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Reflections of a Tramping Accident

Updated: Jan 5

On July 30th 2013 my brother and I suffered a nasty accident while tramping. We both fell while descending from Zit Saddle on day two of a four day tramp inland of Hokitika. Our intended route was Cedar Flats to Adventure Biv to Zits Saddle to Top Kokatahi Hut to Top Crawford Hut to Lathrop Saddle to Browning Range Bivouac to Grassy Flat Hut to the Styx car park. We were left unable to perform a self rescue. This is an account of the accident, the ensuing 5 days and nights before we were rescued by SAR West Coast, our recovery and a quick analysis of how we got ourselves into such a nasty situation.

The Accident

I sidle over moderate angle snow peering down through early twilight mist to the next orange doc marker below. I slip, lunge for the nearest tussock peeping through the snow, but it is out of reach. ‘Oh Shit’ is all I say to my brother above before I am gone. I flip onto my back desperately kicking in my heels and palms into the icy consolidated snow. My running shoes bounce off with no effect, as do my gloved hands that lack an ice axe. I pick up speed. 1st one, then 2 and finally a 3rd DoC marker whip by. I desperately try to grab the waratahs they are affixed to but fail. Now I am going really fast as the slope steepens, being whipped left then right past snow covered rocks down what is effectively a giant frozen hydro-slide. I know that if I hit the wrong thing or go off the wrong bluff now it’s over. I begin to tumble and my shoes are wrenched from my feet. As images of my parents and friends, my future flash through my head all I can think is ‘How did I get myself into this situation.’

The slope flattens and I start to slow. A rock approaches and this time I manage to halt myself. I spin myself around using my arms as my legs don’t seem to work and scream up to my brother ‘Nelson DON’T FOLLOW. I’M OK’. What’s wrong with my legs? Can he hear me? What will he do? Damn. ‘Nelson I’m OK. Don’t Follow’. Nothing. What will he do? This is really bad. I keep shouting then out of the mist above a figure appears. He slides down the slope like a rag doll towards me. Dribbling over bumps in the snow. It’s horrible to watch. He’s so close I can touch him. I try to stop this slow slide, but I am not strong enough. Horrified I see there is a trail of red sticky blood in his wake. He stops a few metres below and I slither down to his side. He groans. Thank God he is alive. His pants are around his knees and his pack is pulling him backwards further down the slope. I manage to get below him and pull his pants up. ‘Nelson, I’m so glad you’re alive. Can you move your fingers and toes? Can you undo your chest strap? Let’s get your pack off.’ Somehow we manage.

The wait

This is serious. Some quick maths. It’s Tuesday evening, we are due out Thursday, SAR probably won’t come until Saturday earliest. That's four days and nights in winter. The weather is forecast fair, but we’ll have to keep a close eye on it. The hut is less than 1k away. We will see how we go. If only I didn’t leave the PLB in the car. Anyway, we have warm sleeping bags, plenty of food and fuel. What about Nelson? He is still barely conscious and oozing blood out of his head and face, but he seems stable. Ok, we can deal with this.

We spent that first night on a little ledge wide enough for our bums with our legs dangling down. Nelson was very weak and sore. His right arm was sprained or broken. His neck needed support and hurt when moved side to side. Finally, his waist hurt and he could only nominally move his legs. Unsurprisingly, it took us several tries of a few hours before we finally got him all the way in his sleeping bag. We huddled together; my head on Nelson’s chest to support his head. Throughout the night I answered his repeated questions "Did I fall?" "Where are we?" "Do we have a PLB?". That last one cut me to my core with guilt and regret. We had no water and only a few bites of bread that night.

It is during this night I became pretty sure I had a broken pelvis. There were some crunches and it moved like it hadn’t before. Over time I began to suspect several breaks. I spent the night thinking over the events that had led us to here. It seemed very simple. We should have turned around at the ridge as soon as we reached the first frozen snow. I couldn't understand why we hadn’t. It took me several weeks to take a wider view.

The next morning we needed water and more space. I performed a controlled slither down another two metres to a larger ledge beside a stream where our packs lay. Landing on the packs, I was unable to move myself off them and spent an hour laboriously unpacking them from beneath myself. I stacked our food and stove out of the way, inflated and laid out our sleeping mats before inviting Nelson down. His slither also deposited him on the packs, pinning me by his side. After some concentrated effort we managed to extract me and move me to the side.

