Badly injured tramper gives first hand account of ordeal

10th August 2010

Tramper Steven Niederer, arm badly broken and leg crushed by a falling boulder, tells us the story of how he survived.

We were told the Five Passes was a challenging walk, with majestic scenery and an opportunity to experience true isolation in backcountry New Zealand. The walk traverses Fohn saddle, Fiery Col, Cow Saddle, Park Pass and Sugarloaf Pass between the Dart River and the Routeburn track.

The 4th day started the same as the previous mornings with porridge and coffee, and then we set off towards Park Pass, having crossed Fiery Col and Cow Saddle the day before. For the first part of the morning we were walking along deer tracks through low scrub and beech forest on a gentle slope beside Hidden Falls creek. The track we had been following led us between two car-sized boulders separated by 2 feet to provide a comfortable path.

As I walked between the two boulders I heard a crack as my foot went through some dead wood lying on the forest floor. As my foot went through the wood I heard the sound of movement and a rock previously supported by the log on the uphill boulder came away. The rock rolled down the short distance to reach me and crushed my arm and hips on the boulder below. The dislodged rock then rolled onto my leg, crushing my thigh onto a sharp part of the lower boulder, slicing a wide deep gash down to the muscle. Luckily the rock continued to roll off me and down the slope, leaving me free but badly hurt and in shock.

As I screamed in pain, the first thing that went through my mind was to get help, as it was pretty clear we were in a world of trouble. Fortunately we had taken advice from friends, family, our ice axe/crampon instructor and people we met on the bus from the airport and rented an [ACR - ed.] emergency locator beacon from the DoC office for a mere $35. My wife set off the emergency locator beacon within seconds of the accident occurring. Following her Duke of Edinburgh training she bound my leg, moved me onto a thermomat, covered me in my sleeping bag, heated me up some apple tea and laid out my bright orange pack liner on a wide rock outcrop next to the river to mark us out for the helicopter.

I lay shaking on the thermomat looking up at the sky. After 10 minutes every sound I heard seemed to be that of an approaching helicopter and rescue. The beacon had a reassuring green light confirming a strong GPS signal and as we waited we hoped that the technology was working. At this stage it was a good two days walk out that crossed rivers and two more passes, with only the two of us in our party the only option was to wait, rely on the beacon and hope for a helicopter.

After only an hour and a half the low thumping sound of a helicopter could be heard above the noise of the nearby waterfall. The thumping grew louder and louder before the helicopter passed above us flashing over me through a clearing in the trees. There was brief moment of fear as the sound of the helicopter dropped away after the first pass. This was replaced by jubilation as the noise returned and the helicopter circled back round, hovering above us to confirm that we had been sighted.

Mike and Gary, the two man search and rescue team, were with us shortly. With calm blokey enthusiasm and encouragement they strapped up my arm, which had somehow been broken, okayed my wife's bandage on my leg and supported me down to the flat rock outcrop by the river. They then collected all the gear and bits of bandage, as always applying the fundamental tramping axiom pack it in pack it out. The helicopter landed elegantly, balanced on the rocky outcrop, and we were whisked away to the safety of Wanaka, in fact flying over the route we had been planning to walk. There we were met by a helicopter from the Otago Rescue Helicopter Trust that carried me in to Dunedin Hospital. I received excellent care in hospital and spent New Year's Eve in surgery having my cut cleaned and a metal plate put into my arm.

The walk we attempted had a number of unique challenges but it was when walking through beech forest, which we have done on countless previous hikes, that our accident happened. You do not know where or when an accident will occur but you can plan for what happens when it does. If you have a serious accident in the backcountry, then without an emergency locator beacon you have no options - with a beacon we were rescued in under two hours. Best $35 I ever spent.

Regards and thank you

Steven Niederer

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