It was close to 5pm, it would be dark in less than an hour. We were all cold from the freezing river crossings. We had put ourselves in a dangerous situation especially for the the youngest member of our team who was showing signs of exhaustion and hypothermia. It was time to use the PLB we carry just in case.
This is a hard decision and took a little while to pull the trigger. What were our other options? We had come down Penn Creek it had taken over an hour, it would take us at least that to get back to the safety of the hut and then hours in the dark to get out. No one was injured and yet the smart call was to use the PLB.
Once the call was made, dry clothes replaced wet and survival bags were unpacked.
The helicopter would only be able to take one or two at a time, one of our team had been recused last year so knew four of us wouldn’t fit. So two of us headed back up the creek to get out on foot. Was this the right call? would the helicopter arrive before night fall? It was safest for us to get out of the creek before dark and it was likely we had 4 hours of hiking to get out. Every moment I prayed to hear the sound of the helicopter, what if it didn’t come? What would we do? Would we turn back and get them back to the hut where we could stay warm for the night and hike out in the morning. Our loved ones at home would now be worried sick after the calls from search and rescue that happen when the PLB is activated. We were more than 2 hours from getting any cell phone signal. This proved to be the longest 2 hours I have spent in the bush.
The climb to get out was massive, steep and even more difficult in the dark without my good headlamp that
I had forgotten to pack. I had a small light on my bennie but it was hard work to negotiate the roots and rough ground. After an hour we heard the sweet sound of helicopter blades beating against the thick evening air, we cried out in relief that our friends had help coming. Would they be able to see them in the fadding light?
About half an hour later we heard the helicopter again, my mind raced, were they still looking for them? Then again 15mins later we heard it again, all the what ifs raced through my mind. When we reach the ridge and cell phone coverage to find out they were still on the river bed what will we do then? I knew they had enough survival gear to manage the night but it would be freezing cold and the wait would be unbearable not knowing if they were ok. If they hadn’t been picked up we would go back and get them to the warmth of the hut.
After the steep rooty sloops we hit the wind fall from the recent storm and snow that had slowed us earlier in the day, we had to crawl under fallen trees, bash through the debris to get to the higher swampy slopes. We hit the snow so we were not far from the ridge and all the uncertainty would end. The sweet sound of a text message notification buzzed from my jacket, I had a pile of messages from worried family and friends and one from Ant, they were safe! Wow what a relief. We called our loved ones who were worried sick, we tried to reassure them, everyone was safe, the nightmare was over, our night still had a few hours hiking in the dark. We set off down the hill under a beautiful clear sky.
How did we get into this position? Where did we go wrong? What were the mistakes we made?
The original plan was a trip up to Hector and back, I wanted to visit the ladder at Maungahuka in snow so I thought we might do a Penn Creek loop if the weather was fine and the others were keen.
This was the first time this country for one of our team and I should have kept to the Hector plan or at least a route we had experience on. None of us had been on the track from the main range down to Penn.
When we got to the main ridge Maungahuka turn off we made the estimate that Hector return would be 4 hours and the Penn loop would be 6 to 7 hours. The loop without our later mistake was 8.5 hours.
It was so beautiful on the tops, no wind and soft walking with the snow to cushion the normal rough ground.
We were starting to move slower than we needed to and at the Penn turn off it was clear going to the ladder was going to be a bad call.
The ridge was slow due to snow, windfall and triedness setting in.
We finally got to Penn Creek hut it was 3pm. It would take at least 3 hours to get out going up the hill. I had recently read about the river route out and we checked the hut book for any recent updates. We expected the river route would be easy travel and faster, we knew it was more risky but made the call. This was the biggest mistake we made.
I didnt get and share emergency contact details for one of our team.
I didn’t leave a map of our route options.
I forgot my headlamp.
Some things we did well.
Carried good emergency gear including 3 PLBs
We made the call to set it off.
The back country is a beautiful and dangerous place. Never under estimate the risks. Make sure you double check your gear. Dont do routes you dont know unless you can manage the worst case scenario of turning around and back tracking.
Rivers are not for Winter travel.
Be prepared for everything. Recognise the desire to make everything ok and find a solution can stop you making the smart call.
Our loved ones go through hell when we are late or they get called by search and rescue.