New Zealand Wilderness Survival Trip (Part 2)

The Viking Adventure

As I wrote about in my previous blog our instructors did not let us know what adventure we would be partaking in until several hours before we headed out on an adventure. One of our first endeavors was taking a several day trip in these large wooden old-fashioned sailboats called Cutters.

Think of those old primitive wooden boats with giant oars that the Vikings used to row with. Well, somehow Outward Bound had constructed some of these boats with a very primitive sail. We packed up a minimal amount of gear and food into some dry bags, and were told to swim with our gear fully loaded to get out to the boat. I didn’t think this was a particularly brilliant idea because we were going to be soaking wet and freezing to start our adventure. I suppose this not only tested our physical endurance, but mental as well. We hoisted our shivering bodies into this old boat and listened to our instructors as they taught us how to navigate the waters in front of us. Fortunately I knew how to sail, so I was eager help my teammates learn how to how to a sail, understand wind direction, and navigate the oceans.

What we did not count on was no wind at all. We were not moving anywhere – we were simply drifting out to sea.  Our instructors did have a support boat trailing way behind us, and when we scratched our heads on what to do next since we could not sail we heard a loud speaker shouting out to us “ROW.”

It was about 40°F and we picked up our oars and started rowing for hours on end. Our hands started to bleed several hours into it and I got a small taste of what it must’ve been like to be a Viking back in the day rowing for what seemed like an endless amount of time. To make the best of a challenging situation we sang songs, told stories, and counted the moments until we arrived at our destination.

When we arrived at the island we were told by our instructors, who kept their distance, to go ashore and set up camp. Unfortunately, it was raining, freezing, and we were unable to set up camp. So, we disembarked from our vessel, set up a campfire, and proceeded to attempt to cook in the rain. Naturally, it did not go particularly well for us as we could not get the fire going. So, we reached into our dry bags and scrounged around for what food we could find. We sat around a lifeless campfire talking about what we had learned that day, the struggles we had endured, and got to know one another on a more intimate level. As the sun set we were told to pile back into our Viking vessel to sleep for the night as it was too wet to set up camp.

Amusingly, although probably not so amusingly at the time, we did not factor in that the tide was coming in, and that the boat was now several hundred yards off the beach. We were not quite sure what to do as we had all of our gear in the boat. Again, from a giant loudspeaker from the support boat we heard our instructors tell us to swim. Once again, fully clothed with our shoes, jackets, backpacks, and gear we swam for the boat.  We desperately tried to tread water with our fully loaded gear to get to the boat. I think we looked like fish out of water flailing about. Once we reached the boat we tag teamed one another by pulling each other up over the side of the sailboat. It was dark, wet, and still frigid. Once we were all loaded up in the boat the only thing to do was to take off half of our clothing and snuggle together for body warmth. It was indeed quite a challenging night, but somehow we ended up laughing despite nearly getting hypothermia.

This adventure continued for several days, and we were not very fortunate because the wind never returned, which prevented us from sailing. There were moments when each of us wanted to give up, but the rest of the group took turns rallying around each person telling us that we could do it, and not to give up.

When we finally arrived back at camp several days later we were back to our regimented routine of getting up at 4:30 in the morning for our 5 mile run, icy swim, and a host of other physical activities to test our mental endurance.

The next adventure on our docket was hiking!

Extreme Mountain Hiking

At this point we had all survived the trip so far and built a very close camaraderie with one another. We were excited to get out of the water and start climbing a mountain. The instructors sat us down and taught us how to navigate a topographical map, and told us to decide who would be our navigators for the trip. The instructor said they would be about a day behind us in case things went sideways, but it was our responsibility to make our way to the top.

We loaded up our 50 to 60lb packs and headed into the lush forest of New Zealand. The ground was wet, slippery, and quite treacherous. We plotted out a course of how to get to the top without falling off the side of the mountain, but we had to make multiple course corrections as we had underestimated the steep terrain. Several of us went sliding down the side of a mountain, and the rest of us had to use ropes to hoist our fellow hiker’s backup. At one point I slipped on a root and went tumbling down what must’ve been several hundred feet. I grabbed onto a tree and let out a bloodcurdling yell for help. My group created a type of human chain-link with ropes in order to pull me back up. I was covered from head to toe in mud with no shower in sight 🙂 I was wet, cold, and contemplating giving up, but the idea of letting my teammates down was not an option.

