During my life of some 7 decades, I’ve had one or two memorable experiences, some good, some bad, and some that were neither, but had the potential of being life threatening if circumstances had been less favourable. This is one of them.
After finishing high school, I was employed by a multinational I.T. company in a role that was then called a service technician. The company manufactured, sold and serviced a range of equipment from cash registers to accounting machines to mainframe computers. In the first few years of employment, most of the equipment I serviced was electro-mechanical – cash registers, bank terminals and accounting machines.
I had been working for the company for about a year, when I was assigned the task of travelling to Mt Ruapehu to service all the equipment at the Chateau Tongariro and further up the mountain at the Top Of The Bruce ski lodge. In total there were about thirty machines involved, mostly electric cash registers, but including some back office equipment and a few manually operated cash registers. In those days, this was three days work for one technician as the servicing of a single machine typically took up to one hour.
The first day was uneventful. Driving from sea level to 2000m (6560 ft) in an under powered, unlined and unheated 1100cc Ford Anglia Panel Van in late winter over tortuously winding roads can never be described as exciting even though one was constantly shifting between 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears for most of the journey of nearly three hours. It was cold and unpleasant. There wasn’t even a radio for company.
The next day started out bright and sunny, and as the forecast was for snow the following day, I decided it would be wise to drive up to the Top Of The Bruce to service the equipment there that day. I didn’t fancy driving up the mountain in falling snow in that vehicle.
As it was a week day (Wednesday I think) the ski lodge was quiet, and there were only a few staff in attendance. The car park was almost empty. One of the cash registers I was supposed to service could not be found, but eventually the duty manager remembered that it had been taken to a cafeteria further up the mountain to cater for the weekend crowds.
The cafeteria was open only on the weekends when the slopes were crowded with skiers. However the duty manager offered to start up the chairlift so that I could go up to service the cash register. I had never been on a chairlift at that point in my life, so I readily agreed to the offer.
The arrangement was that he would start the chairlift for me to journey up. Once I arrived at he top I would use the phone at the top terminal to contact the duty manager at the bottom terminal. He would then stop the chairlift until I was ready to come down. At that time I would phone the office at the ski lodge, the duty manager would then go to the chairlift base terminal and start the chair lift so that I could return to the bottom.
He handed me the key to the cafeteria, and his business card that had the office phone number on it. The phones at the chair lift terminals were directly connected and a simple turn of a handle was all that was required to cause the other phone to ring. He also handed me a tourist brochure that included a stylised map of the area at the top terminal so that I could identify the cafeteria from the many other small buildings, mainly ski club chalets, clustered there.
In due course, I found myself on a chair lift with my tool kit balanced on my lap. The views were spectacular, especially as it passed over some deep valleys. In some cases, there must have been several hundred feet between myself and the ground below. It wasn’t until I had nearly reached the top that I realised how cold I was getting.
Perhaps now is an appropriate time to mention my attire. As I had not intended to be outside apart from traversing from car to building and back again, I was dressed in the approved company manner: Dress shirt and tie, dress trousers and dress shoes. Over this I wore the approved grey lab coat. Not exactly appropriate for winter mountain wear, but as I had intended to be indoors the whole time, it was adequate.
However, it most definitely was not adequate, when seated on a chairlift in winter half way up the highest mountain in the North Island. By the time I got off the chair lift and phoned the duty manager, my teeth were chattering. It was cold, and I was struggling to keep a grip of my toolkit, which weighed around 12 Kg (26 lbs). The cafeteria was about 200 m (220 yds) from the chair lift, and although it was relatively flat, the snow had been packed hard by several thousand pairs of boots the previous weekend and was extremely slippery. Remember I was wearing smooth soled dress shoes.
For those who aren’t aware, Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano. There had been an eruption the previous week. What the duty manager overlooked to tell me, or was unaware of, was that a lahar had swept down the mountain, and the mud flow had come to a stop against the cafeteria. The door to the building was blocked by a chest high wall of frozen mud. There was no way of entering the building that way.
I was considering going straight back to the chair lift, but it had stopped shortly after I had phoned the base, and it was very unlikely that the duty manager was still there. My only option was to use the phone inside the cafeteria to call the office. It turned out that access to the building was rather simple. The wall on the uphill side of the building had been pushed in by the mud flow, and all I had to do was scramble over the frozen mud to get inside. I would then be able to phone the office for the chairlift to be started again.