We spent two days and two nights there in slightly greater comfort. I even recall a few hours of warmth on the second day. We were also visited by four local keas. Although leaving us anxious, their visits were fruitful as they returned one of the shoes I had lost in the fall. During this time Nelson’s eyes, already swollen to slits, were fused shut with dried blood, leaving him blind. He looked to me like a mountaineer after a terrible accident with his face, curly hair and two month old beard caked in blood. He also began complaining of cold feet. We changed his socks a few times and eventually he was able to curl his feet up and out of the water. I spent some time reading to him from Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’. Our other two books ‘Bold Beyond Belief’, about Bill Denz, and ‘The last Place on Earth’, about Scott and Amusden’s race to the South Pole, didn’t seem appropriate.

We also spent this time eating and drinking, or at least I did. Using the stove we were finally able to eat and drink something warm. I would devour half of each meal or drink then coax Nelson into consuming a meagre portion before forcing down the cold remainder some time later before cooking our next meal. Concussions suppress appetite, but Nelson also cited the logistics of going to the toilet as another reason for not eating more. He was right, this was a problem. Our sleeping bags were soon drenched in pee. We peed into cups that we would rinse out, then drink out of a short time later. Each time I struggled to get the cup into position due to my pelvis; I would then begin filling it. The process would end with the cup either overflowing or spilling during removal. Nelson had better luck, but he too had a few spills.

The worst came on the third day. We decided to move, as the ledge left our feet in the stream and was slowly disintegrating, leaving us with even less space. I also saw the clouds beginning to come in, so we were keen to try get to the hut. We used warm water to remove the fused blood from Nelson’s eyes and divided our last four Panadol between us. Nelson could stand now, so he would carry a pack with the minimum equipment we needed to survive: One sleeping bag, all our food and our stove. He was still not in a good mental state, so he stood to the side while I packed up. First, however, my body was finally telling me I needed to poop. ‘Just not in the stream’ I thought, as we were traveling downstream. A short while later I was pooping in the stream. What’s worse, my sleeping bag was stuck to cuts on my bum from which I had been unable to free myself, so I was both pooping in the stream and on my sleeping bag. A short while later my poop had been smeared on most of the things we were leaving in our cache pack. Fortunately, my hands were finally clean by the time I moved onto the food, stove and sleeping bag.

We had 50m of steep stream then snow before we finally descended into the stream that would lead us to the upper Kokatahi hut. This took two or three hours as I was still trying to figure out how to move and we spent some time figuring out how to descend the snow. Fortunately, it was not frozen so we could make feet and hand holds. We had managed to push the cache pack down with us, but here we left it. Nelson continued along and I followed at a slower pace. I was incredibly slow. I repeatedly tried to use my good arms to drag myself along the side of the stream, but pain that brought on ringing ears and blurred vision eventually taught me not too. Nelson kept an eye on me from ahead. Eventually he dropped the pack and continued on to try spot the hut. He returned back exhausted, just as I reached the pack. It looked like the right spot, but he hadn’t gone far enough to spot the hut. His low caloric intake since the accident was taking its toll. It was mid-afternoon, 6 hrs after we left our last camp, and we decided to stop for the night.

We had space to lie down and after levelling the rocks as best we could, I set about cooking up some food and then a hot drink. Nelson finally had an appetite and was willing to eat. We tried spooning as the best way to fit in our single sleeping bag, but this left me dry-retching in pain, so we compromised. Nelson spooned me as I lay on my back the ‘disinterested party’. The night passed slowly, broken only as Nelson woke from vivid dreams declaring help was on its way. He had been having these since our first night, probably as a result of his concussion. We also had a few hot drinks as we had on other nights when we started getting cold.

The next day was Saturday. We were two days and two nights overdue. We talked about continuing on to the hut or Nelson going back for the other pack, but were still lethargic from our push the day before. The weather was still clear and we waited earnestly for the rescue helicopter. It never came. I was concerned by this. Had there been some confusion on our location? That night it began raining. This had been my great fear as our pack liner was left with the other pack in an oversight. This was getting serious again. We stacked our feet, held hands for comfort and warmth and covered our heads with a soaked polyprop. We alternated hot chocolate and hot muesli every two hours, then hour and a half, then hour as our body temperatures slowly dropped. Near dawn Nelson mentioned he needed to pee. We were both adamant that he should not leave the sleeping bag, and so for the second time in my life Nelson peed on me.

At first light, we packed up and headed for the hut. After a few false starts, I found a system of scooting that worked and was relatively pain free. I would move my left foot forward, pick up my right leg and place it beside it, plant my arms by the side and use them to move my bum, taking care to land on my left side, and then repeat. We finally rounded the last bend and could see the hut below. I was relieved as, although I was sure of our location, until I actually saw the hut I had been dreading some navigation blunder would leave it out of our reach. Nelson was ahead, but kept resting his head on his knees. I didn’t understand it; I said I would be fine and he could go onto the hut before coming back to meet me. I didn’t realise how weak he still was and how bad the cold had affected his feet.

