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How disaster on Mt Ruapehu shaped William Pike's mission

William Pike exploring in Yosemite National Park. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

After losing a leg as a result of a sudden eruption on Mt Ruapehu, William Pike decided to focus on helping children succeed, no matter what obstacles life throws at them.

William Pike is a man with no regrets. Despite losing a leg following an eruption on Mt Ruapehu in 2007, he has undiminished enthusiasm for mountain climbing and other adventures. If anything, the 34-year-old is more sure-footed than ever.

Born and raised and still living on Auckland’s North Shore, he is the elder of two sons. His parents, Barry and Tracy, are not hunting, tramping, fishing types, but they encouraged his increasingly evident love of the great outdoors. As a keen Boy Scout, Pike enjoyed tramping and climbed his first mountain at 20.

Now an author and professional public speaker, and married to Rebecca, with whom he has a two-year-old daughter, Harriet, Pike heads the William Pike Challenge Award. So far, his organisation has provided nearly 10,000 children, aged from 11 to 13, with the chance to take part in a year-long programme in which they test themselves in categories of outdoor activities, community service and passion projects. Pike credits his success to opportunities, from his parents and his school, and the accident that cost him his right leg below the knee.

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In September 2007, the 22-year-old teacher, by then an experienced climber and tramper, took his friend James Christie on his first mountain climbing expedition. At the end of a long day, the pair settled down for the night in the small Dome Shelter, near Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake. It was a night neither would ever forget.

How did things go so horribly wrong?

I remember that at about 7.30pm, I went and stood on top of the Dome and thought what a great place this is. As soon as I got back to the shelter, the bloody thing erupted. That was about 8.20pm. I was in my sleeping bag next to James. We were wedged into the shelter like sardines, with plywood walls, floors and doors, no electricity; we were happy campers. James was snoring like a chainsaw, but I heard a rumble outside, louder even than James’s snoring, and sat up and listened.

It was pitch-black and the door blew open with tremendous force – bits of it broke and shattered on its hinges. I got up on my knees, skidded over to the door to see what was going on. It was Ruapehu erupting. It is called a blue-sky eruption: unexpected. There was 1.5 million cubic metres of mud, rocks and water thrown up into the air, crashing down, not just on to us but on the entire summit. I was in the firing line, with rocks the size of small children and basketballs just coming at us fast through the snow, and ice and mud.

Pike with wife Rebecca and daughter Harriet. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

When did you realise you were in deep trouble?

I was pushed the short distance into the wall behind me. My right leg got tucked up underneath the ,floorboards. I believed it was broken, and knew I was firmly stuck in there. James woke and started to dig frantically with his hands, as I did, but they soon became useless pieces of meat because it was -9°C, and we were trying to dig into volcanic rock and mud. He tried an ice axe and a shovel, but that didn’t work. He couldn’t get me out, and by this stage, I was going into shock and saying some funny things. I told him I was going to faint. He smacked me really hard across the face to bring me round, then we agreed it was best that he ran down the mountain for help. Remember this was his first time on a mountain, so it was a tough ask for anyone, let alone him, to head out into the night. I explained where I thought he should go, and before that, I told him to tell my friends and family I loved them, because I didn’t expect to see them again.

What was happening to you in the meantime?

By 9pm, about 15 minutes after James left, I was unconscious, because I was so cold, shivering violently, and finally I shut down. I remember thinking, “Well, this is it, I will probably die here, but I won’t go out without a fight.” I focused on staying awake. I kept thinking about what I could do: cut my leg off, but I didn’t have anything sharp enough. I looked back on my life in those moments and I thought, “I don’t have any regrets and I have given everything a bloody good go and had a good 22 years.” That was the last thing I remember before drifting off.

Pike on top of a rocky pinnacle in Tongariro National Park. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

When you woke up?

I was in an intensive-care hospital bed looking at the ceiling with its bright lights and I could also see doctors and nurses. I thought, “You beauty, I am alive.” That was about 4pm the next day, so time had passed, and there had been the rescue to get me off the mountain, but waking up in the hospital was the best thing. It was awesome, a miracle. Then Dad put on a brave face and put a reassuring hand on me and said, “You’ve been in an accident, and they have had to amputate your right leg.” I looked and could see the bed sheet just dropped away on the right.

