A birthday bash in the Tararuas took a turn for the worst when an off-track shortcut threw a spanner in the works.
Tom Marchant knew his leg was broken the moment he hit the water.
The pain was immediate, but just a taste of what was to come when his adrenalin wore off.
It had taken just seconds of inattention for him to lose the track and lead his companions off course on a birthday trip to the Tararuas.
Marchant and four friends were celebrating his 32nd birthday – now remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Spirits were high, the banter was flowing, and concentration was admittedly lacking for the path ahead.
Around 90 minutes into the five-hour track, they realised they had taken a wrong turn and had wandered off the trail.
With the correct track still visible from their diversion, they decided to sidle past a small waterfall to return to the route, rather than double back.
“We had to get over slippery-smooth rock, but I slipped, and before I knew it, I was falling,” Marchant says.
The “oh s***” moment – a 3m fall into the waterfall’s catchment pool – saw Marchant’s right leg take the full impact of his more than 110kg.
The MRI later showed his tibia to be split almost the whole way through, like a stubborn log struck by an axe.
Shocked by the cold thigh-deep water, and feeling the pain of his fracture, Marchant had no choice but to get himself out of the cold, before his situation worsened.
He managed to pass his pack to his friends, and slowly, using all of his upper body strength, he heaved and crawled his way to the top.
Soaking wet from the plunge, Marchant was helped out of his frozen clothes and into dry gear while the group devised a plan.
As they were not far from the track end, they decided to split up, sending two back to the car to raise the alarm while the others would remain with
Marchant to make him comfortable while awaiting rescue.
The accident has made him a staunch advocate for PLBs. “Bite the bullet and buy the bloody thing.”
They also decided to activate the PLB in a few hours time, to assist the emergency services in locating the party.
“In hindsight, we should have set it off there and then,” Marchant says. “I was stable, there was no blood, and apart from the pain, I felt all good, but we are not medical professionals.”
In anticipation of a helicopter rescue, Marchant and his friends started an agonising 200m hobble to a clearing at the riverbed.
Difficult terrain, and Marchant’s weight, made it difficult for his friends to provide constant assistance, and the short trip took him two miserable hours.
By this stage, Marchant’s pain scale was “easily a nine”.
With the weather set to pack in and darkness approaching, the PLB was activated and Marchant sheltered beneath a tarpaulin bivvy.
Night had fallen by the time the chopper broke the silence of the bush, and after one last painful walk with the paramedic, Marchant was extracted to safety.
He knows he got lucky. Had he been tramping alone with no PLB, his injury could have been deadly.
Even in a group, it could have been a lot worse.
“I could have just as easily hit my head and been gone burgers,” he says.
The PLB, purchased just two weeks before the trip, more than proved its value, Marchant says, and the accident has made him a staunch advocate for the devices.
“They’re a lot of money, but it’s probably the same amount you would spend on a pack and it can legitimately save your life,” he says.
“Bite the bullet and buy the bloody thing.”
Blaming the incident on complacency, Marchant says he has a newfound respect for tramping – no matter the difficulty level.
“You might be on the easiest track, but something can still go wrong,” he says.
“If you’re leading a group, you should always stay focused and try not to get lost in the banter, as we all did.”