Hospital’s A&E department.

In the course of the day I’m examined, wounds undressed, cleaned, dressed, x-rayed and the rest. The staff are cheerful, friendly, chatty and informative: great. The ankle, I’m told, has blown out the right side of the socket, and will need a plate and bolt in place until the bone regrows. The wrist is a bigger mess: the top half of the joint disintegrated completely and the bottom half twisted up by 90 degrees. A whole catalogue of metalwork will be inserted and bone stolen from elsewhere to seed regrowth where the original is missing. The thigh is clean and surprisingly infection-free considering conditions and timeframe. Did the salt / cleaning regime do it’s job, or was I just lucky? Maybe I should have kept one of the two lacerations as a ‘control’ to test the theory! The doctor goes off to look for spare parts, promising surgery in the next couple of days, dependent upon availability.

The phone rings whilst I’m being attended in A&E and it’s for me – glad you’re out and alive, call the buyer as soon as possible regarding the sale of the shop. Yep – top of my list of priorities right now. The hospital communications officer is amongst the crowd attending me – he’s also under a barrage of calls: the press, radio and TV – all wanting interviews ASAP. Seems I’m the latest story. I don’t have any desire to talk to them and fob the issue off until after surgery. Fame and stardom are not my cup of tea.

Speaking of cups of tea, I’m on Nil By Mouth for the forseable future until the availability of spare parts is determined and surgery scheduled. Have to feel grateful, yet again, to the hunters for making sure I got a decent feed before this lot got their hands on me and put me back on starvation diet. In the ward, and I ask for a magazine to read which promptly appears. It’s a home and garden type magazine, a special edition about cooking and baking from you garden.

Wednesday 1st

Days go faster now, thanks probably to the painkillers. Wednesday I’m wheeled off to surgery for my leg to be seen to: no parts in house for the arm, but they want to get the leg done as soon as possible. Fine by me. Don’t even remember going under, but wake back on the ward to find a nurse with a telephone peering in to see if I’m awake. It’s my folks on the line – after what feels like several minutes of trying I manage to get to words ‘general anaesthetic’ out and fall back to sleep.

The doctor arrives to see how I am and shows me the front page of The Press – it’s topped by a photo of me and I get almost the whole page to myself. The story has a few inaccuracies, and is bordering on being critical – specifically suggesting that no intentions had been left and that a search would have taken ‘months’. This, I realise, is the price for not talking to them yesterday as requested: clearly they’d decided I was news, communicative or not, and thus it was inevitable that rumour, hearsay, half-truths and opinion will be used in place of fact when they have nothing else to go on.

Surgery on the wrist is scheduled for lunchtime tomorrow, and a press conference arranged for the morning. The plan: to give them one shot to listen to the story from my own mouth, ask their questions and be clear that they’ll not hear from me again. Get the truth out and then allow the thing to drop from the news as soon as possible.

Another day on nil by mouth, though ironically they insist on feeding me painkillers orally, even though nothing hurts.

Thursday 2nd

Next morning there’s visitors: police and SAR both wishing to talk to me before I speak to the press. It’s all friendly – they seem most concerned to tell me that I have not been ‘condemned by the police’ as was apparently reported in the papers. They have the interesting news that SAR were actually called by Middlemarch late on Sunday (constant pressure by a friend/worker and my parents had overridden the manager’s continued unwillingness to call them) – and that a search commenced on Monday. A copy of my intentions form is produced, and we discuss its shortcomings and how, with better information, they could have found me that same day, specifically:

  • I did not state explicitly where my vehicle would be left (or the make, rego, etc). Standard practice is to locate the vehicle before stating a search for the person, to ensure that the missing person is still in the bush and hasn’t gone home. I shouldn’t have assumed that the vehicle’s location was obvious given my proposed route, and in fact a large area of road network, much of it nowhere near the Huxley, had been covered before it was found.

Other issues they bring up include:

  • I did not state my experience level: this could allow searchers to make a better judgement of my likely condition, ability to survive and likely actions
  • I did not state how well equipped / provisioned I was
  • Route details were sketchier than they would have liked. I’d been wanting to keep my options open given imperfect weather and unknown terrain. To counter this I’d left more detailed daily routes in hut books each day, once the options available to me were clearer. My argument was that standard search procedure is to check the huts first, and that as such details in hut books would be found and followed. Obviously however, SAR would prefer to know a detailed route up-front.
  • Whilst I had listed possible alternative routes, no prioritization was given to each, and they were not described in detail.