Nelson was within sight of the hut door when the SAR helicopter hove into view. We both waved in relief until well after they had obviously seen us. A short while later we were both in its back. We clasped arms, locked eyes. That was all we needed.

The Hospital

Hospitals are not somewhere I’d spent any time. With our rescue by SAR complete, I began a journey through the orthopaedic wards of the South Island. We were first taken to Greymouth Hospital where we were originally told we would stay, until on second inspection they realised we both had an additional fracture(s) and would need treatment in Christchurch. This brought my count to four pelvic breaks, and Nelson's to three broken wrist bones. In addition, Nelson had a small ‘foreign body’ lodged over his right temple and frostbite to his feet.

That first night was spent at Greymouth. I was still relaxed; happy I no longer had to worry about our situation and when our rescue would come. I did miss Nelson, as Greymouth has single sex rooms and this was our first night apart since the accident. The next morning they flew me to Christchurch in a tiny plane converted to hold two patients. Unfortunately there was no space for Nelson, who was deemed less critical. The Greymouth hospital eventually resorted to asking our parents, who had driven up from Dunedin, if they could drive him to Christchurch hospital in the stead of an ambulance.

I arrived at Christchurch at 3pm and was settled into a single room in the severe orthopaedic ward. That night, I was put on ‘Nil By Mouth’ marking the first skirmish in an on-going battle between the nurses and doctors over my stomach. The nurses thought I might be operated on the next morning and grumbled that ‘The doctors hadn’t left any notes’. In the morning the doctors arrived saw ‘Nil By Mouth’ sign and sighed exasperatedly ‘What where the nurses thinking. There was nothing in your notes.’ This lasted for several days. During this time doctors and nurses flurried in and out. The doctors told me nothing while the nurses were all too happy to tell me ever conflicting treatment prognoses. I also received countless visits from friends and family.

Finally after four days lying flat on my back willing my pelvis to begin healing, I was visited by Rowan, the specialist, who would operate on me. He told me about my fracture, of fixation, of traction and of bleeding. Only my fractured sacrum would be corrected for by fixating the pelvis and lower vertebrae using four screws, some nuts and other titanium connectors. These would be put in early next week and removed six months later. In preparation I would be put into ‘traction’. Oh and the bleeding, there is a high risk of bleeding, something like 30-60% one nurse told me, during pelvic surgeries ‘please sign here in case you need an emergency blood transfusion’.

From what I can see, many orthopaedic surgeries were first invented in the middle ages for torture. Traction is one of these. Heath, a registrar, arrived for the procedure with a nurse in tow. She gave me local anaesthetic about my knee before Heath proceeded to fail to bore a hole through my upper tybia bone using a blunt hand tool. I asked him why his tool was blunt and he cited ‘Reuse of the tool with improper sharpening and hospital bureaucracy’. He continued to try as the nurse moped his sweaty brow. I watch my leg travel across the bed, concerned it would shift my broken pelvis. He eventually admitted defeat and called out another passing registrar ‘Steve, can you grab the power drill please"’. A short while later and he was threading a metal pin through my leg as the nurse erected a metal cage around my bed. She attached pulleys to it then threaded a string through the pulleys attaching one end two my leg pin and another to 5.5kg of dumbbells which hung at the foot my bed. They then elevated the foot of the bed to contract the pull of the weights, completing the procedure.

The next day Nelson was released from hospital having had surgery on his wrist. Four days passed in traction before the day of my operation. I continued to enjoy visits from friends and family, including Nelson. Due to the traction I was now able to move my left leg. To my horror and fascination, I found it very difficult and painful as the days of stillness had left my hip and knee seized. The operation went well and there was no bleeding. I spent the remainder of that day with my family in a morphine induced haze that was penetrated only by the news that Jamie, who I had known only a few short months, was gone; taken in an avalanche that morning.

The morphine and ensuing pain killers unfortunately heralded in an unpleasant bout of constipation, which I struggled against until finally taking my last Panadol two weeks later. During this time, I am sad to say my desire to clear my bowels at times clouded my mind. I am sorry to those visitors whom I could speak to only about my unfortunate bowel blockage situation.

The next day I sat for the first time, helped into a wheelchair to go to the toilet. I was amazed to find myself sweaty and light headed from the effort of sitting. This would persist off and on for the next week and a half. Two days later I was hobbling painfully and slowly, using a chest height walker. I was working hard on moving around and the nurses complemented my on my ‘bed mobility’. The next day I was transferred to Dunedin hospital in an even smaller plane than before. This one didn’t even have pressurisation. I spent another four days there where I learnt how to use crutches, before being released two weeks and one day after my admission in Greymouth.

