Hiker’s narrow escape after being swept away while trying to cross raging river

Dec 08 2021

Central Otago hiker Kayes Chu is thankful to still be alive after being swept down a Canterbury river that snow-melt had transformed into a raging torrent on November 11.

Central Otago hiker Kayes Chu says she feels lucky to still be alive after being swept down a Canterbury river that snow-melt had transformed into a raging torrent.

The 27-year-old, who works on an orchard in Alexandra, wanted to see how far she could walk along the Te Araroa trail over eight weeks.

The long-distance tramping route stretches about 3000 kilometres from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

The keen tramper set off alone from Bluff on October 5, recording her journey on a Facebook page for her friends and family to track her progress.

Everything was going well until Chu set out from Royal Hut in the Two Thumb ranges just east of Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie District on November 11.

Her diary entry for her social media followers recorded her chilling experience that day.

“The most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me … for the past 27 years is that I’m alive today,” she wrote.

Chu spent 30 minutes trying to find a suitable spot to cross Forest Creek, which had been transformed into a raging torrent by snow-melt.

Chu at Stag Saddle – the highest point on the Te Araroa trail.

“I started to get worried and panicked … I told myself ‘there must be a way, there must be a way’.”

Chu settled on a spot to cross soon after and prepared herself, putting her sleeping bag in a plastic bag, her cellphone in a zip lock bag and clipping her personal locator beacon (PLB) to a belt on her pants.

“I started to cross and stayed as calm as I could. When I had crossed just [a third] of it, I started to feel I was about to lose my footing. ‘One step at a time’, I kept telling myself, ‘I am strong I can do this’.”

Chu took this photo as she ascended from the Coal River bed on the Te Araroa trail in Canterbury.

But the current was too strong and as Chu went to take another step the river swept her away.

“The river took me. [The] next moment, I was part of the raging current downstream. It happened within a millisecond.

“All I could see at my eye level was turquoise water, rocks and white water.”

Stag Saddle along the Te Araroa trail in the Two Thumb Range in Canterbury.

Chu struggled to keep her head above water, and as her body was slammed into rocks she desperately tried to grab onto anything she could find.

“I felt so powerless in the water. I tried and tried. Here came another bigger rock. I tried to turn sideways to grab it. It was so difficult to turn, but I got it.”

Chu mustered enough strength to get herself out of the water and onto the shore of the island. Within those panicked seconds, she believed the raging torrent had pulled her about 15 metres downstream.

“I was completely soaked except my head. My brain couldn’t process what just happened. I unbuckled my pack, stared at my wet pants and [a] broken walking pole. I felt so exhausted from fighting in the river. My mind went completely blank.”

Chu then started to feel pain in her left ankle and broke down.

“I cried and cried. I was in the middle of nowhere, stuck on an island between two rivers with a sore ankle. I cried even louder. I let out a loud scream.”

Her phone had been drenched with water and would not turn on. But luckily she still had her PLB, and after some hesitancy decided to activate it, triggering an emergency response.

Dressed in dark colours, Chu decided to tie her bright orange pack cover to her walking pole ready to alert a rescue-chopper if it got near.

About an hour later, she heard the Westpac Rescue chopper approaching.

Chu believes her PLB and the speedy response from the Westpac crew saved her life.

“What a relief to hear the chopper, not the river anymore. I saw one man in red walking towards me. He smiled at me. ‘It’s alright, I got you, I got you,’ he was saying.”

Westpac Rescue crew member Tom Hyland said the “sheer relief and gratitude expressed by [Chu]” was enough to make the job “memorable”.

”[It was] amazing to find someone in the fetal position, on the side of the river, cold, lonely with the PLB beeping next to her.

“She was quite banged up [with a] soaking wet pack and broken hiking poles and described a terrible experience [that she] had prior to our arrival. [I’m] so glad she had a PLB.”

While Chu is still “traumatized” from the experience, she is determined to head back onto the Te Araroa trail once she has finished working over the summer.

But she said she may need some time to build up the confidence to take on another river crossing.

Westpac Rescue Helicopter intensive care paramedic Scott Mears (left) and crew member Tom Hyland.

NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) chief executive Mike Daisley​ said Chu’s lucky escape highlighted the dangers that can arise when crossing rivers.

Luckily Chu still had her personal locator beacon after being swept down the river and was able to activate it, triggering an emergency response.

“If you’re in doubt about the state of the river, any concerns whatsoever, always stay out. Don’t underestimate what it might be like once you’ve entered.”

It was much safer to spend a night on the riverbank waiting for the river level to drop than to attempt a crossing, he said.

Since 2008, there have been 21 confirmed river crossing fatalities, with a further seven likely to be confirmed through ongoing coronial inquiries, according to MSC data.

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