It wasn’t until I was inside, that it dawned on me that I might be in some danger. The telephone had been mounted on the displaced wall but was now lying on the floor. There was no dial tone. A quick glance outside confirmed that at least one, possibly two, telephone poles has been toppled. There was no way that the phone could be made serviceable any time soon.
I considered my options. It was now mid afternoon. Could I rely on the duty manager realising that I hadn’t requested that the chairlift be started? Was anyone else aware of where I was? I couldn’t be sure of either. The possibility that I might be stranded for some time was becoming a reality. The cafeteria was well stocked with snack food, but as the electric power was also off, there was no way of heating the place, and there were no articles I could use to keep me warm. Staying there was not an option.
A quick examination of the other huts and chalets nearby revealed that they were designed to keep heat in and the cold and uninvited visitors out. The stylised map indicated that there was a walking track that zigzagged down the mountain. The map indicated that walking time to the Top of the Bruce was a little over an hour.
I decided my best option was not to rely on someone noticing I was missing, but to walk down. After all there was a walking track, so what could go wrong? My mind made up, I headed off with my toolkit in hand, which felt like it was getting heavier by the minute. As I passed the chairlift terminal I decided to try ringing the base on the off chance that a passerby might hear it. I gave up after ten minutes and headed to the start of the track.
As I have previously mentioned, the snow around the chairlift terminal was packed hard and was extremely slippery. I’d only walked a short distance when I slipped and landed heavily on my tailbone, my toolkit flying gracefully through the air to land some distance away before starting to slide down the slope. I then realised that I too was sliding at an ever increasing speed, and I could find no way to slow down or stop.
Ahead of me was a wire mesh fence that from my vantage point while making lazy circles as I sped downhill on my back, appeared to run along the edge of a precipice. My first thought was “Well that’ll stop me if nothing else does”, but then it occurred to me that perhaps hitting the fence at the speed I was doing might not be good for my health.
I could find no way to stop my slow spins, and every now and again I would catch sight of my toolkit, also doing slow spins as it speed down the mountain on a slightly different trajectory but towards the same precipice and fence.
The distance from where I fell to the fence was perhaps a hundred metres – about the distance between goalposts on a rugby field. I was well past the halfway line and approaching the 22 metre line when I finally managed to gain control over the spinning. Now that I was better able to observe where I was heading, two things became very apparent: my toolkit would reach the fence well before I did and that there was a gap of between twenty and thirty centimetres (8 – 12 inches) between the snow and the bottom of the mesh – enough room for the toolkit (and possibly me) to pass under.
Just as I was about to wave the toolkit goodbye, it disappeared into a spray of flying snow. It seems that people kept clear of the fence and and there was a band of soft(ish) snow in front of it. Moments later I too felt a rapid deceleration as snow flew all around. I didn’t so much slam into the fence as to gently kiss it. Somehow in the last moments I had got into a sitting position, although I don’t remember consciously doing it, and I came to a very gentle stop with my chest and cheek against the mesh, my arms extended above my head and my legs extending under the fence. I’m sure it must have been a comical sight, although fortunately there was no one around to witness the spectacle.
After taking a moment to compose myself, I gingerly made my way along the fence line to where I last saw the toolkit. It was totally buried, but the disturbed snow made its location obvious. By a stroke of good fortune it had finally come to a stop against one of the widely spaced fence posts. I retrieved the toolkit and, not trusting my shoes on the hardened snow skirted around its perimeter until I reached the start of the walking track. Taking a last look at the scene behind, I headed on down the track.
I had only walked a short distance, certainly less than a hundred metres when I began to question whether walking down was a wise choice. Unlike the packed snow around the buildings, this was very soft and about knee deep and sometimes came up to mid thigh. Walking through it was very hard going. The path itself wasn’t steep, but the terrain it was carved into was, and the snow drifts meant that the path was virtually invisible. It was clear that no one had been on this path since the last snowfall. To guide trampers (hikers), there were red marker posts at infrequent intervals, some barely protruding above the snow, some I suspect were buried completely.
For the first ten or fifteen minutes, the track zigged and zagged beneath the chairlift but after passing under it several times, the markers showed that the path headed well away from the route of the chairlift above. Unperturbed, I set out using the markers as a guide. I made two disturbing discoveries. The first was that less and less of each marker post was visible above the snow and that the path between posts was not a straight line. I frequently found myself tripping over hidden boulders or finding only more loose snow where I expected solid ground.
Before long I found myself out of sight of the chairlift and with no visible markers to guide my way. While snow might be good for softening my frequent falls, I discovered that it is extremely exhausting when tying to push through it, not to mention how slow progress is. If it wasn’t for the trail that had formed behind me, I would have been totally lost.
