'I was dead for 25 minutes'
Denis Gadd couldn't have picked a more beautiful place to die than the remote slopes of Mt Ngauruhoe.
The Waiuku man was clinically dead for 25 minutes on the mountain.
Now he has returned to thank the team of rescuers whose tenacity meant he is likely to be the first person to have survived a cardiac arrest on the mountain.
The experienced tramper, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in October, was walking the Tongariro Crossing with two friends from England on February 18.
"We had actually stopped for a rest while my friend Colin, who has diabetes, checked his blood sugars," Mr Gadd said.
"I suddenly felt dizzy and got sharp pains in my chest. I knew I couldn't go on and we called 111."
Back in Taupo, St John paramedic Tony More was on board the Taupo Youthtown rescue helicopter with pilot Nat Every and crewman Barry Shepherd. They were en route to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe to retrieve a tramper with a dislocated shoulder.
Mr More, a former outdoor pursuits instructor, was chosen for the job because of his mountaineering experience.
"There was low cloud over the top of the mountain, so we knew we would have to be dropped in and walk in on foot. But we got diverted when the call came in about a man with chest pain.
By the time the helicopter came to rest 200 metres from the scene, several people had gathered, including a nurse who was keeping Mr Gadd calm.
"I gave him aspirin, but he said the pain was getting worse and just as I turned to get something from my drug roll, he arrested," Mr More said.
"I had the shock box in the backpack and Darryl [Jones] started doing CPR while I defibbed and gave him drugs. After three shocks, we got a pulse back and he started breathing again."
Mr More said he quietly freaked out as he saw the helicopter take off without him or his patient. "I was thinking, Where the hell are they going? But they just shot down to pick up more [Search and Rescue] personnel to help load Denis in the chopper."
The situation was made even dicier by the sight of low cloud rolling down the mountain. "I was praying they would be able to land again. The weather can change so quickly up there."
The weather held and, having stabilised his patient, Mr More and the rescue personnel carried Mr Gadd to the waiting helicopter.
"But he arrested again as he went into the helicopter, so we did CPR all the way down to the [Mangatepopo] car park, where we got him into an ambulance and carried on for another 20 minutes and we finally got him back."
After being stabilised at Taupo Hospital, Mr Gadd was transferred by Westpac Waikato air ambulance to Waikato Hospital, where tests revealed minor damage to his heart – the result of a genetic condition.
His remarkable recovery staggered Mr More. "He was literally dead for 25 minutes. The truth is there have probably been heaps of people who have cardiac arrested on that mountain, but I've never heard of any surviving."
Mr Gadd said it took more than two months to get over the damaged cartilage in his chest – the result of "very effective" CPR.
"But it's a small price to pay for your life, isn't it? My GP told me that the sorer I was, the better – because it meant the CPR was very good quality."
Last weekend, the retired New Zealand Steel systems specialist and his wife, Maxine, met the men who saved his life.
"It was wonderful. I thank all of them. They all played their part and gave me a second chance. We are so grateful."