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