My unexpected ‘flight’ while exploring Mt Taranaki
A year after a serious accident on Mt Taranaki Guy Vickers reflects on the accident that he feels could have easily cost him his life.
“This local hill (Mt Taranaki) got me back in the end. I got caught out,” says the Stratford resident.
A very experienced mountain guide from the age of 20 Guy never thought he would receive such excruciating injuries while out tramping resulting in being winched off the mountain by the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter.
“I can’t thank the rescue crew enough, they got me out of a tough situation and they did it with such professionalism and efficiency. I was beyond helping myself in the end and it was great knowing they are there when you need them, they were amazing.”
“The season was a bit later than normal. They quite often say when you have an accident it is a combination of different things all coming together that just don’t quite fit together … and then something happens. That’s pretty much what happened on that day.”
On Thursday July 4th 2013 after ensuring his wife knew his plans and dropping their two children at school, Guy headed for Dawson Falls where he ate his lunch in front of his second home, Kapunui Lodge.
“I had my day pack with gear in it. I walked up the track to the snow and got some photos of the view across to Mt Ruapehu. It was a beautiful day, no wind, absolutely magic.”
“I was out there on my own just testing out my new boots which I bought for the summit climb. They’re a very, very hard plastic double lined boot which are very warm and very rigid.”
After tramping around for awhile Guy decided to head into a gully that is quite often used by climbers to ascend or climb up to Fanthams Peak area.
“There wasn’t much snow in the gully but I thought I would just go in a little bit further and see if it’s a bit firmer in the shade where I could try out some crampon moves, just sidling back and forth to get a feel for the boots and crampons.
“I walked in OK on snow and I looked around and thought it just doesn’t look right. There isn’t enough snow, it’s not worth it. I’m going to head home.”
As he retraced his steps he decided to take a ‘safer’ path nearer to the gully base with his fourth step causing terrible pain.
“I took about 3 steps and then the fourth step my left foot just broke through the surface of the snow and I went down about a metre with my crampons grabbing on a sloping rock underneath. It was just a big air pocket and the snow was only about four inches thick. The weight of my body with my day pack came down on that left foot and just snapped outwards breaking several bones in my ankle area!”
“The force was strong enough that the talus bone slide outwards and dislocated the foot. At the same time I fractured both sides of the tibia and snapped the fibular – just clean snapped it.”
Guy suddenly found himself alone, off the track, deep in a gully, no cell phone reception and badly injured. Deciding to focus on dragging himself out onto the track to either make it easier to be found or hit the jackpot and get cell phone coverage Guy dug deep discovering strength and determination to stay alive and keep moving.
“The pain was starting to set in. I had to break it down into little wee steps. I told myself don’t worry whether you are going to get out or not just focus on the one thing you have to do which is crawl 5 metres, take a break, send out a text, try the phone, get the cell phone back into the chest pocket on your raincoat, take a break, then crawl another 5 metres. I just kept breaking it down and doing 5 metres at a time.”
“I developed a technique where my broken foot was down below me on the snow slope. I was using my ice axe and my other foot to crab my way around the slope towards the track. There was one spot where it went down about a metre into another little sub gully. Crawling across that was unbearable as my foot caught and spun around. The pain was just excruciating and I nearly passed out.”
Unfortunately even when he reached the track, his ordeal was far from over as he had to drag himself further up the mountain to gain cell phone reception.
“When I finally made it to the track I felt really good. I knew that I must be getting close to cell phone range. I also realised in the back of my mind it was going to be a long wait before I would be rescued. It was pretty much down to true grit. It was up to me. This could go wrong if I gave in. If I just said ‘It’s over, I’m injured, I’m in severe pain, I’m cold, I’m just going to lie down and give up’ then I would still be there until 6 o’clock and maybe they would have got me alive – maybe not. It was a scary thought but I just put it aside and thought I don’t want this to end like that.”
“I was getting up to the area where the track from Kapunui Lodge meets the summit track and that’s quite a high point. I thought I just have to give this one more shot.”
The track was in the sunshine and it gave Guy the extra strength for what would hopefully be his last push for cell phone coverage.
“It was just a gentle uphill slope but it was getting harder and harder to move my body and the pain was incredible.”
“I crawled up to what I thought was one of the last couple of spots that I could probably make it to and I made the 111 call by leaning up on the side of the track on the bund. I was excited and relieved to discover I had finally connected! Once they lock onto your phone you are pretty safe and I knew that I had made it.”
The emergency call centre person stayed on the line with Guy for the next 15 minutes keeping him calm while attempting to pinpoint his location for the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter.
