From tahr to terror…

It started out as a chamois and tahr hunt but turned into a matter of life and death. Daryl Crimp relates Rob and Ben Dines’s battle with the elements on New Zealand’s west coast.

The Hughes 500 flared, pivoted on its axis and dropped nimbly into the tussock. It’d landed on a rib that joined the backbone of the Southern Alps to the south-east.

To the west, the thin ribbon of the West Coast was just visible, with the Tasman Sea beyond. Rob Dines (61) and his nephew Ben (28) disembarked the chopper into a chilly autumn dawn and set up base camp to the backbeat of retreating rotor blades.

While the skies were clear and the weather settled, with the forecast indicating a slowly advancing low and 10-30mm of rain later in the week, Rob knew from experience that New Zealand’s alpine environment was unpredictable and could turn from benign to deadly on a dime.

On the other hand, he and Ben had kept abreast of the latest craze to ensnare many Kiwi hunters: the ultra light-hunting movement that sees individuals paring back equipment, food, and clothing to extreme levels, and carrying packs weighing in single digits for multi-day mountain trips. They’d flirted with the notion, but Rob offered prescient advice to the younger Ben.

“When heading for the mountains, pack as if you are expecting things to turn to custard,” he said.

They erected the expedition-grade alpine tent in the lee of a knoll and refilled their packs, intending to establish a spike camp and hunt an area they’d studied before the trip.

The ridge they were on joined the main divide some 3km away and it looked to be hallowed ground, having had little hunting pressure. Glassing away the remainder of the day, their assumptions were confirmed and excitement kindled as they spotted nine chamois and over 40 tahr.

Following a huge breakfast, they set off, equipped with fly and food for two nights. Traversing the ridge proved slower than anticipated, hampered by the dense vegetation and the fact that the ridge deteriorated into a razorback, with precipitous slopes falling away either side. They spike-camped within sight of their destination and completed the journey next morning.

Having scrutinised the map contours previously and decided it was ‘doable’, they were dismayed to discover dangerously steep country and sidled in the hope of finding easier ground. Instead, it got worse.

After a team talk, Ben and Rob decided it was foolhardy to continue. The compounding factors of a cloud build-up out to sea and the sudden appearance of ‘mare’s tails’ to the south-east made the decision to retreat easier.

“What are mare’s tails?” Ben asked.

Rob explained that the high wispy clouds signalled approaching bad weather. He indicated his watch barometer, which was falling. Old bull, young bull.

Rob and Ben take shelter as the storm closes in

They opted to drop down and hunt the valley, then climb a prominent ridge back to base camp. The West Coast bush line is fringed by dense ‘monkey scrub’ and they expended a lot of time and energy fighting their way off the tussock tops, eventually camping on a ledge 100m from the valley floor.

An evening hunt only netted the sighting of chamois in the distance. With the barometer continuing to fall, Rob decided to ration food and they retired after a light feed.

Hunting early, they made the creek bed to discover two fresh wallows, so agreed to stay out another night and try to locate the stag. Ben found a flat area to camp but the old bull shook his head.

“It’s too close to the creek there,” he said. “If the weather packs in, that’ll soon be underwater.”

They chose a bench above the creek and erected the high quality 5m x 3m fly, then cut tussock and crown fern to act as ‘bedding’ and keep their sleeping mats off the ground. This simple step possibly saved their lives. 

Rob had realised by now that the forecast was wrong so, after a fruitless afternoon hunt, decided on an early meal of soup and bed. Both are builders, so practical people.

Shunning the ultra-light craze, they had robust Swazi Tahr anoraks, over-trousers, and were well-layered. More critically, each had a change of thermals so were able crawl into their sleeping bags dry. They were in the pit by 6.30pm as rain started to fall.

“The barometer’s plummeting,” Rob said, indicating a drop of 100 points in a short space of time.

