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July 2019 Issue
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Rocks for a hard place

Peter Crosland returned to the Tararuas to mark the trail with rock cairns
After a close call in the Tararua Ranges, Wellingtonian Peter Crosland made sure nobody would make his same mistakes.

With a foreboding southerly stalking towards the Tararua Range, Peter Crosland knew the available time for his rescue was shortening by the hour.

The experienced tramper had never needed his personal locator beacon before, but this time he knew he had to bite the bullet.

The incoming weather would quickly smother any chance of a chopper extraction, and a ground rescue team may not reach him until nightfall.

By that time, Crosland knew he would be in serious trouble.

“I was stuffed and I was way off track, completely soaked and exhausted. I knew this was the time I was going to have to pull the plug,” he says.
It hadn’t taken long for Crosland to find trouble in the poor weather conditions of his January expedition.

After spending the night at Mid King Bivvy, he departed early in deteriorating weather to make his exit via South King and Baldy.

It was his first time tackling the difficult route to South King and poor visibility and steep terrain slowed his uncertain progress, but eventually he popped out on the summit of South King, relieved to confirm his exact position on the range.

The weather on the tops, however, turned his excitement into apprehension.

Despite a raincoat and thermal layers, Crosland was now soaked to the skin with rain and sweat, facing an 80km/h gale and horizontal rain.

He knew he needed to get off the tops immediately, so made his way down South King and aimed for Baldy.

Now in familiar territory, Crosland descended through the murk thinking he was home free. After an anxious and difficult morning, he had found certainty in the track he thought he was following to safety.

The problem was, he had unknowingly taken a wrong spur, and followed deer tracks a long way off-track.

“In hindsight, I made the wrong decision there. Instead of turning around, I kept going through the rain and fog when I was soaked through,” he says.

The intensive tramping through cold conditions had Crosland feeling depleted and possibly suffering mild hypothermia.

With legs cramping up, he decided to push on beneath the clouds to try and decipher his location, but all the landscape revealed was its ruggedness.

Crosland took stock of his survival gear and found it dangerously lacking. He had no shelter or bivvy bag, no waterproof layers that weren’t already soaked through, and not enough clothing to keep him warm overnight.

With everything at stake, Crosland activated his PLB around midday.

“I wasn’t assuming I would be rescued, and I was working on the basis that it may not happen that day, and therefore wondering what I was going to do,” he says.

“I was thinking this night is going to be hell, and I am going to be tested for survival.”

After changing into his last dry layer of thermal long johns, he descended to a stream to replenish his water.

Climbing back through the tussock, Crosland thought he heard the beating of a chopper.

Not yet an hour since he had activated his beacon, at first he didn’t believe the growing sound, but it quickly became undeniable and he raced towards it.

Having moved away from his beacon’s signal for water, Crosland was initially missed by the chopper, but eventually spotted and picked up by a local pilot.

“It was such elation to know that I wasn’t going to have to try and survive the night,” he says.

From the safety of the helicopter, Crosland got a sobering view of the impending weather system which would have enclosed him within a matter of hours.

“I looked south and I could see the black wall of a southerly front coming. I thanked God – and I’m not religious,” he says.

Shaken from the experience, he decided to ensure nobody followed his footsteps into the same danger.

After more than 35 years of tramping, it had taken just moments to lose the track and set himself on a dangerous path.

He contacted DOC with a proposition to fund signage and posts to mark the route down to and across Baldy, where he had lost the track. His tramping group – Old Dogs Tramping Club – would supply the labour.

It took six months for Crosland to receive a reply: ‘no’. DOC wanted to keep the route a wilderness area.

“I was gobsmacked by the fact it took six months to respond, and they were looking a gift horse in the mouth,” he says.

He was advised instead to build rock cairns on the route, which he accomplished with a tramping buddy in May, after two attempts were thwarted by poor weather.

Over three days the pair shifted an estimated 500-600kg of rocks to build 60-70 cairns along the route – with extra sizeable cairns constructed where Crosland got lost.

The 70-year-old laughs about his rescue now and has copped a lot of flack from friends and family for his questionable decision making.

“They kept saying, ‘how many years have you been tramping? You must be joking’,” he says.

But he’s happy to own his mistakes and happier still that he’s been able to give back by improving the track for future trampers.

“People wandering down there on a sunny day will wonder what the hell all of the cairns are there for, but you don’t realise what it’s like in clag – you can very easily lose the track,” he says.