Lessons learned:  when rivers rise…

Good judgement usually comes from experience, and experience usually comes from bad judgement…

When you’ve been into the outdoors for a while, its sometimes easy to forget the experiences which shaped what kind of outdoors person you are, or the skills and judgement you can bring to bear on a situation. A flick back through your photo album to trips long gone can be a great way to remind yourself of lucky escapes and foolhardy decisions.  Here, Dan Clearwater reflects back on one of these trips from when he and his mates were young and felt bullet-proof.. 

Plan A was to have a mellow social tramp with lots of buddies to a hot pool somewhere, but as the weekend approached, the forecast soured and we downgraded our plans numerous times.

Pinchgut Hut is in the Mt Thomas Forest, north east of Oxford in the Canterbury foothills. I had visited the area before on a day trip, but it seemed like a hut suitable of an overnight stay when the forecast was terrible in the alps. The easiest route in was via the Okuku River valley; a track that forded the main river at the start, and crossed a few tiny tributaries on the way. There was a heavy rain warning in force for the main divide:

Surely it won’t reach over into the foothills or arrive early?

The Okuku was mid-calf as we started out and the side streams were barely ankle deep.

Easy crossings of the Okuku

Our stroll in was very pleasant, with patches of blue sky, no wind and very mild conditions for August. Our group of four chatted away during the level section, but had to save our breath for the climb over a spur right near the end. At the hut, we joined two hunters and later on, two more trampers arrived. We’d brought some popcorn, which was a fun (tasty) experiment as we stretched, lazed and read on the front lawn.

Popcorn at Pinchgut

It began to drizzle late in the afternoon, but we were tucked up inside enjoying a delicious meal of Butter Chicken, with a nice Riesling and jam scones for dessert.

At about 7, I was woken by a loud noise.  Sitting bolt upright on the mattress, I realised the noise was the roar of heavy rain on the tin roof. From my bunk, I could see directly into the small stream outside the hut. Except it wasn’t a small stream anymore. Last nights tiny trickle had turned into a chocolate torrent. Its width had tripled and it was flowing with menacing force. And then the rain began to fall harder… We all had work on monday…  I had a flight booked for work in the north island… Another had to drive home to Timaru early on monday to be at work by 8.

All conventional wisdom pointed to staying in the hut, waiting for the storm to pass, then going to work late and accepting the chastisement of our bosses. But this is a story about poor decisions, and poor decisions were what we made.

I shook the others awake and suggested we get the $#@% out of there: They seemed to agree. In 25 minutes we were packed, dressed, fed, out the door and into the storm.

From the knoll on the track, our view of the Okuku quickly dashed our hopes of getting back to the car. Bank to bank, raging and brown, it looked un-crossable, but we continued down to river level to check it out close up. Where the first major side stream came in, we were stopped in our tracks. Yesterday’s dry boot rock hop was now a totally impassable torrent of white death. Where we had wandered along sandy banks yesterday, the water flowed waist deep. I made a token attempt to scout a way across the confluence but one step out into the flow, it was obvious; it simply wasn’t worth the risk. (Perhaps the only good decision we made all day). Besides, there was one more significant side stream, plus the Okuku itself to ford. So ‘back to the hut’ it was.

The Okuku in flood

On the way back, we bumped into the two other trampers, who added themselves on to our group in the (incorrect) impression that we really knew what we were doing.  At this point our days travels should have ended; warm, dry (and perhaps a little hungry) in the hut. We would have been a day (or two) late, but safe and sound through the storm.  But blinded by fear of being late for work, we brainstormed possible alternative options to get out of there. One of our new group members mentioned that he had a cell phone (not as common back then..) and that he had mates in town who owed him a lift. Together, we hatched the plan to scoff our lunch as second breakfast, then climb up over Mt Thomas to the south side of the range. From there we could call for a lift, or if all else failed, find a farmhouse and ask to use their phone. From town we could get other cars to retrieve ours from the Okuku, and everything would be sweet. What could possibly go wrong?

Starting up the hill, it was soon apparent that our two new companions weren’t very fit. One in particular was really struggling up the hill. He kept telling me; “go ahead, I’ll catch up later”. But since he was part of our grand plan for transport and didn’t seem well prepared for the storm, I made sure that we all stuck together.

