As the saying goes… ‘If at first, you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.’ It is human nature to only show our stories of success, but hide our failures. However, when we share our failures and frailties, our authenticity resonates with other humans. In my 50 years of tramping the length and breadth of Aotearoa, I have suffered my share of misadventure; those embarrassing incidents we like to label ‘near misses.’ Here are three trips where the brown stuff hit the whirly thing.
Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, January 1991
It was my 25th birthday. The summer sun climbed the sky behind Mt Wakefield, pouring light into the Hooker Valley. From my lofty vantage on the Sealy Range, I emerged from my tiny tent, ready to climb my first ‘real’ mountain. Leaving my gear at Mueller Hut, I began to sidle south along snowy slopes, soon passing below the moderate peak of Mt Ollivier. Beyond that, to my left, lay my objective: Mt Kitchener (2042m).
Hiring an ice axe doesn’t guarantee safety. One needs to know how to use it. Author on Mt Ollivier summit in winter. Photo: Ray Salisbury.
The previous day I had hired an ice axe, though I didn’t have the foggiest notion how to use it. And so I found myself on a rocky rib, climbing hand over hand into the sky. Balancing my skinny frame, I searched for solid footholds as the terrain steepened.
Four hours passed as I inched up a steep spur, the sun burning my exposed skin. My legionnaire cap blew off, and a drink bottle was dropped. After an age, I topped out on a razorback ridgeline, frozen in fear. To my absolute horror, I peered over the lip to see The Hermitage 1200 metres below my boots. I had lost my hat, lost my water supply, and lost my nerve. I could have lost my life, but for a veteran climber who came to my rescue. He showed this over-zealous city slicker how to safely get off the mountain, albeit with my tail between my legs.
Badly burnt, I learned a few lessons – be patient and start slow. Build up skills and gain experience incrementally. Be humble and learn from others.
Tongariro National Park, October 1991
Labour Weekend arrived and we escaped Auckland to visit the alpine playground of Mt Tongariro. A late departure and a navigational blunder saw my party reach the mountain late on Saturday afternoon. Car parks were full, so we changed plans on the fly, but without notifying our parents of our new intentions. (Readers who have studied risk management theory will be counting the litany of poor decisions we made.)
A short cut from slopes of Mt Ngauruhoe to the Desert Road ended up with a rescue mission. Mt Ngauruhoe from the Desert Road. Photo: Ray Salisbury.
From the Desert Road summit, our party of five marched across the tundra towards the symmetrical cone of Mt Ngauruhoe. A straightforward ramble saw us shelter inside a crowded Waihohonu Hut.
Next day, I led my party around the base of the volcano, but as the day wore on, their energy wore out. My brother Bryan had given his three friends ill-fitting boots that blistered their feet. The girls could barely continue, but after five hours we reached Oturere Hut in blustery conditions. On our third day I ventured outside into a maelstrom of wind and rain. Visibility was minimal. Unfortunately, my brother convinced his newbie trampers of a ‘shortcut’ which would lead them to the Desert Road in three hours. Despite protesting this error of judgement, I let my dominant sibling prevail. Alone, I followed the track back to SH1 to retrieve my car.
Meanwhile, Bryan led his companions out of the storm, down into the perceived safety of the dense bush, and into a terrain trap. This rugged topography proved to be slow-going, until flooded streams stopped them in their tracks. They were stuck. In atrocious weather they erected a rudimentary bivouac under the bush canopy, snuggling inside shared sleeping bags for the night. Unrelenting rain soaked them to the skin.
The leader of the party needs to trust themselves, when to be authoritative. Photo: Ray Salisbury.
At the Oturere road bridge, I barely slept inside my station wagon. At first light I alerted the police and a rescue mission was begun. Eventually, a helicopter found and evacuated my party, shivering with hypothermia. Angie fell into a hypoglycaemic coma, and spent a night in hospital. Glen and Gillian never went tramping again.
I had learned that short cuts usually take longer; when I am the leader, I need to be more authoritative; and that our stubborn human nature mixed with the worst of Mother Nature can be a dangerous cocktail.
Tramper’s worst nightmare – making it into the news. Newspaper clipping supplied by the author.
Raukumara Forest Park, 1995
Several years passed as I gained a little more wisdom and experience in the hills. I completed courses in bushcraft, river crossing, first aid and mountaineering. But it all unravelled on an ambitious east-to-west crossing of the Raukumara Range. During the early 1990s this remote region was designated as a Wilderness Area. The huts were left to rot; the tracks were left to overgrow; only hardy hunters penetrated the heavily dissected terrain.
A week into my solo mission, I was introduced to the inevitability of things turning pear-shaped on prolonged expeditions. I had arrived at Mangatutara Hut, sans compass. Now, these were the days before the GPS or phone apps. Therefore, I had been reliant on using my plastic compass to orient my paper map. But the next morning, as I crawled up a steep creek that was choked with thick foliage, my topo map was ripped out from my pocket. Dang! No map; no compass.
A compass – one of the navigational tools. It can come handy. Photo: Ray Salisbury.
Over four desperate days I ran out of food and water. With no means of navigation through untracked wilderness, I stumbled and slipped and swam my way onto the next topo map, following a labyrinth of streams that emptied into the Motu River. Lucky, I was super fit, kept a positive mindset and only took calculated risks. Lucky, I had learnt to navigate the old fashioned way, using the Southern Cross and midday sun to find my bearings. Lucky, I still had a mountain radio, which promised fine weather, and could be used to trigger a rescue. In the end, after twelve demanding days, I was spat out of Raukumara Forest Park no worse for wear, but humbled by the ordeal.
Author in the safety of the hut in Raukumara Ranges in 1990s. Photo: Ray Salisbury.
In summary, I believe we need to rethink how we view failure; how we can maximise learning from our mistakes. Winston Churchill once remarked: ‘Success is going from one failure to another without losing enthusiasm.’ Because, believe it or not, failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is feedback; failure is the part of success that teaches you valuable life lessons.
FMC thanks Ray Salisbury for his contribution to our Wild Story Hunt. If you have an adventure or misadventure from the backcountry worth sharing, please get in touch.
Ray Salisbury is a keen tramper, author and a photographer. You can find out more about his work and his latest book Epic: Adventures Across Aotearoa here.