Several of my teammates started to develop hypothermia from the harsh temperatures so we had to postpone hiking for several hours at a time, pitch a tent, get undressed, and warm them up. There was blood, tears, sweat, and pure determination from all parties to just keep going.

After several days of working together, arguing, nearly giving up, and pushing through our personal endurance levels; we made it to the top of the mountain. It happened to be a gorgeous sunny and cold day where we could see for miles on end the tops of the other mountains. We had climbed 1400 meters on our own despite all of our setbacks. Then the most amazing thing happened… Not only did we see a rainbow, but we saw a circular rainbow around the top of the mountain. It was almost like a sign we had made it, and this was our reward. It was one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I had ever seen. I started crying and I never cry. We pitched our tents, built a fire, and just laughed for hours about what we had accomplished.

As we were headed back down the mountain I took quite a spill and was bleeding from somewhere on my legs, but I just couldn’t tell where as there was so much blood. I limped the rest of the way down, but the pain was excruciating. I later found out that I had sustained a stress fracture on my shin, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to complain to the group at this point. I decided to just push through the pain, probably not the smartest idea at the time, but you must remember I was 17 years old, and extremely stubborn!

I was never so happy to see base camp as I thought we would have several days to recuperate. Of course this was not the case, and the next morning we were off on our next adventure of rock climbing and a high-altitude ropes course.

Blind Folded Rock Climbing

I’m sure many of you have done one of those fun ropes courses, but this one was about 50 feet in the trees. Despite having stress fractures on my shins I was having a blast. I was swinging from tree to tree, pulling myself across ropes high in the air, and just generally feeling exhilarated as I felt like a monkey in the middle of the jungle.

The most memorable moment was rock climbing for me – I had never rock climbed before, but was eager to give it a go. It turns out I was quite adept at rock climbing, so I was challenged to do it blindfolded. I did think they were kidding because I did not know how anybody could rock climb blindfolded. When the blindfold was put on me my nerves were on edge, but my senses were heightened. I started feeling the shapes of the little divots in the rocks where I could put my foot and pull myself up with my hands. Halfway up the mountain I was sure I was going to succeed with flying colors, and then … BAM… I lost my footing and went flying down against the rocks about 50 feet or so. I knocked my head into the rocks, was bleeding all over the place, but thankfully was caught by the harness 🙂

I did start whimpering, but once I regained my composure after falling down a cliff blindfolded I continued to more carefully assess the shape of the rocks. I had a second go of it, and carefully placed 1 hand and 1 foot at more selected rock locations. I am not quite sure how long it took me to get to the top, but when I did I could feel a warm hand on mine whispering “You did it.” I had never felt more accomplished than I did at that moment. Truthfully, I felt like super woman … I was on top of the world, I thought I was invisible, and nothing could hurt me! Once I took my blindfold off I did realize that I was not quite impenetrable to injury as I was bruised all over 🙂

“Solo” Trip – One for the books!

For one of our last adventures we were told to pile into canoes and there would be a surprise waiting for us when we arrived. I could not possibly imagine what kind of surprise would be waiting for us in the wilderness, but this one definitely caught me off guard. We canoed for hours and arrived at a small island with a very large mountain.

We were told not to talk and follow our instructors up the mountain. After about an hour our instructors stopped us and told us we would be embarking on a several day “Solo” trip. I wasn’t quite sure what this entailed, but they explained to us that we would be assigned a very small location on the side of a mountain where we would be alone for several days. We were not allowed to move out of the small designated area, we would be given minimal food, water, a journal, and a tarp for if it rained. This solo experience was one that was meant for each of us to reflect on our lives, convene with nature, and test our will of being alone.

3 apples, 3 carrots, and 2 oat cakes

This was probably the most challenging aspect of the trip for me because at 17 years old I did not want to be alone, I wanted to constantly be going on some type of adventure, and I had no desire to reflect on my life. The time came when I was assigned my area of the mountain. I was on a very steep gradient, but just flat enough where I could sleep at an angle.

In very short order I was left alone and I was not quite sure what to do with myself. So, I laid out my tarp on the ground and tried to build a mini-campsite for myself. I have a picture below of the food that was given to us and I was wondering how I was going to survive on that amount of food for several days, but I figured there are starving folks all over the world, so I would probably be fine.

