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William Pike: Embracing the challenge

William Pike says losing a limb has enriched his life. Photo: Supplied

Losing a leg has enriched William Pike’s life. Matthew Pike (no relation) asks him how

Lying in a hospital bed reassessing his life goals, William Pike couldn’t have imagined that, in many ways, his life would become even better than before.

The then 22-year-old teacher had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, losing his leg in the 2007 eruption of Mt Ruapehu.

But, rather than stopping him from getting back outdoors, the incident has enhanced his experience of the mountains. “Before the accident I was rip, shit and bust – I’d try to do a four-day tramp in two days. Now I do a four-day trip in five days – I take my time and enjoy it more. I have richer experiences for not rushing. And the satisfaction of standing on top of a mountain with one leg feels even more awesome than standing there with two legs!”

The incident – big news at the time – also gave Pike the profile needed to receive an unexpected phone call from a school in Taupo, wanting him to help set up a new scheme.

This became known as the William Pike Challenge Award, essentially a Duke of Edinburgh award for kids of intermediate school age, rewarding them for participating in outdoor activities, community service and a new hobby or sport.

Starting with just the one school, Pike was a little embarrassed when asked to feature his name in the title, but his opinion of this has changed over the years. “Perhaps if I’d set it up myself I wouldn’t have called it that, but it’s funny how things play out. Now I’m very proud to associate my name with it and all it’s achieved for kids and communities.”

The success is evident just by looking at the bare stats. In 2011, the first school took part, featuring 25 students, eight outdoor activities and 500 community service hours. In 2013, it was up to 16 schools, 300 students, 128 outdoor activities and 6000 community hours. This year, 46 schools and 1100 students took part in 392 outdoor activities, completing 22,000 community hours.

Before losing his leg, Pike could share his passion for the outdoors with 30 kids each year. Now he gets to share it with thousands.

“There were already school camps and outdoor activities for kids this age,” he says. “But the challenge provides a reason why they’re doing what they do – it’s broader than just heading into the outdoors.

“It’s important for pre-teen kids to have a focus and direction in life – something for them to look forward to.”

There’s now a good spread of schools from Stewart Island to Northland taking advantage of the outdoor opportunities in their region. Pike says encouraging kids to make use of what they have around them is a big part of the plan, whether it’s a West Coast kid enjoying the mountains or a student on Auckland’s North Shore enjoying the ocean. “Wherever you are in New Zealand, you have something good in your backyard – there’s no need to travel far and wide for the challenge.”

Embracing the great outdoors has always been close to Pike’s heart. Prior to 2007 he was a keen hunter, tramper and climber.

But one evening in September that year he was staying in Dome Shelter, near Crater Lake on Mt Ruapehu, when the eruption happened. Rock, mud, snow and water burst into the hut and crushed his leg. In a complex rescue, his friend James Christie, a snowcat, an ambulance, and a rescue helicopter saved Pike’s life but couldn’t save his leg. It took him nine months to learn to walk again and 18 months to return to Tongariro National Park. “I went with my brother and dad and I didn’t expect to go too far, but ended up walking to the top of Mt Tongariro – the first mountain I’d climbed when I was 19. It was a special moment and I felt if I could do this, I could do anything.”

It was Pike’s outdoor experiences prior to the accident which helped him through the tough early days of recovery. “The key to me overcoming the challenge of losing my leg was my passion for outdoors. I wasn’t going to let that side of me slip away.”

The hard work paid off, not only in getting Pike back into the hills, but in receiving that phone call from the school in Taupo.

He continued to teach when the project was small, but 2013 was a make or break year. He was given two terms of leave and, with the help of the Tindall Foundation, was able to turn it into a financially sustainable organisation which can handle year-on-year growth.

“My long term goal is for hundreds of schools to be doing the award,” he says. “I want it to be around for longer than I am, to be my legacy – my way of leaving something and making a difference.”