Friday, September 2, 2016

The Reasons I Volunteer for Land Search and Rescue

It's pouring rain outside and I just got home from work. We have a meeting I am hosting at my place in half an hour. A text comes through. I drop everything, throw together a pack and get changed into my waterproofs. I stick a note on my door "sorry, meeting postponed" and drive to the Police station. On the way to our job, I text my partner and ask her to arrange someone to feed the dogs, I text my boss and the people I am meant to be meeting at work the next day "called to a search. I may not be in tomorrow. If you haven't heard from me, assume I won't be there". We spent that night wading through waist-deep rivers before bunking down at a hut at 2am.

It's 11pm. I get a call from our SAR boss. Can I be at the station at 5am the next day for a search in Whakatane?... Damn right I can be... I repeat the above drill and arrive on site to find we are looking for a women and 4 children who have been out in the bush in the Winter for 2 nights already. The mood is sombre. Searchers have already been out all night and the family looks at us hoping that we might be the fresh blood that brings home their loved ones.

It's 10pm. It's my birthday and I've been out camping in the mountains for two days. I hardly slept and my back is sore from the 20kg pack I've been carrying. I've just sat down in front of the fire with a cup of tea and the phone rings... I haul my weary legs out of the house and arrive home at 4am the next morning. I go to bed for 3 hours then get up and go to work.

It's 2.30pm in the afternoon. I'm at work and a text comes through. A DOC worker has broken her leg in rough bush and a stretcher carry is required to evacuate her. Within half an hour, I've been home for gear, gotten changed and arrived at the Police Station ready for despatch.

I think you get the idea. It's been a busy couple of months... I often worry about what my boss thinks of me when I leave work to attend a search. I worry about inconveniencing people who look after my dogs or shift meetings. I worry about the tasks I don't get done when I drop everything to go to a callout. I have bought a set of clothes 2 sizes too big so that I have spare gear in the event that we find the lost party. And sometimes, people say nasty things about our search effort afterwards, or comment on things they don't really know about on social media... We don't always get it right, but we get it right with the information and resources we have at that point in time, if that makes sense?

This is the life of a Land SAR Volunteer... And I wouldn't change it for the world...
For every late night callout, every guilt-trip I place upon myself, every piece of work I have to squeeze in somewhere else, and every nasty thing some pundit says on Facebook, there is a "family" of people with whom I have an immense sense of cameraderie, there are fantastic opportunities for training and invaluable experience in the back country. We learn about navigation, satellite phones, radio comms, tracking, search techniques, rope rescue... All the cool stuff... And then, of course, there are the people who we return home to their families. Most of the time alive and well, and sometimes not... Even in those cases, it's purely the closure we provide that makes it all worthwhile.

I've been volunteering for Land Search and Rescue for about four and a half years now. I've spent the larger part of my life playing in the bush and at the time I joined up, it seemed like a great way to create purpose for myself, and contribute something meaningful to society... But it has been that and so much more. The team I work with at Rotorua Land SAR have become my "family" (I'm Australian born and bred, so my biological family lives a wee way away). I care deeply about them and I know they genuinely care about me, too. We go on adventures together, we share stories, knowledge and ideas. We "geek out" over weird shit like titanium camping cookware and we meet for coffee and dinner. There is nothing more heartwarming than feeling that you are a part of something very special, and the unique experiences we share when we go out on searches is one of the best things about being part of the Search and Rescue family.

Last night, we did a rescue job in the Mamakus. Four of us, plus a medic, ventured out along a rough trapping line, clambering over fallen trees and sliding down slippery banks. I was route-finding at the front for the first bit, Matt had the scoop (stretcher) over his back and whenever I lost the markers, Cliff and Checkles had my back and would take over. It took us nearly an hour to work our way through a kilometre of bush to find the injured party, but when we arrived on the scene, something genuinely amazing happened... Generally, we have a team leader on each search, but it was like we didn't need one... We all just fell into roles organically and got shit done. We hardly even had to speak a word to each other. It just happened. The medic and I tended to the lady who was injured whilst the other three scoped out a winch site for the helicopter and crashed a path down the steep bank. Then we worked together to haul the scoop containing our patient 50m up an embankment to the winch site the guys had created (50m doesn't sound like a long way, but trust me, when you are hauling a person over fallen trees and up muddy banks, it definitely feels like a pretty good workout!).