I had no desire to sit and reflect upon life because I didn’t think I had anything to reflect on. I proceeded to try and get creative by using nature to build a type of fence with sticks, twigs, and bark to keep out the critters at nighttime. I was actually having a ball building a mini-campsite, but several hours into my construction project I knocked over my small bag of food, which went rolling down the mountain. I was just not fast enough and watched my food roll into the distance. I now only had water for the next 3 to 4 days and started to panic. I knew I wasn’t going to starve, but it was going to be a miserable experience without any kind of food whatsoever.… That’s what I was thinking in my mind.

As the hours rolled by I was just flat out bored. I couldn’t look at the trees anymore as I had already memorized my little area that I was confined to, I had set up my camp, and I was ready to go do something. I was trying so hard to follow the rules and not move for my designated location. So, I opened on my journal and started writing. To my great surprise I started ferociously writing about what I was feeling. It turns out that I was uncomfortable with being alone … I had always been around people my whole life and I was not very comfortable with my own thoughts. I had so many ambitions in life at 17 years old and I was disappointed I had not accomplish more my life at the point. I know it sounds absurd now, but I started bawling like a baby wondering how my life would turn out, what I would do, who I would become, etc. I didn’t realize at the time how many expectations I had put on myself at such a young age. Truth be told, it is a problem I struggle with to this day as I set the standard for what I think I should achieve so high that I constantly disappoint myself. It was quite an interesting time of self-reflection.

I fell asleep the first night cold, hungry, and actually quite depressed about what I had learned about myself. I woke up the next morning and tried to turn my day around. I think I was born naturally mischievous, because I just couldn’t sit in my designated location. I could see the ocean from my camp spot, and I decided to wander down the mountain to go explore. I must have missed gauged how steep and slippery the terrain was because I went tumbling headfirst several hundred feet. I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself, but a tree broke my fall. I really injured myself quite well on that one as I was yet again bloody, but was not quite sure where I was bleeding from. I picked myself back up and stumbled down to the ocean. I was washing the blood off my body when I saw mussels attached to the rocks under the water.

At this point I was so hungry and desperate I started peeling off the little suckers from the rocks. I found a sharp rock and pried open the mussels. I slurped raw slimy muscles down my throat as I figured some protein was better than none at all. I wouldn’t recommend it to folks as it’s not like eating raw oysters… Raw mussels have a much more thick and slimy feeling as they are going down your throat 🙂

After about several hours of filling up on mussels, tending to my wounds, and watching the sunset I decided to climb back up to my campsite. That night I was woken up by something nibbling my toes. I opened my eyes and saw these little terrifying red eyes attacking on my feet. Possums! Not a particularly comforting thing to wake up to, but I grabbed a big stick and I think I might’ve hit one because I was swinging as if I was playing in major league baseball.

As the days rolled on I became more comfortable was sitting with my thoughts, writing in my journal, and pretty much just sitting still. I don’t think I had sat still my entire life until that moment. When my instructors came to get me I felt exhausted, but mentally accomplished. It was a very rewarding feeling.

The End of the Road

To finish up our journey together the entire Outward Bound group of around 60 to 70 folks set out to run a half a marathon, half of which was uphill, in the woods. I almost didn’t partake because the stress fractures at the time nearly crippled me, but I was determined to try. I did make my best faith effort to run the whole thing.  There were moments when I kept falling, limping, but kept hearing my teammates behind me telling me to keep going.

When I crossed the finish line I knew I had accomplished something incredibly special. It was my first intense wilderness trip I had ever taken and I was proud of myself. I was addicted… Despite the blood, sweat, and tears of it all there is something so gratifying about finding out where your personal endurance limits lie – both mentally and physically.

10 minutes after completing our half marathon run!

With spinal cord injury I feel the same way. When you accomplish something so small as putting on your makeup, taking a glass from the counter without breaking it, waking up in the morning to survive another day, etc. – it can be very humbling. I may not be able to hike the mountains of New Zealand anymore, but I am always finding new ways to push myself mentally and physically to enjoy the present moment in life. Personally, I currently struggle with living in fear of the future, who will take care of me, etc., but I have to remind myself on a daily basis that we only have the present moment to live life, and at it is a gift in and of itself!

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