Tramper recalls his own ordeal in the danger zone

Last updated 07:37 30/12/2013

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Henry Smith went missing for more than two weeks in 2001.

And this is what saved his life: a piece of string, a few packets of pasta and a break in the weather.

Screaming for help every hour, on the hour, for 15 days straight and a fierce will to survive were also likely to have upped the odds, the 69-year-old Christchurch postman says.

In February 2001, Mr Smith set out on a seven-day tramp from the northern end of the St James Walkway in the Lewis Pass area.

On day two, he accidentally and "carelessly" veered off course. While tramping through uncharted bush alone, his footing slipped. He rolled about 10 metres downhill and slammed into a rock, snapping his thigh bone.

Mr Smith was not carrying a cellphone or an emergency beacon activator to call for help.

It took him a few moments to clear his head and realise what needed to happen next. "It was water. I needed to find a water source to survive," he said.

Choosing to show, rather than explain, how he hauled his injured body toward water, Mr Smith slowly eased himself on to the floor of his Waltham home yesterday.

He tied a piece of string around his limp, right foot. He grimaced when he put the end of the string between his teeth to hold his leg steady.

He began shuffling backwards with his hands - "It went something like this, if I can remember it accurately," he said.

It took Mr Smith more than four hours to drag himself about 250m downhill to a "very small creek".

And this is where he lay for 15 days, waiting to be rescued.

Mr Smith was initially confident that he would be found, but as the days wore on his optimism waned.

"I thought, once they know I'm missing, they will easily find me. You want to believe someone will find you. You don't want to think that you're going to be waiting around until you die."

Within about a 10km radius of Mr Smith's resting place beside the small creek in the Blue Lake area, three men have died.

The bodies of two trampers who disappeared, one in the late 1990s and another in 2009, have never been found.

And the body of missing British tramper Andrew Wyatt was found at the bottom of a 100m cliff on Friday.

It is a dangerous slice of the Te Araroa Trail and Westpac rescue helicopter is a frequent visitor to the area.

However, Mr Smith downplays his story of survival and pins it mostly on unfettered good fortune.

The weather was mild, he had enough food to last him a week, he only injured his leg in the fall and it wasn't painful unless he tried to move it. "I achieved things I couldn't imagine I could do, but everything seemed far better off for me than I deserved," he said.

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Mr Smith was injured on a Monday and because he lived alone, he knew it would take at least a week before his workmates reported him missing.

As he was only two days into the tramp, he had enough packets of pasta and rice to last him a week and a mini camp stove to cook them on.

He ate one packet a day, slept in his sleeping bag under the stars and spent most of his time listening to his portable radio.

He called for help hourly as the Ada Pass Hut, where he had stayed on Sunday night, was only about 45 minutes downhill.

On about day eight or nine, "when I was beginning to lose hope", Mr Smith started to hear media reports that searchers were looking for him.

But as the days continued to pass, he began to notice a concerning change in the tone of voice of the officer leading the search.

"I could hear from the sound of his voice that he was pretty anxious and may start to call the search off."

It was then that Mr Smith understood he "may not be found".

He started to write to his brother and sister, to tell them what had happened and to say goodbye.

On the 15th day, Mr Smith had only a small amount of food left and he realised "this is about my last chance".

"I yelled out particularly loud that day. I was just yelling ‘Help, help, help'.

And, incredibly, trampers who were staying in the hut below answered his call.

"They saved my life, but I really downplayed it when they arrived. I didn't weep into their shoulders or anything, I just played it cool," he says.

Shortly after he was found, a rescue helicopter landed and transported him to Christchurch Hospital.

"It was a real relief to be in that helicopter and within an hour, all of a sudden I was in Hagley Park. After 15 days, suddenly it was all over in a very short space of time."

Mr Smith underwent surgery to insert metal plates into his upper thigh and says he has not been on any "big adventures" since. Fairfax NZ

- The Marlborough Express

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