The helicopter arrived right on sunset. There are few things that give me goosebumps like the sound of a chopper ferrying searchers around to taskings, or in this case, the sound of the chopper picking up the injured party. For 15 minutes, we sat in the downdraft of the chopper preparing the patient. Trees threw themselves back and forth violently and the thunderous noise of the helicopter sitting just above the forest canopy drowned out everything else around us. Branches on dead trees broke off and fell down around us. Then as the downdraft abated and the sound of the chopper disappeared into the dusk, we all hi-fived and made our way out on foot in the dark. By nature, it is hazardous work, and sometimes, you go to these jobs knowing that you may also get injured, and on this particular job, a couple of our team members did, but there is reassurance in knowing that you have a good team of people around who have got your back. There's a special bond you form with people on a job like this... Even with people you didn't previously know, like the medic, and even the patient... It's a unique experience and difficult to describe unless you are a part of it. In fact, it's addictive... The combination of adventure, intimate camaraderie and knowing you are helping someone return home to their family that night... That feeling is euphoric.

Without a doubt, we made a real and genuine difference to someone's life last night... There is nothing more important or more worthwhile than putting forward my time, skills, experience and our precision teamwork to help someone who needed us most right at that moment in time... In a weird way, I guess it's kind of like boyscouts for adults... That's why I invest my time in volunteering for Land Search and Rescue... I genuinely love it... When it all boils down, there's nothing more rewarding than helping another human being get out of trouble. And even though I don't get paid to do it, you couldn't pay me to stop...

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

One Fine Night... Moondance on the Mountain

I feel the need to tell a story to go with the enclosed photos, which have, over the past few days, received far more attention than I expected. Before I begin, though, I would like to add a disclaimer that there is no way that any photo could have possibly captured the true and accurate beauty that sat in front of us that evening and that morning... Nothing could do it true justice... And the photos are stunning (what can I say, we had a very photogenic evening)... So I can only leave it to your imagination and my meager description to attempt to grasp just how impressive this sight really was.
A mate and I had been keenly watching the weather throughout the course of the week leading up to the full moon, hoping for a window of clear weather to do a full moon camp on Tongariro. When the Saturday night was looking average, we abandoned our adventure, only for me to reignite with enthusiasm on the Friday... Friday night looked good... In fact, so good, I was prepared to go it alone. A last minute text to my mate Eddy put me in good company, though, and our adventure was on.
The last-minute nature of Eddy's inclusion, and my own work commitments, meant that we arrived at the trail head just before 11pm. As we had driven along the road towards the mountain, the moonlight reflected off the landscape, highlighting the snow-capped mountains like a beacon in the middle of an otherwise flat landscape. My level of excitement welled up from the pit of my stomach through to my throat as we marveled at how clear the evening was, and how incredibly bright the moon was. We kitted up, including my 20kg pack complete with tent and alpine sleeping bag, and headed off up the Tongariro Crossing track. 
We didn't use headlights or torches. The landscape was so brightly lit by the moon that you would be forgiven for thinking it was the middle of the day and someone had applied a blue light filter to the sun. As we climbed through the first smatterings of snow and ice and onto the Southern Crater, we were greeted by a giant amphitheater of blue-white light. Behind us, another team of 3 was climbing up the mountain, to our right, we could see another couple of people climbing Mount Ngauruhoue, and in front of us, in the distance across the smooth, pancake-like crater, we could see a larger group climbing down off Red Crater ridge. It was a bizarre experience... All these slightly unhinged people out at nearly 1am on a Saturday morning, playing on the mountain in the moonlight just like it was the middle of the day. 
Despite it being so late (or early), our spirits and the mood was pretty high, as was everyone else's. We stopped as we crossed other parties to share in our excitement at being treated to such a stellar evening. As we made our way along the crossing, I found it hard to stop taking photos. I just wanted so badly to capture this beauty and share it with everyone I knew... But it was a vain attempt... Really, there was no way to truly experience the evening without being there... The cool light reflecting off every slope and surface, shimmering off the crystalline mountain slopes that surrounded us on every side, the crunch of our crampons on the cold, firm ice, the warmth of the climbs and the biting cold when we stopped for photos or a break, and the lengthy moonshadows that kept us company... It was all so surreal. 
As we crossed the Southern Crater and started climbing Red Crater, the windless calm we had been experiencing was replaced by a raging, icy cross-wind. Our jackets flapped around our heads and fatigue starting setting in as we battled with the icy slope that had been stripped bare of any snow. The wind carried the smell of the alpine scrub from below up the slope and into our nostrils. I felt so alive... Occasionally I would look behind me to see Mount Ngarauhoue standing boldly against the night sky, illuminated by the moonlight and bordered by twinkling stars. The addition of the blistering wind had added a foreboding and serious mood to this part of the climb, and watching the other parties on the mountain disappear into Mangatepopo Valley left us reveling in the fact that the mountain was now all ours for the rest of the evening. The descent into Central Crater brought us huge respite from the wind, and as we climbed up onto the ridge alongside blue lake, that was where we decided to make home for the evening.
It was roughly 3am when we started pitching our tent. I had recently purchased a new alpine tent and this was the first time I had pitched it outside of my living room. It was a frustrating exercise with frosty fingers, but we had soon set up our little abode (I was actually rather stoked with my purchase!). This was the part of the evening where I got some of my best photos. The wind had abated and provided the stillness required for a longer exposure time. Seeing our little yellow tent pitched against a background of shimmering mountains and millions of stars was quite a sight to behold. I just wanted to stay outside in the company of the evening. It was so indescribably beautiful.
We knew this was special. We knew how incredibly privileged we were to be here, in this place, in this moment, with each other. There is something that makes an experience that much more special when you have a reliable buddy to confirm that you are well within your rights to feel stoked. We lay down, but didn't get much sleep. My cup-a-soup and tea had me crawling out of my sleeping bag and leaving the tent to relieve myself every 30mins, and two hours later our alarm would go off.
It was time for the sunrise, and as if it were even possible, the beauty of the sunrise matched that of the evening before. We climbed a nearby peak and felt the first rays of warmth crest the Kaimanawas and the band of low cloud... Pink highlights danced around the sky to the west, and around Mount Ngarauhoue. The lower slopes of the mountain were spotted with patches of snow amongst the black scree, and all the ice and snow around us, which had been blue the night before, was now shades of orange and pink as the sun moved higher in the sky. From our viewpoint, our tent was merely a dot in a huge white expanse. How incredibly lucky we were to be able to experience and witness what could only be described as one of nature's finest moments.
After a quick breakfast and tent deconstruction, we trudged from east to west across central crater and took a backcountry route up over the summit of Tongariro and down a lovely little ridgeline to return home.
I remember driving into Mangatepopo carpark not even 12 hours earlier and thinking to myself "this is crazy... Who does this at nearly midnight?", but it was too late to plead insanity. We had committed to the adventure and we were rewarded justly for doing so. I thanked the mountain as we stepped back on the track to return to the car. What an incredible show you put on for us, Tongariro. How amazing it is to feel so small, insignificant and vulnerable, yet so incredibly empowered...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Exceeding Expectations - Bacon in Disguise