Fortunately, they’d had the good sense to erect the fly with a low profile to avoid the weather – only 600mm above ground and well-anchored. At 9.30pm, Zeus tested them and opened the skies to a deluge.

A low profile spike camp in the Alps similar to the one that save Rob and Ben

Violent gale-force winds, accelerated by the steep topography, smashed the fly. Twice the eyelets ripped free, causing it to flap violently and threaten to rip apart. Ben suggested pebbles from the stream and they tied these in the corners, re-securing the fly in the dark of night.

An hour past midnight, it sounded like Thor had joined the party, as thunder reverberated in the distance. It didn’t abate and Rob realised with dread that the noise actually came from boulders rolling down the river – a chilling sound.

Imagine the consequences had they chosen that first campsite! The trip had suddenly taken on a paradigm shift and the situation had become dire. 

Dawn of day four was drawn out as light struggled to filter through the low cloud base, relentless downpour, and violent winds. All day it pounded them, unabated.

There was a raw rage to the weather and it was hard not to take it personally. With energy low, food short and spirits flagging, the old bull and young bull kept composed and calmly assessed their options.

While they carried an EPIRB, no helicopter could fly in these conditions, so they were reluctant to set it off and unduly worry family or inconvenience rescue co-ordinators. Ben suggested ‘bush-bashing’ back to their tent but, considering their low reserves and the weather, Rob thought it madness to even try.

“Besides,” he said to Ben, “there is no guarantee the tent is still standing in this onslaught!”

They ate the remaining freeze-dried meal and settled in for a long night, with an inch of cold water flowing beneath their tussock mattress.

Day five dawned with little abatement to the storm, though later in the morning the odd clear patch materialised – but then disappeared again like a ghost in the forest.

Little did Ben know, conditions were about to change dramatically

The river was still a torrent and the marker pegs they’d put in showed it wasn’t subsiding; it could take several days for it to become fordable again. With two gorges below, walking out wasn’t an option either.

“If I let myself go… I could panic right now,” Ben told Rob, who was also feeling ‘pretty dark’.

Other signs raised alarm.

“We hadn’t really eaten for two or three days, but neither of us were hungry,” Rob reflected later, “We were just running on adrenaline.” They were also shuddering uncontrollably but not cold—possibly hypothermic— and their bodies were showing symptoms of stress and serious fatigue.

“We were both proud and didn’t want to cause a fuss, but knew we were now entering a different realm,” Rob said later.

They put aside any embarrassment and made the right decision based on need. Rob activated the EPIRB.

On reflection, they were proud they’d made a series of decisions that ultimately saved them. They carried appropriate gear, had exited a dangerous situation, kept warm and dry, made logical choices, and were coming home safe. The only thing they’d do different would be to take more food next time.

The rescue Squirrel helicopter is an impressive machine but, after several futile attempts at nosing up the gorge, the pilot was beaten by the weather. Rob’s EPIRB was a decade old and despite being activated correctly, it was sending erratic signals. Fortunately, the chopper pilot who’d dropped them in was an experienced bush pilot with extensive local knowledge.

“I think I know where they might be,” he said, donning his helmet and making for the Hughes 500.

“When he materialised out of the murk,” Rob said later, “it was like a gift from the gods.”

The Hughes 500 proved a literal lifesaver

The wind rocked the machine as Ken stretched out and barked over the sound of the whining jet engine: “Forget your gear – get in!”

The situation was that precarious.

“I thought he said, ‘Get your gear’,” said Rob, “so I turned to dismantle the fly and a ruddy great hand grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.”

“F*** your gear… We’re outta here!”

Rob said it was the most amazing piece of flying he’s seen. Ken had to flare the chopper in several places in the gorge just to clear a path in the mist to fly through.

The two still feel an immense debt of gratitude to the bush pilot, who took them home, fed and clothed them, and provided beds for the night. They apologised for any inconvenience.

“No problem, you made the right decision,” he shrugged. “I’d much rather that than be ferrying out a couple of bodies later.”

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