Were you resigned to a more limited life or were you already psychologically recovering?

I think I said to Dad, “I will be climbing again.” There were some role models out there, amputees who have done all right, and I had my other leg, so I worked out that, apart from below the knee, I had no other injuries. I thought I had got off pretty well, really, and because I had such a passion for life, I had a lot of inbuilt purpose and desire to overcome challenges.

Pike out hunting. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

Would you change anything if you could go back in time, especially in relation to the accident?

No, and that is a definite answer because of the experiences I have had and people I have met. The accident has helped me live a life I could never have imagined.

A nurse in hospital said to me, “You can push all the media stuff aside and be the William Pike you were before the accident, or you can start putting yourself out there and see how it turns out.” It took a while to do that. To this day, I don’t really like shouting from the rooftops, “Hey, I’m William Pike”, because I am quite a reserved guy, but I decided to give it a go, share my story, talk to the media, do some presentations and see where it took me. I have been able to pick out the opportunities that have come my way and leverage off them to get where I want to be.

And where is that?

My two or three big purposes revolve around family, the great outdoors and education. The position I am in today gives me the flexibility to be around my friends and family. I have been able to blend education and the outdoors into the perfect gig.

Images of students involved in his education programme. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

And you can make a good living out of it? Better than teaching?

Yes, and it is better than teaching. If I hadn’t had my accident, I would have remained a teacher, had my holidays, gone on adventures and had an influence on 30 kids a year. This year, I’ve had an impact on 3000 or so kids, and next year maybe 4000.

Why did you focus on the 11-13 age group?

My teacher training was for children up to 12, so there was a natural fit. I was also aware of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards [for 14- to 24-year-olds] and that at high-school level there are pretty good outdoor education programmes. It seemed to me that 11- to 13-year-olds sometimes miss out, and they are such formative years. Our kids are moving into a rapidly changing world, unlike anything we have ever experienced, with globalisation and automation, climate change and everyday things, too. We want our kids to have the skills to deal with change, so we use the outdoors, community service and challenges to give them 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and teamwork.

Images of students involved in his education programme. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

What about your daughter? Will she do the William Pike Challenge one day?

I hope so, and I also want to take her exploring. She will probably grow up thinking it is normal for a dad to have only one leg and wondering why other fathers have two. I hope she grows up seeing that if you face adversity, you can overcome it.

Have you had any role models for that, or been inspired by reading about others who have faced similar challenges?

Funnily enough, I mostly like to read non-fiction and biographies, particularly adventure and survival stories. I enjoyed Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, which was also made into a movie. Other books that inspired me to go on adventures were the likes of Dingle: Discovering the Sense in Adventure, Graeme Dingle’s autobiography, and Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography. The “mad, bad and dangerous” bit came from his wife’s dad, who told her, “I don’t want you with that guy, he is mad, bad and dangerous”, and it stuck.

I also enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. And a survival story I read before my accident is Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston [who amputated his arm with a pocket knife after becoming trapped in a rockfall]. I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be in that situation – a bit ironic, the way things turned out.

Images of students involved in his education programme. Photo/William Pike collection/Supplied

I’d also read [mountaineer and double-amputee] Mark Inglis’ book No Mean Feat before my accident, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this bloke has lost both his legs.” He wrote the foreword to my book Every Day’s a Good Day, and I keep in touch with him. It was seeing him with two prosthetic legs that gave me hope that I would be okay.

What adventures are you planning?

I intend to get down to Fiordland again, to explore Dusky Sound. I like planning – working out how to get the kayak in there, then fitting in the camping gear, the rifle and a speargun to be able to live off the land for 10 days or so. Doing things under my own steam brings me the greatest satisfaction, like climbing mountains. Does anyone really enjoy battling up the side of a mountain for 10 hours? Not really, but, in the end, it’s the views and the self-satisfaction of getting there. In my case, with my leg missing, it’s also a reminder of what I can do.

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.