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Destination: New Zealand

Blown Over by the Scenery

October 18, 1998|ELIZABETH TENNEY | Tenney lives in Mammoth Lakes, Calif

One of New Zealand's adrenaline sports isn't featured in the travel sections or guidebooks. It's called staying on the ground. This really happened to me on George Washington's Birthday this year on New Zealand's South Island.

It was a typical summer day (warm, windy, sunny, cloudy, showery all at once) in New Zealand's Southern Alps, when my husband James and I set off on a Sunday afternoon nature walk in the Hooker Valley at the base of Mount Cook (12,349 feet), the tallest mountain in New Zealand.

The trail was easy, the wildflowers beautiful, and despite the wind and showers we were glad to stretch our legs after a long drive. We soon passed several groups of walkers returning to the trail head, as the rain and wind had picked up a little. But, unlike the walkers, we were dressed for the weather with Gore-Tex jackets and hoods to keep the rain out, so we continued.

In Hooker Valley there are two suspension bridges. After we crossed the first one on the approach to the glacier, the wind went far beyond exhilarating, but we still wanted to see the glacier before turning back. So we walked up a path on a small moraine to take a look at the mountain when a huge gust of wind literally blew me off the trail.

Mt. Cook National Park is at 45 degrees south, and I understand why sailors call these latitudes the "Roaring Forties." The force of the wind was incredible, easily more than 50 miles per hour.

My husband, who weighs 195 pounds, was a little farther ahead, and he couldn't even move an inch because of the wind.

*

Meanwhile, I had turned my back to brace against the gale. That apparently was my big mistake. In that split second I had only one foot on terra firma, and the wind suddenly lifted me a couple of feet off the ground, pushing me up like a giant piston. The gust forced me to literally run in the air as I tried to get my feet back on the path before being carried completely over the side.

My husband, unable to move and watching in horror, told me later that I ran 10 to 15 steps in midair. He said I looked as if I was in a Roadrunner cartoon.

While I was desperately trying to touch my feet to the ground, I too was horrified as the wind kept me aloft and blew me sideways from the path. Suddenly beneath me the ground was even further away, as the terrain angled steeply down. I probably fell 20 feet as my flight ended and I landed face down in jagged volcanic boulders. I thought I was dead.

I was so shocked, absolutely stunned, that when my husband called down, "Are you all right?" I couldn't even speak.

I was facing downhill and I turned on my hip to get my body facing uphill, and at that point he got to me.

Luckily, my hands broke the fall. I didn't hit my head, and my pelvis landed on a fortuitously placed patch of alpine moss. But my left leg wasn't so lucky. Besides all the abrasions and blood, the tibia fractured where it hit the sharp edge of a boulder, and within five minutes it looked as if a swelling grapefruit had been stuffed under my calf. I hyperventilated for 20 minutes and was a mess.

The far more serious problem was that I couldn't walk. We were more than a mile and a half from the parking lot and a couple of more miles from the ranger station, and the only way out was the way we had come. My husband couldn't carry me. A helicopter rescue seemed impossible with that wind. It was now late afternoon, and our options were limited. Our day packs, with the emergency survival supplies we carry on hikes in the Sierra, were in the camper van at the trail head--after all, we were only going for a "short walk." At first my husband wanted to go back to park headquarters for help, but it was already cold, and I didn't want to be left behind. So, as he succinctly put it, "We have to get out of here."

Somehow we did. He pulled me up, and I held onto his left arm and shoulder with my right "good leg" next to him. By swinging my injured left leg forward as far as I could, balancing on the toe of my hiking boot and putting my arms around his neck to support all my weight, I could take a step with my bad leg. In that awful wind, through mud, over boulders and back across the suspension bridge, we inched our way. It was a tossup as to who was more exhausted when we finally reached the camper van nearly two hours later.

*

The mountaineer at the ranger station sent us to the nearest doctor, 30 miles away. The doctor cleaned up the blood, gave me a shot of morphine and sent us to the nearest hospital, in Timaru, two hours away on the east coast of South Island. By now the wind was really blowing, and the trip took more than three hours. The lake where we had had such a pleasant picnic that noon was washing across the pavement, and my husband was struggling to keep the camper on the road, let alone in our lane. There were times, he told me later, when he thought we'd go up on two wheels.

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