Perhaps if you were more familiar with snow, you’d know what to do in such circumstances, but my previous experience with the stuff was nonexistent, apart from viewing it on mountains from a distance. This was my first experience of being in it, literally. Clearly it would be foolish to try to attempt to follow a path that wasn’t visible, and wandering away from known paths would make it very difficult for anyone to find me if a search was mounted. Its a very large inhospitable mountain.
I decided my best option was to return to the collection of ski chalets and with the aid of tools I had to break into one of them. I had just passed under the chairlift when a thought struck me. The chairlift makes an almost straight beeline down the mountain to the Top Of The Bruce, so why not follow it? The clouds had closed in so an aerial search wouldn’t be possible, and if if the chairlift was put in use to transport searchers, I could yell to them as they passed overhead.
The decision to leave the track and follow the chairlift seemed a rational choice at the time, given my lack of experience of the conditions and the fact that that I was probably suffering from mild hypothermia by then. so with toolkit still in hand I set off.
The snow felt less deep the steeper the slope became, although sometimes a large boulder or rocky outcrop would cause a buildup of snow or hide a snow drift until I stumbled into it or tumbled off a hidden ledge into deep snow. Never the less, I felt I was making good progress as I passed the third or fourth chairlift pylon.
The pylons were were not particularly high, but they were placed on ridges, and sometimes the ground between them dropped away markedly. I had reached one of those places. The ground before me dropped away at nearly sixty degrees, before rising on a similar incline to the next pylon almost at the same altitude as the one I was standing beside.
The snow didn’t look particularly deep here, as boulders and rocky outcrops were clearly visible everywhere on both sides of the valley. I could plan my route between pylons to make best use of those features. What I didn’t count on was that on such rough terrain, hollows are filled in with snow, and remain hidden until you tumble (literally) into one.
I’ve never been able to tie shoelaces that remain done up, so my preference these days is for shoes with zip or velcro fasteners. On the day in question the dress shoes were of a slip on type with elasticised panels to keep them in place. Their inappropriateness for the conditions quickly became apparent as I any time a foot became partly wedged between rocks, I would loose a shoe as I took the next step. Sometimes it required a face plant in the snow to be able to reach down and retrieve it.
By the time I reached the bottom of the valley, mist obscured the chairs and cable and only the pylons were visible. I also discovered, that while the destination pylon was always visible on the way down, it frequently disappeared from view beyond the horizon in front of me on the way up. The exact opposite occurred with the pylon behind me, frequently disappearing on the way down and remaining in view on the way up enabling me to set a course using the alignment of the four feet at the base of the pylon as a guide.
The next few pylons were over moderately sloping ground so the target pylon was visible, more or less. The clouds had reached ground level and at times the pylons would disappear in the swirls of mist. I also discovered how saturated you can become if you’re not adequately protected from the mist. I was not. By now my clothes were decidedly damp. And cold. Very cold.
There were a further two deep valleys I had to cross and although by now visibility was down to around twenty metres, by good luck or good fortune, I was able to find each pylon. I noticed that the snow was getting less deep as I continued downhill.
It was starting to get dark and I had no idea how far I had come or how far I had yet to go. I’d been walking, stumbling and falling for around two hours. Then miraculously, a path appeared. I had no idea if it was the same one I started out on, or a different one, but I thought there was nothing to loose by following its downhill course. It kept remarkably close to the route of the chairlift as occasionally I’d pass by a pylon.
It was almost dark when I reached the Top Of The Bruce. There was no light on and the place was locked. The mist hadn’t eased, and it took me a while to locate my vehicle in the car park. There didn’t appear to be any other vehicle there. In those days, our company vehicles were easily identifiable with the company name and logo emblazoned on the sides and rear. Surely the duty manager would have noticed the vehicle as he left? Perhaps visibility didn’t allow it.
The drive from the Top Of The Bruce to the Chateau typically takes ten to fifteen minutes if I recall correctly, but on that night it took an hour in the darkness and fog. I doubt I went any faster than walking pace. I think I made the whole journey in first gear! I remember stopping at least twice because the winding unsealed road ahead would disappear completely in the swirling fog.
I also discovered that sitting in an unheated vehicle in damp clothing is more chilling than the strenuous exercise in the open I had undertaken over the previous two hours. It was a very bedraggled and cold nineteen year old that made his way to his room at the Chateau, who then spent the next hour under the shower trying to warm up.
That was my first and worst experience with snow. Not something I ever wish to repeat.