About This Adventure
When I was 14 and first saw Mount Cook she nade an immediate goal to climb it when she was 18. However this never came true as she was prevented by her brain injury. However after gaining the skills to complete this climb after undergoing rehabilitation, Gavin Lang made a similar goal possible when he guided and supported her to climb Mount Aspiring.
In 1998, I was on a school geography field trip with my class. We went to see Mount Cook, and it was the first time I had seen it. It was love at first sight, and i immediately planned with my best friend that when we were 18 years old, we were going to climb it. It never happened.
Approximately 2 years later I suffered a brain injury leaving me in in a coma for 4 months, and when I finally woke up, very little body function. No ability to walk or balance even to sit up, no speech, no ability to swallow, or control my bladder. After six months of intensive rehab. I had regained most functions, and only my sight, balance, and coordination stayed permanently impaired.
Now ten years on, though I am still improving, the gains are small and often unnoticeable. I am still trying new things, just to see what my body is capable of and to watch in wonder as my body learns things that I would never have dreamed it would be able to do.
One of these lessons has been via a friend of mine, Gavin Lang.
Gav and I met through my friend Andrew Finnigan at a ski touring race. Gav and Andrew were competing and me and Sarah, Andrew’s girlfriend were ‘support crew’. Gav and I talked a wee bit, and exchanged email addresses before we left. We stayed on email, and when I was going through Wanaka, I decided to spend a bit of time with Gavin as he had a few days off and was keen to do some fun stuff with me.
I remember the last email we wrote before I saw him in Wanaka. It was a message from him telling me he had just been up Mt. Aspiring, up a route he had never tried. Thinking nothing of it, I wrote back, telling him that I would love to climb a mountain one day and as Aspiring was the most beautiful mountain next to Cook, I would like to try it. I told him, that maybe I would set a 3 year goal, and start training for it.
Gavin and I sat down for a chat in Wanaka the next day over a cup of tea. The first thing Gavin said to me was ‘I have a challenge for you, and I bet you’ll take it.’ Curious, I asked him to go on. I thought it would be a challenge that he wanted me to do that weekend- a cycling, or rock climbing one. What he said next dumfounded me for a second, which does not often happen. He said to me ‘I want to go up Mount Aspiring with you in three weeks.’ Firstly, I didn’t really believe I could get up Mount Aspiring, and secondly, I was sure I would need more than 3 weeks to train. However Gavin seemed confident that the challenge would be a good idea as he was sure I had the fitness, and he would supply all the skill, and I was soon right behind the idea, and keen to see if I could rise to the challenge. I left Wanaka a couple of days later, keen to do some walks uphill, with a 15kg pack which was Gavin’s training prescription, and very keen to see if we could actually make all the details work.
I probably ended up doing about 9 proper training walks in the next 3 weeks, but did some sort of training every day. As the weeks whiled away fast, I began to get nervous whether I would be able to complete the challenge. Having gone through a major disappointment after failing my goal to get to the Paralympics in 2008, I knew I didn’t want to go through that again, Gavin, picked up on that, and suggested we just go into the mountains for a couple of days and learn some skills, and not try for the summit. However. I felt I would be a piker if I didn’t try for the summit, and in my head I knew if I tried, I had to get there. I told him we should try for the summit, and that if we didn’t get there I would not be upset, which I really wanted to believe but was doubtful I could feel that way if I didn’t make it.
I got to Wanaka on the 24 of January. The plan was to fly in the next morning to Aspiring National Park, and stay the night at Colin Todd hut. We had made a quick decision the day before that we would bivi a night at the top of the ramp as it would mean I would not be so affected by fatigue before attempting the summit the next morning. Then we would descend back to the Hut, and fly out the next day. I still couldn’t believe that this was actually happening, that I was really going to attempt Aspiring. Gavin kept assuring me that whatever happened we would have fun, and because I didn’t want to fail my goal amd I wasn’t 100% sure I would get to the top, I tried to keep Gav’s mantra as my new goal: To have Fun, and if I got to the top, that would be a nice addition.
The helicopter ride was prodigious, and my heart ached at the beauty of the environment I was going to spend the next few days in. I got my first taste of crampons and steep snowy hills, which were slippery due to the soft texture of the snow which was a product of the warm weather. We got to the hut an hour after the heli dropped us in, and were the 3rd and 4th people to the hut. Slowly it filled up. It was a full house by that night. After a snack, Gav and I went out and found a nice steep hill. We practiced self arresting, or stopping yourself if you lost control and started to slide down the mountain. It was great fun and I got very snowy and wet. We also practiced walking up the mountain with no supports. I found this difficult and fell over a lot, but my body soon learnt, and surprised both Gav and myself. We went back to the Hutt a couple of hours later. Gav and I made tea, and decided we would leave at 8 the next morning, as we only had to get to the top of the ramp. Everything still seemed to be going relatively fast for me. Gav and I did not talk about anything that would happen the next day. This was a little weird for me, as I like to plan everything, however I trusted that Gav knew what was going to happen, and I didn’t need to know every detail.