Starting up the ridge in the rain… Slow-guy being slow…

As we climbed higher, the rain got heavier and the wind stronger. Only half way up to Mt Thomas’ modest 1023m summit, It began to snow.

Slow guy had been toughing out the climb in just polar-fleece, so as the snow fell, I suggested that maybe it was time for him to put on his raincoat. Turns out he hadn’t brought one… Though as we paused to take weight from his pack to increase his speed, we found out he had lots of other useful things; a cast iron frying pan, long handled spatulas, a chilly bin and a K-Mart sleeping bag. Thankfully, his mate had a survival blanket, which we wrapped around slow-guy to function as a make-shift a poncho.

Who needs Gore-Tex?? Survival blankets also seem to function like the latest snow-camouflage outfit.

Re-reading this story here from the warmth of my office, I’m just shaking my head at how stupid we all were to keep going. But keep going we did…

As one would expect, the higher we climbed, the stronger the wind grew and heavier the snowfall became. I had to stop occasionally to clear the accumulated snow off the chillybin that I now had strapped awkwardly to my pack.

As a result of wading through streams up to our waists in a vain effort to cross, our feet and legs were now properly numb. The visibility was about 100m and it was increasingly difficult to keep to the route through the snow-laden trees. Despite our poor choices thus far, the team rallied together well, with sharing of chocolate, sharing of slow guy’s gear and keeping communication going to check on one another’s condition. I was very worried about slow guy though; it was difficult to tell whether he was simply unfit, or whether hypothermia was starting to effect him. Although we were soaked to the waist, the rest of us had full storm shells on and were just warm enough in the core whilst moving. Slow guy had plenty of layers of camouflage polar fleece, but only a poorly covering survival blanket as a shell layer around his core.  If he succumbed to the cold and we had to stop to help him then all of us were in real danger of hypothermia.

It was still closer to return to the hut than to carry on, but even with so many lemons lining up we continued…

With plenty of encouragement, we managed to get everyone up the spur and onto the main ridge. Now out of the shelter of the beech forest, the driving snow began to sting on our faces.  We were all surely experiencing mild hypothermia by now, but despite its effects (or maybe because of them) we doggedly continued. The shortest track off the ridge would have taken us to the ‘wrong’ side of a side stream from the access road, so we were forced to continued across the tops, through a few sections of bush and finally up to the summit of Mt Thomas. The relief was huge as we started down, knowing that we were descending out of the snow and away from any river crossings. It took until the ground was free of snow for my feet to warm back into the ‘feeling my toes’ temperature range. 7 hours after leaving the hut, we arrived at the road end.

In a stroke of good luck, the first house we saw had lights on and smoke gently wafting from the chimney, so we knocked on the door and politely pleaded for help. What a sorry sight we must have been! Clifton and Jenny had only recently bought the place, and had just lit the fire for the first time.  Quickly, the herded us in front of the fire and made hot drinks for all. True mountain hospitality.

Salvation!

Phone calls were made and favors asked. Although it was just on dark when we arrived, we still made it back to Christchurch before midnight.

We had set ourselves up to fail with bad planning. Our two main mistakes were our poor assessment of the weather situation and choosing a risky location for our trip based on that forecast. Even a tiny side stream can become uncross-able in heavy rain; If you do choose to venture out in poor weather, choose ‘all weather’ tracks with bridged stream crossings, which remain below the bush line or in a sheltered valley. It can be tempting to go anyway to a “safer” location, but if the weather is really bad, there are still hazards like washed out bridges, wind and rock fall to consider. Sometimes it might just be smarter to stay at home. But if you do go out there, remember that “get-home-itis” is an unfortunately common factor in accidents, where the desire to make it home forces people into stupid decisions. What would your boss (and family) prefer? That you show up a day or two late, or that you never show up again at all?

Although we all made it home safe and sound, we’d been operating on tiny margins with plenty of good luck. A small navigational error, a twisted ankle, or an exhausted team member could have resulted in a tragedy instead. I’m aware of a number of unfortunate accidents in situations like this and feel extremely lucky to have learned the lessons without the grave consequences.

 

Wilderlife