“I was really tired, scared and disorientated. I couldn’t get my north, south, east, west sorted. I was telling them all the wrong directions. Then I realised I had made a mistake. I wasn’t suffering any blood loss or hypothermia but the pain was so intense it was hard to focus on what I was doing and saying.”
“They said ‘the helicopter is on its way, it will be there in 10 -15 minutes.’ I was extremely cold, lying on hard snow and I was in serious pain but I just lay on my back and didn’t worry about a thing because I knew the helicopter was on its way.”
With the Rescue Helicopter on its way Guy’s next priority was to let his wife know what was happening.
“I sent my wife a text once I had made the 111 call. I was lying on the track and I thought OK I’m safe now because I know that the systems are in place and the chopper is going to come and get me. So I thought I better send her a text ‘Get kids from school all OK’.
“Then I got a text back saying. ‘What? Tell me the truth.’
“I thought ‘Oh shoot I have to tell her’. I sent her a text back saying ‘Broken ankle helicopter on the way. All OK.’
“She just went into a spin! She was trying to get the kids from school, leave work and get up the Hospital. Then she was waiting to hear when I was arriving at the Hospital and she didn’t know what was going on. She ended up phoning 111 and got the summary of what had happened.”
Pilot Stephen Beck, Crewman Phil Dwyer, Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue volunteer Mike Johns and Paramedic Roger Blume were on duty that day. Within minutes of being advised of Guy’s call they were airborne.
“I could hear the thump of the blades a long way away. As they got nearer I could tell it was down below Dawson Falls car park. As soon as I heard the loud thump of that helicopter I knew that I was safe. That was just an amazing feeling!”
“I just can’t truly describe the feeling when I heard the thump of the copter. I was still in pain but it just lifted my spirits. I just can’t begin to describe the relief to know that it was over. It didn’t matter whether I was cold or in pain that as soon as they found me I was going to be looked after. It was an amazing feeling!”
Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue volunteer Mike Johns said it was a “reasonably routine job” and they found Guy “reasonably easy” as he had given them good directions.
“He was probably a bit lower than we first thought. We flew over him up the mountain a bit and then came back down slowly. That’s when we spotted him waving to us.
“He was pretty close to the main track so teams walking up would have found him reasonably quickly. He had all the gear you would take for a day climb including a cell phone.”
Guy lay back in the snow keeping his full attention and focus on the helicopter.
“I watched the helicopter just creeping up towards me and I knew they hadn’t seen me but I knew they were looking. I could see them moving side to side up the track. They were just coming so slowly and methodically. If they’re that thorough they are going to find me even if they spend a few minutes flying around going up the slopes. Eventually they would find me.
“It was really amazing when I heard them coming down from the sweep above me, to hear them right over top and turn and park right in front of me – they were like 20 metres away. Phil Dwyer saw me first and gave me thumbs up. It was an awesome, awesome feeling. At that point I knew that I was absolutely safe. They’d found me. It was finally over.”
“I was pretty happy so I did this big YAHOO! I had a fluorescent coloured bag in my hand and I had a head lamp flashing. I was doing everything I could to mark my position. I gave them this great big kind of ‘yahoo’ as I was swinging my bag around because I was saying to myself ‘I’m going to get rescued’!
As the mountain specialist Mike was lowered down first to assess the terrain as well as the patient and the helicopter moved away.
“He was pretty happy to see us. My job is to do a quick assessment of what he’s done, what his injuries are, that sort of thing. Make a decision on how we are going to get him out and decide whether he is going to need pain relief to help get him extracted. In this case he needed it because he had broken his ankle quite badly.”
Guy let out a huge sigh of relief as he watched Mike being lowered down.
“Mike just asked me what had happened. They hadn’t realised there was a medical situation. I said ‘I heard the break. I know that I have broken bones in my ankle.’ He radioed for the chopper to come straight back so the medic could be dropped down.”
“Mike was great. He comforted me and found out what the full situation was while we waited for the helicopter to come back.”
Paramedic Roger Blume was next to be lowered down.
“Guy had a very painful lower leg, which was obviously fractured as it was displaced. Guy required a generous amount of intravenous pain relief to enable Mike and I to apply a splint. We then packaged Guy into the stretcher for a winch recovery to the aircraft.
“Guy was fortunate to be able to summon assistance by cell phone, and his experience demonstrates the importance of having a PLB or a cell phone when in the outdoors, especially when on your own.”
After an eight minute flight Guy landed back at the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter base where he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to A&E.
“My paramedic (Roger) stayed with me all the way through A&E. They took clothes off me and then they took my boots off very carefully which was still excruciatingly painful.
“Because I’m allergic to voltaren and other non-steroids or anti-inflammatories I’m not allowed to take anything that would assist in reducing the swelling. I spent quite a bit of time with my foot up on a high wedge in the Hospital trying to get that swelling down so they could operate.”