I was at a function a couple of weeks ago. It was lunchtime. I was hungry. And there were these little mini quiche thingys sitting on the table. Egg and bacon quiches... Delicious. I made my way to the table, salivating at the thought of bacony goodness. Then I took a bite and was sorely disappointed to discover that actually, it wasn't bacon... It was sundried tomato... How very disappointed I was. I looked around for the hidden cameras, wondering if this was some sort of sick social experiment, gauging the various levels of disappointment when people expect bacon... But get sundried tomato... I mean, I don't hate sundried tomato, but I think it's fair to say that if something looks like bacon, and you are expecting bacon, no normal person would then get a pleasant surprise to discover it wasn't, in actual fact, bacon that they were eating. No one eats bacon secretly hoping for sundried tomato.

But what about when you think you are settling for sundried tomato, and then "SURPRISE"!!! You find out that it is actually bacon? Well that, my friend is a happy day indeed.

I had a ride about a month ago that was just like that. My sister Emily, and her husband Dan were in NZ for a road-tripping holiday and I traveled down to Hanmer Springs to meet with them and hang for the long weekend. I've been to Hanmer Springs twice before, and both times to race, so I was looking forward to spending time soaking in the views, and hopefully riding the St James trail for fun, not for racing. We spent our first day on a sunrise hike up Mount Isobel (worthwhile if you like early mornings, a good climb and stunning views) and then I took Em and Dan out to camp at Lake Tennyson for the evening.

Lake Tennyson is beautiful... It's in the middle of nowhere, 50km out of town on a corrugated dirt road that disappears well into the heart of St James Station. I had an ulterior motive for a night camping out here. It meant that I got a shuttle out to ride the St James trail back into town... A tasty little 80km ride through some stunning backcountry trails.