The discussion was certainly productive for me: it was clear that I ‘could have done better’ in some areas, most particularly regarding the location of my vehicle. But it was also comforting to hear that after the delay caused by having to look for my vehicle, searchers got as far as Fraser Hut on Monday. They were contemplating whether to fly to the next hut listed (Horace Walker) in the near-darkness or wait for the morning. It was at that moment that the call came through to let them know that the hunters had reported my location (Horace Walker) and condition (stable). Somewhat different to the ‘months’ of searching reported in the press.

I’m digesting this as I’m wheeled out to the press conference, half expecting a grilling. Various newspaper reporters are there, along with TV3 who take charge of the operation. Is this the pecking order amongst reporters? I’m given free reign to tell my story in my own words, uninterrupted, then questions are called for. This is good as it gives me the chance to spell out my failings in my own words rather than under interrogation: missing equipment and lack of detail in the intentions. The resulting questions are polite and friendly – no combat, no confrontation. My doctor is called for, but remains unavailable (I ask him later if he was hiding, but just get a smile in response) and a substitute is rounded up instead. She produces a couple of one-liners that are happily scribbled down: ‘any one of these three injuries would have stopped most people’, and a comment that when they reposition broken bones, as I had being doing regularly with my broken wrist, the patient ‘normally requires sedation’. It gave me a laugh anyway. As they’re leaving TV3 drop one bombshell: they’ve been up to the hut to get footage, and have a copy of the hut book entry. It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn’t have threatened to throttle the ‘mate’ in writing.

I later watch the interview online. What to me had felt a gabbling, rambling and incomprehensible monologue, the TV crew have condensed beautifully into a coherent, complete, accurate story of what I said. I note that I’m grinning like a loony throughout – not my usual state of being. Blame the painkillers!

More surgery in the afternoon. Back under general anaesthetic, and then the usual groggy awakening – this time sharpened by pain. Growing, intense and unbearable pain. The wrist feels as if the doctor’s still in there with a set of crowbars bending it back into shape. I call for the nurse and am fed the maximum dose of morphine she’ll give me at the minimum intervals – literally counting the seconds until I’m allowed the next one. Finally I’m doped up enough to doze into the next day.

Friday 3rd

Friday brings three delights of varied degree: a introduction to hospital food, fan mail from people I’ve never met, and a move to a shared ward. The full breakfast: bacon, eggs, black pudding, mushrooms and fried bread, which I recall from my last visit to the English hospital system is sadly missing, replaced by a slightly more healthy diet. The food is good though, fruit and vegetables in abundance after weeks of rice. I really long for a steak, or a curry, or something with flavour and texture. But considering they’re catering for people in various states of incoherence and disability (try cutting steak with one hand, for instance), they do very well.

Fan mail is more of a surprise. From what I can tell, my story appeals most to women in the North Island between the age of 40 and 90 – though there a few outliers beyond this trend. It’s great to receive though – cheers me up even if I can’t quite understand the phenomenon. Do the same people write to everyone in the news? Or do certain stories inspire certain people who’ve never done such a thing before?

The Barclay Ward is closed for the weekend, so those of us left are farmed out to other places. I end up in a shared ward with people recovering from joint operations. A ward full of elderly men, all forced to sleep on their backs, and all snoring well up the richter scale. Thursday night turns out to have been the last sleep I’ll get in Grey Base Hospital. Be warned: the most important thing to take to hospital is earplugs!

Saturday 4th

Saturday I’m dog tired and feeling very low. No prospect of getting out of here soon, no ability to do anything when I do, a whole list of things that need doing for the shop and for myself and incapable of all of them. Abandonded here in my bed and unable to get even as far as my walking frame parked over by the wall.

A smiling nurse enters on the shift change at midday, asks if I’d like a shower, like to get up and go for a walk. Is there anything I need? Her cheerfulness and good will are a godsend – prospects are suddenly not so bleak. A phonecard is arranged: I can call people. The stinking heap of clothes in my pack are washed, dried and folded. I get to shit, shower and shave, and am soon feeling like me again. My bed is arranged so the walking frame can be left next to it: I can get up and wander at will. Nurse, I don’t know your name, but you were an angel.