We woke at 6.30am the next day and left the Hutt by 8am the next morning. The first hill up to the Ramp, put me in such a negative mood, I wanted to turn back. It seemed that I fell every second step as my balance was not good on the sloped hill, and I couldn’t tell exactly where the flattest place to step was, due to my sight. Soon my ankles hurt and my mood became low, and I told Gavin that if there was more of this, I couldn’t do it, and I thought we should turn back, I knew Gavin would never let me turn back, and he knew I would never let myself turn back, but I really felt like I wanted to. Reaching the bottom of the ramp changed by disposition, and my keenness returned. The first pitch of the ramp was a lot of climbing scree and crossing small drifts of snow. Gav went ahead checking everything before he would let me put weight on it. Gavin supported me the whole way up, as my balance was bad on the uneven rocks. As we continued, we started ice climbing. Gavin climbed a pitch ahead of me, inserting anchors and cutting a stage at the top of every length. I felt the safest when I had both my hands and feet on the hill, as my lack of balance did not affect me. The hardest part was when I had to unclip the karabiners from every anchor I passed and then get the anchors out of the snow. Gav and I had some yelling arguments whilst one rope length away from each other. He would tell me to leave the anchor if I couldn’t get it out. But I wanted to do it right without his assistance. It was really frustrating and took so much of my energy!
I got more tired with every pitch but continued to climb. Gav promised me a brew when we got to the top and we eventually made it after what seemed like an eternity! I was extremely stoked to be at the top but was physically exhausted. All I wanted to do was to get food and drink down me and have a lie down as all my energy had been drained in the climb. We sat in a small rocky/snow cleft about 10 metres from the top of the ramp. We made dinner even though it was about 3pm and had a cup of tea and a nap in the warm sun. Gavin awoke a while later and announced we would have to find a better bivi for the night, and went to investigate prospective places. He came back and we packed up our stuff to go to the new bivi 50 metres away. My body was not happy having to move again so quickly, and it made sure I realised! We settled down in the new Bivi and made our beds for the night. We listened to the radio report from base and were delighted with the weather report. We had previously thought it would bring us a flick of rain the net afternoon but had been changed to fine all day. As we went to bed, the winds started to get up, and stayed up all night. Consequently I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Gav woke at 4.30 am the next morning. The winds were still high and there was thick cloud below us. I was shattered and couldn’t believe it when Gav told me to hurry up, as we had to get going. I didn’t want to get up, and told Gavin I thought it was the best idea that we don’t do the summit and instead we sleep and go back to the hut later. He ignored me and told me to get up. After breakfast I felt better but my eyes wouldn’t open. Gav was pushing me to get moving, so I put on all the clothes I had with a wet weather shell, and we left the bivi.
The walk up was fast and my eyes found it hard to keep up at the speed that we moved up the loose scree. Gavin had my hand and kept me moving forward the whole time. Gavin had allowed 2 hours for this walk. But because the weather was closing in he was worried so we pushed and managed to do it in 90 minutes! We had to put our crampons on for the last part as it was safer to move over the snow as opposed to the big rock slabs. At about five minutes from the top a thick cloud suddenly rose up engulfing us. The cloud was laden with moisture and covered us with rime ice. We were wet and every exposed part of my body was frozen, and still the winds persisted. We spent about 3 minutes on the summit hugging, and taking photos. I didn’t have time to completely comprehend what I had done; I was freezing and just wanted to get out of the wind! The rime ice had made everything slippery and Gav described our decent as a ‘drunken three-legged race.’ The ice had made the scree slippery and we slid most of the way down. We both fell several times and Gav accidently snapped my sunglasses. This meant that I was even more blind than usual while making our descent!