After a morning of delicious sunshine, the afternoon turned pretty wild, and by the time we got to Lake Tennyson, a significant storm was brewing in the valley at the end of the lake, just waiting for the flood gates to open so it could come barreling across the water to where we had parked up to camp. Em and Dan had a campervan, and we spent the afternoon reading, playing cards and geeking out over topographic maps (ok, that was just me with the maps), watching the sky outside get angrier and angrier and feeling the wind buffet the campervan side to side. I had made a very poor attempt to pitch my tent where it was protected by the camper, and so I spent the night being jolted from my sleep every time the side of the tent slapped me in the face with the force of a gust of wind behind it (which was about every two or three minutes).

We awoke in the morning to a rather stunning sunrise. The way the pinks danced around the clouds created an ominous, angry-looking sky that made the thought of disappearing into the valley by myself for the day seem a little bit daunting. The storm that had been brewing in the valley on the other side of the lake seemed to be trapped there, but gale force winds were still swirling around the lake, in amongst bursts of rain.

I nearly decided not to ride that day. In fact, I went through the motions of putting my kit on and getting my bike prepared with the intention that something would happen at the last minute that would give me a genuine excuse to pike... Something more genuine than a bit of wind and rain. But nothing changed... The wind kept howling, and bursts of rain came and went. It became apparent that the decision was mine to make... And I was already in my riding kit with my bike out of the car... I may as well just ride. I was expecting it to be a bloody miserable day, by all accounts.

I threw my leg over my bike and battled into the head wind down the road, waving goodbye to Em and Dan as they passed me and disappeared into the distance. As I turned right onto the trail, a burst of rain and gust of wind simultaneously drowned me and nearly blew me off my bike... I had the feeling that this was going to be one very long day, and I spent the next 8km considering how feasible it would be to turn around and head back down the road with the possibility of hitching a ride somewhere along the way. But that just isn't my style, so I pushed on regardless, although not without first squeezing my backpack to confirm I could feel the familiar box-shape of my PLB.

It wasn't until I had been on the bike nearly an hour that I crested the top of the first climb at Maling Pass. From here, I could see straight down into the valley where the St James trail wound its way alongside the Waiau River. In front of me, where my wheel was pointed, there were patches of blue bursting through a tapestry of fluffy grey clouds. Behind me, the storm was still raging away in the valley, a dark landscape dimmed even further by the spread of dark clouds that seemed to reach from the sky to the ground. It was trying it's best to get past the Lake. But for some reason, that's where it stayed... It was like Mother Nature was giving me a massive high five for being a hard woman and getting out in it despite the weather. I smiled and rolled on my way down the rocky, loose, fun descent... Mother nature had just taken my sundried tomato and swapped it for bacon.

As I rode through the valley, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings. Everything felt wonderful. The wind frequently pushed at my back, multiple rainbows appeared in front of me, leading the way, and the long alpine grass swished along with the wind, like strands of silver bending in the sun. I felt so alive, and indescribably happy to be where I was right at that moment in time. The mountains surrounded me on either side like a surreal mural of scree-topped silver-green. And given the weather had been so poor, no one else had ventured out for the day, so the feast was all mine for the taking. I pedaled my way along the river, crossing raging torrents on swing-bridges, interrupting flocks of Canadian Geese, and popping my head into random huts along the way.

I remembered from racing the St James trail twice over the last few years that the bulk of the climbing on this trail happens right at the end, and the hills didn't disappoint. As I worked my way up the ascents, sometimes on foot, sometimes weaving back and forth awkwardly on my bike, I made up rude songs in my head about what I thought of the climbs at that particular point in time... At least it distracted my mind from the burning sensation in my legs.

Despite the fact that my untrained legs were feeling rather weary, I was nearly disappointed to reach St James Station at the end of the trail. I sat down on the fence for a bite to eat. A stiff breeze was still blowing down through the gully, carrying the smells of Autumn and the backcountry past my nose. I soaked in my surroundings before getting back on the bike for the 20km ride back to Hanmer Springs via the local trail network.

It was a rather moving day for me. Having deprived myself of true adventure for sometime now, I'd had reservations at the start of the day as to whether I was still capable of a ride that long, and whether I was capable of being hard enough to deal with a big day of bad weather, and I needn't had worried about either of those. We live in a world where we have the autonomy to choose again... To choose how we frame things in our minds... To choose how we filter the world and our interactions within it... To choose to take calculated risks... We can choose to hand back the sundried tomatoes and say "you know what? Today, I'll have bacon thanks", then make that happen. It's only when we choose to make moments great that life truly exceeds our expectations.