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April 2011 Issue
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Stranded in deepest Fiordland

David Guise has promised his wife his solo adventures are over
The forces of nature conspired against wild man David Guise, writes Josh Gale

After nearly being killed in a dramatic flood in Fiordland, 72-year-old David Guise’s wife has said no more to his solo wilderness adventures.

“I’ve always loved exploring, to go to some place where there is no track and where nobody goes and to find my own way around is the thrill for me,” says Guise. “Once I can’t explore, it’s lost its interest for me. I can’t be bothered with trails. Particularly trails that go through bush.”

A lifelong tramper and mountaineer, Guise enjoys ‘wilderness walking’ off the trail in the deep south, with only a map, a GPS and his trusty bivvy sack to help him.

He prefers “tops walking” and has a strong distaste for trudging through the bush.

“On the tops there are so many different ways you can go and you have to navigate,” he explains. “The views are also spectacular.”

The retired former financial advisor started his solo wilderness adventures 10 years ago when he walked along the West Coast from Jackson Bay to Big Bay.

Guise learned the Dusky Track attracted many challenge-seeking trampers and after studying his map he wondered if there was a route from Lake Manapouri near Te Anau to the South Coast Track at the very bottom of the South Island – a distance of 81km as the crow flies.

“I had never heard of anybody doing it and I wanted to find out if there was a route there.”

Since then, Guise has attempted the journey from both the southern and northern ends, but each time he has run into difficulties that have crushed his attempts.

“A violent wind and rainstorm on Mt McGavock west of Lake Hakapoua, that made it impossible to pitch a tent and left me wet and cold, ruined an attempt to head from south to north,” says Guise of his first attempt.

A strained knee, a heavy pack and an out-of-credit satellite phone sabotaged his following attempts and an impassable cliff face dashed his fifth attempt.

“My distaste for bush bashing led me to a dead end. I decided to spend the next year building my resolve to face the inevitable bush bashing.”

In early February this year Guise attempted another solo journey, this time from Lake Hay in Fiordland south along the Cameron Ranges down to the South Coast Track.

Walking the tops as much as possible, Guise expected the adventure to take him 12 days, but he was lucky to escape with his life.

In the late afternoon of his first day, he came to a large valley with a “piddling stream” – a tributary of the Longburn River – and made a bivvy 12m above the river’s edge and above the bush line.

After finishing his bivvy he went down to the stream to get water and noticed its level had risen slightly and was carrying more colour.

As an experienced outdoors man originally from Riverton, Guise looked around at the “huge valley” and felt confident his bivvy was well out of reach of the rising water.  

“I looked up at my bivvy and thought ‘no problem’,” says Guise who then returned to his camp.

“I was just settling down for sleep at 10pm and then this cold pulse started lifting my feet up. I put my hand out and ‘splash’. I still can’t believe how fast that whole basin filled with water.”

The tail end of a tropical cyclone had dumped 300mm of rain on Milford Sound and it had made its way down to the valley Guise was based in.

“My mistake was treating it like a river. It didn’t have an escape route and when all that water came down it couldn’t get out fast enough so it filled up.”

He fumbled in the “pitch black” to try and find his gear, but only had time to throw his boots, his pack and his sleeping bag up a bank behind his bivvy.

“When I stepped up the bank I would have been a metre above where I was bivvied and the water was up around my ankles again,” he says. “That’s how fast it was coming.”

Guise climbed further and stood on top of a tree bole wearing only one boot after losing the other.

He threw his sleeping bag over his head and tried to activate his personal locator beacon, but in the dark he accidently broke the activation switch.

“The water got half way up my calves and then fluctuated for a little while. It would have been much more serious if it had kept on coming,” he says.

The next morning the valley was a “desolate looking place”.

“There was open lake for at least 300 or 400m – that whole river had risen 18m,” says Guise. “No matter how experienced you are, or what gear you’ve got, there’s nothing you can do.”

The water level continued to rise and Guise realised he had to find a higher position.

He decided to swim 60m through what was bush only the day before to a pyramid-shaped rock just one metre wide and two metres long. “It was an act of desperation getting up that rock.”  

Once on top, Guise wedged himself in so he wouldn’t fall, wrung out his three pairs of fleece thermals and put his sleeping bag over his head to stay warm. He tried to ring his wife, but each time she answered the connection failed.

Stuck in this position, Guise spent the rest of the day and that night trying to prise open the emergency locator beacon so he could activate it and summon help.

“It took a long time, but I eventually got it,” he says.

On the morning of his second day trapped by the floodwaters, a three-man helicopter crew from Southern Lakes Helicopters flew to his location and rescued him.

Guise says he would like the unnamed valley that nearly took his life officially named Soak Pitt River Valley “as a warning to everyone”.  

Now that his wife has put the kibosh on his solo adventures, Guise is looking at tamer walks to go on: “I’ve always saved the Milford Track because I thought it’s a nice tame thing that I’ll do when I’m old.”