I returned to my parents' home, which had been converted into some sort of invalid's house to care for my brother and I. Upon returning home, a raised toilet seat was installed in the toilet for me. Nelson noted the toilet door no longer closed, then looking at me he said ‘Rose, it's good you're home’. I’ve spent the last few weeks enjoying rapid improvement with new victories each day, like being able to shower standing, being able to get into and out of bed, being able to roll over in bed, being able to lift my right leg, etc.

As for my Hospital experience: I must thank all the many, many nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, pilots, kitchen staff and cleaners who cared for my brother and I or contributed to that care. I must also thank all my friends and family who came and visited / emailed / phoned / texted. Your presence buoyed me more than I ever let on.

My Analysis

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the accident. I’ve broken it down into what factors contributed to our accident: lack of equipment and time. What our actual mistakes were: failure to reassess when conditions changed. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about PLBs and their use.

Why didn’t we have ice axes and crampons? I’d been in Arthurs Pass the weekend before and noted the snow level was about 1500m, so before leaving Christchurch I had already suggested we leave our crampons behind as it seemed unlikely we would need them. We stopped in Arthurs Pass and inquired about the snow level on the West Coast. He said it was higher than we were going, so we decided to leave the Ice Axes behind.

This is fine, but when the conditions were not what we expected we needed to reconsider our plan, which we failed to do. We climbed the North side of Zits Saddle through very soft snow that we could safely travel up. It was only when we reached the ridge that we came to deep frozen snow that would be our undoing. Even then, if we had come to it earlier in the day it would have probably been soft enough to self-arrest in without an axe. It was not steep.

We started down this frozen snow and eventually Nelson slipped, sliding into me. We both travelled down unable to stop. It was here we realised we were in trouble. We eventually stopped lower down and I indicated I thought it was dangerous for us to continue. We looked at retracing out steps, but couldn’t quickly. I then began scouting below to determine if there was a safe way to continue down and off the snow. This is where I fell as I was traveling too fast.

Why was I travelling too fast? I was feeling rushed by the coming twilight. I was also too comfortable as I had spent a lot of time on snow of this angle. Two things come out of this. Don’t rush, especially if you are already in a compromised situation. Reassess whenever the conditions change. In this case I was acting like the snow was soft with a long run out. It wasn’t.

So what were our mistakes? We didn’t turn around when we reached the icy south side of Zit’s Saddle, which had significantly more snow that the northern side. At this point we could have still extracted ourselves. The second mistake is my own. I began rushing and didn’t act appropriately given the danger of a fall.

Before moving on, it is worth considering what equipment we should have had. I would say walking axes followed by articulating crampons. Why an ice axe? This would have allowed us to cut steps on snow and stop ourselves in the case of a fall. Thus, allowing safe travel. We could have coupled this with a set of crampons. These would have removed the need for step cutting allowing faster travel down the snow. I say articulating crampons as these can be used with normal tramping boots that do not have a shank.

I mentioned I had running shoes. It is interesting to note three things. One, my brother’s standard no-shank tramping boots were no more effective than my running shoes at kicking steps. Two, running shoes can be used with articulating crampons (see CMC News ed. 25) if care is taken. Three, it would have been a mistake to descend from Zit Saddle with a set of full shank mountianeering boots but no ice axe.

Should we have had a PLB? In our case yes. I had just spent $700 on one. I purposely bought the smallest model so it wouldn’t matter if I always carried it. Why didn’t I carry it? I bought it two weeks prior for mountaineering or solo trips. I did not consider user error, or the possibility that all party members could be immobilised. I also didn’t consider the difference in time between rescue due to being overdue versus rescue as a result of PLB activation. In our case, Nelson’s broken and dislocated wrist became much worse as it began healing crooked and he suffered from frostbite as a result of our five days out.

I also didn’t consider that SAR might act differently as I owned a PLB. They knew I had a PLB and I was told by both the West Coast Police and West Coast SAR that they would have come a day earlier if I didn’t own a PLB. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t activate it. Unfortunately, they gave us too much credit. On that final point, I think this is a lesson SAR can take from our rescue. There are many reasons why a PLB can be lost and delaying search for an overdue party could lead to loss of life. In our case this meant we spent a night in the rain at risk of exposure.

Finally, this is all well and good. In hindsight it is easy to see our mistakes. But, how can we avoid making such mistakes the first time around? As far as I can tell mistakes will happen, but the frequency and severity of these mistakes can be minimised through careful decision making, constant reassessment as the conditions change, and clear communication between party members. It is also important to avoid complacency. Not every mistake will lead to an accident, but that doesn’t mean they are excusable.

At this point I would like to thank the West Coast Police Department and SAR for coming to our rescue. We wouldn’t have made it without you. I would also like to note that the WCPD and WCSAR had already noted the flaw in there PLB policy by the time they visited us in Hospital for a ‘debrief’, and I am sure they will take this into consideration in the future.

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