The worst part of the ordeal for Guy was when they did an x-ray and said ‘we are going to do a procedure on your foot because it’s dislocated’.
“I like the way they used the word procedure. What they mean is ‘we’re going to yank on it and swing it back around into place’. That was hard to describe.”
“They put me in a little room and gave me pethadene gas and another shot of morphine. They then pulled on my foot for about 30 seconds and then swung it around into place. I just about lost it. I nearly blacked out and there was quite a lot of swearing. They assured me that was normal.”
“Once they had finished my foot was in a better position for surgery and the rest is just a morphine induced blur of waiting a day and a half with my foot up high on the wedge in the orthopaedic ward.”
Guy’s wife Jackie arrived with their children Blake, 10, and Amy, 7.
“I remember when my wife first came into A&E with that worried look. They had just yanked my foot back into place and I was still coming out of the morphine. The first thing I said to her was ‘Sorry darling. It wasn’t meant to happen like this.’ She was like ‘That’s OK at least you are OK.’”
Approximately 24 hours after his accident Guy awoke from surgery with a plated fibula and the left and right sides of the tibia screwed back into place. Later that same day a physiotherapist came in and suggested a walk with the zimmer frame.
“I was just lying in the bed shaking. She said ‘Are you warm enough?’ I replied ‘It might just be psychological because you are telling me to get my broken foot down on the ground and walk.’ It was just a really scary concept to think that I could. In my mind it was still broken as there was still pain.”
She said ‘Look all your bones are back in place. This is something you have to do.’ It was quite a challenge. I had to put my foot down and walk down the hall.
“I really had to push myself. I decided that I’ve been lucky and had 25 years of adventure and I’ve never had an injury. This was going to be my challenge this was another big adventure. I just gritted my teeth and got on with it. It did hurt. It was swollen and painful. I made it to the hallway. They didn’t have to assist me. I was able to walk on my own. I then decided to go around the ward and back. That was the first milestone.”
Winter time, on crutches, sleeping on the couch for the first three weeks and in immense pain wasn’t a pleasant experience for Guy but his determination to be independent took over as he carried on with his normal stay-at-home dad duties.
“Walking on crutches was quite limiting. I would try and get to the car on my crutches to take the children to school. That was a really big challenge for me. The pain was still really intense, I toughed it out for that first two weeks. That was probably the hardest part from the accident to the end of two weeks and then after that things started getting better.”
“Just little things like trying to take a basket of washing out to the garage because it was mid-winter requiring the use of the clothes drier was frustrating. It was certainly a challenge.”
Guy is now very meticulous in regards to his safety ensuring he has all the required gear.
“It’s a work in progress to better equip myself for next time. I bought the personal locater beacon, read up on how it works and carry it with me all the time. I’ve got it stored nicely inside a hard water-proof container even though its waterproof itself it’s protected.
“I’m not actually out there doing any of that stuff (mountain climbing) at the moment I’m still in recovery I guess. But I do like trout fishing because I can wear soft wading boots and my ankle can go in the cold water which reduces some of the pain and swelling that’s still there. It just helps keep the ankle joint mobile.
“When I’m trout fishing now everything has to be laid out on the ground and I want to see my large bright orange pack liner bag which is my signalling device, my signalling mirror, my whistle, my personal locator beacon and my cell phone in a waterproof case with a fully charged battery. I tell someone exactly where I’m going.”
The last year has been full of physio, reaching milestones, exercises, pain and patience resulting in a ‘textbook perfect recovery’. Guy’s focus along with loads and loads of determination has enabled his remarkable progress.
“We’re getting there. I’m almost recovered. The risk is now because the tibia was driven hard into the talus the soft tissue under the tibia that allows that foot to slide up and down has been damaged. It will regrow this time but it might not next time. So I don’t really want to do this again. I want to make absolutely sure that I can enjoy the outdoors and be safe but not do the same level of injury.”
With the tramping / climbing in every fibre of his being Guy has struggled with being “house bound”.
“I was tidying up some gear and I saw my brand new shiny plastic climbing boots and my rope which I’ve had since I was 20 years old. I held the rope in my hand and I thought maybe alpine climbing is not my thing. I thought you are only meant to keep ropes for 5 years but I’ve read that you can hold onto them for decades as long as they haven’t been damaged. I was kind of looking at it thinking I would just throw it in the bin. Something inside me just said ‘You can’t do that. You can’t just turn your back on the outdoor world – it’s what you are about.’
“I’m going to work through the steps and get that foot movement back as much as I can, get back into the tramping boots, take it easy for a year and then see if I can get back up the mountain.”