We stopped for a short time to get the rest of our belongings from our bivi before continuing down the ramp. I really wanted a cup of tea, but our lighter was frozen so we couldn’t light the stove! We thought the wind would be less strong on the ramp but we were wrong. We started to make our way down the ramp. Gav belayed me down each pitch before skidding down himself to let me down the next pitch. As I had no glasses I could not see well and the bumps Gav let me down over often appeared out of no where, and tripped me up. Pretty soon my fatigue started to kick in and I began to feel tired and irrational. At about five pitches from the bottom I decided I wouldn’t go any further. I thought Gavin was letting me down too fast and I was going to fall into a crevasse. Gavin assured me I was not going to and that what I thought were crevasses were just bands of soft old snow. Still unhappy I took his word and continued down. I finally realised I had reached the bottom when I fell into a big ditch of rocks- the first pitch.
Gavin had decided to let me down a lot of the first pitch by rope. I thought this was a great idea and would make it a lot easier. My strength, balance, sight and coordination were not faring well under the conditions and this was making everything much harder than normal. Just walking to where we needed to be in order for Gav to start letting me down was an effort. I slipped on the snow many times taking Gav with me on the short rope. Once I slid straight into scree hitting my head and carrying on only stopping when the rocks stopped moving. Luckily I had a helmet on and didn’t sustain any injuries. I firmly told Gavin we were not going to do any more walking on snow. We stayed on rock a bit longer and then Gav let me down the rest of the way. I felt uneasy, as the rock I was going down was uneven, causing me to fall and lose my balance in quite a few places. However I didn’t really care as I just wanted to get home.
We reached the very bottom of the ramp. I was so happy because i knew we only had one hill to go down and one to go up before we were back! I thought Gavin had said he would let me down the hill with the tricky gradient by rope. But to my dismay he told me he had never said that and we had to walk it. Again I couldn’t believe it but was too tired to argue. I stated falling again, and my ankle started to get sore. I stopped Gavin and very (ir)rationally told him that if we continued this way my ankle would break, I would not be able to walk out tomorrow and he would have to carry me. I (ir)rationally told him it would be a better idea if I sat down and slide to the bottom. He rationally disagreed as I would fall into crevacces and hit rocks if I did so. We spent about 5 minutes discussing the alternatives, before continuing like we were before. When I stopped again Gavin decided to make a compromise and let me slide down some of the hill before traversing back to the hut. So we did. It was perhaps the longest slowest stretch for me and took us maybe 3 times as long as it should have.
The last straw came when Gavin told me we had to be careful for the last 50 feet before the hut as there was a crevasse about three metres below us. I lost it at that point as my coordination balance, strength, and focus were completely shot. I was slipping every step and couldn’t see the path I was meant to be walking on. I found it hard to follow Gavin’s footsteps and my emotions took control. I went 360 degrees in my enotions first telling Gavin I couldn’t go on and I wanted to be left there and then swearing at myself for being so irrational and emotional. Someone from the hut saw us and came out to meet us. Gavin was on the downhill side of me preventing me from slipping down the hill and the guy in front of me made footsteps for me to follow. It seemed to take forever but we finally got back. We were greeted by a hot brew which revived me. Gavin and I had a good debrief that night before dinner. We both went down for an early night and awoke to find ourselves the last people in the hut. We left the hut at 8.30 to walk and catch the helicopter out. It was hard leaving Mount Aspiring. The mountain is so incredibly beautiful!, but I was so happy to be going home where there was flat and firm ground.
I think I have learnt a lot from this trip. I know my goal was to reach the summit of Aspiring and I did it. But that is not what I consider the pinnacle of this journey. I feel there are so many pinnacles that I faced and had to deal with. The average weather conditions, the lack of sleep. the inability to do things ‘independently’ and that I had to leave the anchors for Gavin. I had to put those experiences behind me despite my frustration. I let my emotions take over after the miscommunication about the last slope, and I got frustrated with Gav. I am disappointed in myself for this.
The most important lesson I think I learnt which I will remember every time I climb a mountain is that you cannot plan everything. Even though my brain injury has taught me that, I still constantly forget it, but the mountains have reminded me once again that anything can happen, and you have to deal with it then, as often you have no choice.
I also feel a new sense of empowerment as there were many times in the climb whenIwas totally in control of my own life. Many people will not be able to understand why this is such a new feeling for me, but when you live life with a disability, there are always safety nets, to make sure you don’t make mistakes based on your disability. Though Gavin was my safety net to an extent he also had to trust in me; that I would do the right thing and if I didn’t he would not always be there to save me, as the mountain was not going to.
Gavin is a shining star and an amazing person. There is no way I could have got anywhere without him. This achievement is not mine, it is a team effort by both Gavin and I. My appreciation for Gavin is huge. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to experience what I experienced- and I will never forget it.
In 1998 I dreamed of climbing Mt Cook. In 2010 I Climbed Mt Aspiring. I hope one day my Mt Cook dream will also become reality.