A week or so ago, while resting
up in a cheap motel, we caught a (probably illegal) showing
of the movie Touching the Void, an amazing story of life,
near death and mis-adventure. There's a scene in the film
where Joe Simpson describes how he found himself abandoned
in a deep crevasse high in remote Andean mountains. He had
a shattered leg, broken in an earlier fall, and been left
for dead by his climbing partner. His situation was desparate;
totally alone, without food, water or fuel and unable to
climb up and out. As he put it, in situations like that
you have to make decisions and keep making decisions to
stand any chance of surviving. It doesn't matter whether
they are the right decisions, the important thing is to
make them. Faced with certain death if he stayed still,
Joe defied all logic and decided to lower himself deeper
into the crevasse to see if he could find a way out. He
Sitting half way up Jack's Pass
on the Rainbow Road, exhausted from the exertions of pushing,
pulling and trying to cycle our unsteady loads up the gravelly
groove, I was reminded of Joe. While our circumstances were
in no way comparable to his, we needed to decide whether
to go up or down before darkness fell or we were blown off
the road. We'd tried every conceivable way of progressing
upwards, but even with the boys pushing our progress was
no more than a dull and painful farce.
All hands to the deck in a moment
of family teamwork
We called a family meeting and for
fifteen minutes dithered over whether to follow our Rainbow
or retreat and take the long but easy option along the highway,
like most normal people. Like Joe, but with heavy hearts,
we made our decision. "We need to go down, said Kirstie.
The quorum gave its silent consent and five minutes later
we were back where we started in Hanmer Springs.
Our alternative route took us up
and over the Lewis Pass, through a Kiwi alpine wonderland
sculpted first by ancient ice and now by tumbling waters.
The road crosses the Alpine fault which runs through New
Zealand making it prone to earthquakes; when they say this
road rocks, they really mean it. Tracing the rock strewn
braids of mountain rivers, slipping through moss laden forests
of beech, this route scratches its way towards bare mountain
tops. It should have been dream riding. But we were not
in a dream but a nightmare. And the trouble was the road
didn't rock, it rolled……. and rolled….. and rolled. Up and
down, down and up. Again and again and again. To climb this
pass you had to climb it three times over, nature providing
resistance at every turn. As if the landscape were not enough,
she added blistering sunshine (at last!) and the strongest
headwinds known to Family on a Bike. They say wind is the
enemy of the cyclist and there's no disputing it. We were
blown to a standstill physically and mentally. The vagaries
of our instrumentation mean that speeds of less than 3.8km/hr
do not register. As the wind sculpted our hair, speed dropped
and progress ceased to register. The depression that was
moving in from the west spread rapidly and tempers became
As parents with toddlers, we're
quite used to dealing with temper tantrums but these ones
were really bad. Shouting and arguing without provocation
followed by pathetic and irritable whining. It was all getting
"I'm tired of cycling, I don't
want to go any further. This road is stupid."
"Look, we need to keep going
or we'll never get to camp."
"I don't want to. I want
"Don't be such a baby."
"But I'm hungry and thirsty
and really tired."
"Look Stuart, just get back
on your bike will you, we've got to press on."
While the kids were enjoying the
freedom of extra break-times brought on by the tough conditions,
lousy for cycling but perfect for flying a kite, the parents
were losing it.
"What's your problem Dad,
it's great here."
As the sun, wind and cycling sapped
our strength we began to lose our cool with each other,
with the kids, with everything. We were losing the mind
When Joe Simpson finally crawled
out of his crevasse he had to hop and crawl for miles across
glaciers and boulder strewn moraines to stand any chance
of reaching help. His extraordinary mental toughness helped
him overcome his pain and claw his way from the brink of
death to safety. He used his stubborn streak to drive himself
forward, setting himself little goals to focus his attention.
He said the stubborn part of him had to achieve them, he
simply had to get to that rock over there within 20 minutes
so he'd drag himself there, almost fainting with each step,
and then spot another one and start over. Days later, delirious
and exhausted, he finally reached help.
We lacked Joe's stubbornness and
strength of character but adopted his goal setting strategy
and kilometre by kilometre overcame the wind and terrain
to reach a rest spot at Sylvia Flats. And suddenly, without
warning, the world seemed a better place. An Alpine Fault
brings some benefits and we stumbled across one of them,
some natural thermal pools built from mountain debris beside
the Lewis River. We stripped down to our shorts and soothed
our screaming minds and bodies in hot sulphurous waters.
While tired backs scratched on gravel beds, little boys
splashed in cooler river pools, and the day's pains were
washed downstream in the cool mountain waters.
makes it all alright now... or does it?
For once the sulphurous smell was
not me. It looked like this was the turning point we had
been waiting for.