Passion and Perseverance
August 17, 2017
Words: William Pike/
Photos: Pike Collection
A decade ago I lay in hospital with a freshly amputated leg. After staring at my stump for weeks and unsuccessfully fighting back tears, I promised myself I’d get my life back on track. But I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do it.
Of course there was never going to be a secret recipe for overcoming such a traumatic event. I started off by recounting every detail leading up to how I lost my leg doing what I loved in the mountains. My story isn’t the usual frostbite or fall scenario. It’s much more exciting than that. Unbelievably, I had lost my leg and nearly my life in a volcanic eruption. Even to me, it still seems ridiculous today.
One could argue that losing a leg opened up a world of possibilities.”
When my mate James and I set off to climb Mt. Ruapehu in 2007, it was meant to be a straightforward mountaineering trip. We had the trip well planned out, the weather was perfect, we had the right gear and we were like kids in a candy shop when we set foot on the mountainside. After a day of slogging up the mountain with heavy packs we arrived at a small shelter and ditched our packs inside. We set off to climb to Mt. Ruapehu’s actual summit (Tahurangi, 2797m), but never made it due to the poor snow conditions and fading light. We settled into our sleeping bags later that evening and dozed off to sleep, ready for round two the follow morning.
Instead of sweet dreams entering my mind, 1.5 million cubic metres of mud, water and rocks were instantaneously ejected from the mountain's Crater Lake and landed on the shelter James and I were sleeping in. Rocks and debris burst through the door, smashing floor boards and walls, and crushing my legs. I was trapped, in disbelief, in excruciating pain and unable to escape. James was completely uninjured and had no option but to escape — to save his life and maybe mine. As soon as James began running down the mountainside for help, I sat in darkness and sub zero conditions. I thought about my family and friends and what I wanted to achieve in life. Gutted was an understatement for how I felt about my family receiving the news that I had died. And I felt like my life had been pulled from underneath my feet. Slowly the extreme cold was sucking the life out of me and hypothermia lowered my body temperature to a cool 25 degrees celsius(77°F). I reluctantly drifted off to sleep thinking I would never wake up again.
“I see exploration as more than the outdoors. It’s a way of life. We are all explorers — at home, at work and in the community.”
“I may have lost my leg below the knee in that eruption, but I was fortunate not to loose my spirit of exploration.”
Sometime between when I fell unconscious and arrived in hospital, James made a courageous dash down the mountain to raise the alarm for help. Helicopters, snowcats, ambulances and teams were mobilised. Then one of NZ’s most daring alpine rescues got underway and a well coordinated rescue effort by different arms of NZ’s emergency services saw me arrive at one of our largest hospitals.
I may have lost my leg below the knee in that eruption, but I was fortunate not to loose my spirit of exploration. Not that I knew it at the time, but it was that sense of exploration that saw me through 9 weeks in hospital, 15 yucky operations, years of rehab and more operations as well as frustrations with prosthetic limb fittings and blisters. The limb fitting process taught me to be innovative, to compromise and to pick myself up again and again when I’ve failed. I learnt to walk, returned to work and went from one adventure to the next. My desire to explore, push myself and go to new places only got stronger. Through exploration of possibilities and years of trial and error, I found that my prosthetic leg slowed me down a little, but rarely did it prevent me getting from point a to b.
In fact, one could argue that losing a leg opened up a world of possibilities. At 8.05pm on 18 February this year, I stood on top of Mt Scott in Antarctica. I was surrounded by a team of young Kiwis who all possessed that same spirit of exploration. I could see the Antarctic Peninsula stretched out towards the South Pole for as far as the eye could see. God it was good! A sea of cloud lay in front of me, hiding millions of icebergs. Without a doubt, it was the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen. As I took a moment to reflect on the past 10 years, a penny dropped. For the first time in my life, on top of Mt. Scott, I felt like a real explorer. And, I felt stupid for not realising I have been an explorer all my life. Although I was all over exploration, it took this special moment in Antarctica to realise that it was exploration THAT had got me onto the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu, out of hospital, into a prosthetic leg and back on track again. Undoubtedly it was exploration that enabled me to open a world of possibilities.
I see exploration as more than the outdoors. It’s a way of life. We are all explorers — at home, at work and in the community. Being an everyday explorer is about being innovative, challenging ourselves, learning, taking risks, failing and trying again. If we’re not exploring, we’re not going to new places. Nor can we be the best we can be.
As the months have ticked over since our successful expedition, I’ve had the time and space to reflect on an adventure of a lifetime. I now feel a responsibility to encourage and inspire others to explore the world around them and explore the world around them.
William now operates as a full-time explorer, inspirational speaker and facilitator of the William Pike Challenge Award. To read his blog, get in touch with him, or discover more, click here: http://williampike.co.nz/