Sunday 5th

One man in plaster, sleeping on his back. Richter 5.

Monday 6th

First thing Monday the doctor gives me the OK to go home. I’ve arranged to go and stay with a mate in Palmerston North, rather than rely on the threatened ‘home-help’ in Middlemarch. All I need now is the permission of the physio and I can book my flight. She needs to arrange a walking frame from Palmerston before she can give it, as I can’t take the one I have with me. I wait out the day impatiently, willing the phone call to arrive. It doesn’t.

I’ve spent most of my time here in a cheerful half daze, unable to do much for myself and completely reliant on the nurses around me. But now I’m beginning to get energy back: stay awake all day rather than dozing, feel the need to stretch unused limbs. The once-sanctuary has become a prison and I’m desperate to leave.

Three men in plaster, all sleeping on their backs. How far does the Richter scale go?

Tuesday 7th

Midday the call finally comes from Palmerston. Too late to arrange flights for today, but at least I know: 22 more hours to go. Funny: I was never so desperate to get off my mountain and I am to get out of the hospital! The flights are booked: Air NZ helpful and efficient. There’s no extra charge for them to provide wheelchairs – I merely book online and then ring them to tell them one is needed. Easy as that. The Barclay Ward receptionist (another unacknowledged angel) sorts out a shuttle-bus to the airport, chatting throughout about her life and mine. She’s one of those people who leave you feeling you’ve been taken into their confidence, feeling that you are someone special. This is so uplifting for someone who’s spent a week feeling increasingly useless and incapable: feeling maybe like a number, maybe a brick in a wall, sometimes an exhibit. Those nurses and carers who share something with you, encourage you, treat you like a friend as well as a patient: they are something special.

The last night: 3 men in plaster lying on their backs. Bring the house down.

Wednesday 9th

The night lasts forever, but eventually the grey rainy morning creeps through the windows. The shift changes, and I’m up and about. I badger the nurse again about the stitches in my leg and behind, irritating for days now. The doctor is called and determines that they are ready to come out: relief after the prospect of sitting on them in planes trains and automobiles all day. Well OK, not trains.

They’re finally out 5 minutes before the taxi’s due. Agony: the skin had grown over the top of many and there was digging to be done. ‘Now that wasn’t so bad’, says the snoring ward-mate. You only believe that ‘coz I had a T-shirt in my mouth to stop me screaming, mate!

I’m dreading the day ahead, unsure of how to manage it. A taxi, an airport, a small plane, 4 hours in Christchurch airport, another plane and then uncertain collection from Palmerston as Pete’s out of the country until midday. But everybody is brilliant: the shuttle driver fetches a wheelchair for me at Hokitika, wheels me in, check in my stuff, waits around to make sure I’m OK. Air NZ are brilliant: rearrange seating on planes around me. It’s a wee 13 seater, but no problem from the chair. At Christchurch the staff note the long wait, wheel me to a cafe for some food, and to a table by the window. Tell me to call them if I need anything. And on to Palmerston North – a larger plane this time. There’s no-one to collect me at Palmerston, but again the staff happy to call my mate’s mobile – confirm he’s still on his way back from his own flight in Wellington. A potential nightmare of a day made easy, made clockwork by people willing to think. willing to do whatever is needed to help.

And so I’ve made it home. Not my own home, I know. But a place I know with good mates around me, a place to get back on my feet in more ways than one. The dog’s flying up from Mosgiel in a few days, again with Air NZ’s efficient help. Here I am, 19 days since I lay there at the base of that bluff, looking at the blood and giving myself 10 minutes. I feel I must have changed in those 19 days, should have learnt something about myself, in that time. But if I have, it has come as subtle changes, subtle understandings, not blinding flashes of revelation which I could pass on to you.

‘Weren't you scared?’ people ask, ‘How did you do it?’

It’s not ego when I answer ‘No’; not false modesty when I say ‘it was easy’. You see, if you know what to do, if you are prepared and have the gear with you, then the next step is always obvious. You stop the bleeding, you bind the wounds, you get shelter, you eat and stay warm, you wait for the rescuers. When no rescue appears, or when you know none will come, you get yourself to a place where you know people will find you, where you have warmth, where you have shelter to wait it out, where you can find food. 

Because you know what needs doing, each step is obvious.

Because you take them one step at a time, each step is easy.

No heroes or supermen required: any and all of us can do that.