Success is a tricky thing. For any goal it can be defined in a way that is objective and arbitrary, or one that is more subjective but meaningful. If you’re lucky, pursuit of the goal can facilitate both measures of success. But we don’t always get lucky.
Case in point my most recent ‘UltraMental’ mission: an attempted one day circumnavigation of the Hollyford-Big Bay-Pyke route in Fiordland national Park. The lolli-pop loop follows tracks of mixed difficulty over nearly 150 kilometers and normally takes 10 days, at least according to DOC literature. I’d been intrigued by the route for more than a decade when the one day attempt appeared on one of my ‘mission’ lists back in 2006 while i spent a year working in Te Anau. With the use of a packraft, I reasoned it would have been possible to paddle nearly 100 km of the journey, including some of the more difficult sections of track, making the sub 24 hour goal attainable. But I left NZ without making an attempt.
Two years ago I returned for good, relocating to Te Anau with my family permanently. I was so excited about the opportunity to have a go that I’d had a crack at the mission before I’d even found work. My partner and I, John Kenny, left the road end at 1 pm, paddling a two person packraft. We returned to the car 26.5 hours later, exhausted, drenched, freezing, and–myself at least–very nearly broken. Close, but not quite.
Then just last weekend, I tried again. This time with three GodZone veterans, Adrian Braaksma, Neville Thorne, and Jo Williams. The objective measure of success was defined very clearly as a car to car, self-supported effort that took less than 24 hours. Clear, but arbitrary. We lauched our packrafts out of the first eddy at 5am, deep in the grip of nautical twilight, starting the journey as a team of four with a common and audacious goal.
This time, at least based on this arbitrary version, I met with success when I crossed the final swing bridge back over that starting eddy at a minute before 3:30 am, 22.5 hours later.
But it was, as Jo put it, hollow. Because not everyone crossed that swingbridge with me. Adrian had fallen ill at perhaps the furthest point of the route, somewhere between Big Bay and the upper Pyke. The audible nature of his multiple vomiting spells were like nothing I’d ever heard–deep and gutteral booms, a sharp contrast to Adrian’s normally very mild mannerisms. His legendary toughness evaporated and stunned us all. Somehow he rallied just enough to get to the banks of the Pyke before collapsing next to the river. With coaxing we got him on the bow of one of the boats where he lay in the fetal position, hands siezing up, shivering, and talking in slurs. He couldn’t keep food down. Or water. He was eerily child like–but a drunk and sick child.
Adrian rallied again during the paddle across lake Wilmot, but his upright stint in the boat lasted only minutes this time. When we hit the longer lake Alabaster it was nearly dark and we hooked Neville’s boat up to ours so we could stay together and help tow Adrian across the lake. Finally, we’d seen a faint glow from one of the windows of the hut on the Southern shore of the lake. Before that, we’d smelled the fire. It had started to rain. We carried all the gear 50 meters up the path to the shelter of the eaves over the hut’s wide deck. When I returned for Adrian he was on all fours, dry heaving. He’d wretch violently between his outstretched arms and then flop forward onto his chest to pull himself a half a meter up the beach. It looked like he was dragging hit torso through his vomit but to be honest I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was coming out of his body as a result of the violent twistings of his stomach.
I don’t actually remember how he got to the hut–did we help him? Did he finally get up and walk on his own? It all became a candle-lit blur after that. I tried to get the fire going and then someone came out of the bunkroom and helped me with a splash of stove fuel. Another camper asked what we were doing and when we explained the goal she just shook her head and gave us a look equal parts bewilderment and disgust and said, “but why?”
Then there were the decisions. Would we all remain? Would we leave Adrian on his own? If some of us pressed on, who would go? How would we communicate? How would those who remained get picked up the next day? What if Adrian couldn’t get out the next day at all? We spent nearly an hour going back and forth, the long day (the alarm had gone off at 2 am the previous morning) taking it’s toll on our collective mental facalties so that we had to repeat the slowly forming plans over and over again.
Finally it was decided that Jo and I would go–it was Jo’s car and she had work on Monday so needed to get back to Wanaka. Neville had the Delorme tracker and could send texts via satellite to help arrange a pickup. He was super keen to finish but also, as the youngest and fittest, probably had the least to prove.
After more than an hour in the hut sorting things out, Jo and I set off. It was lonely, going from four to two like that. And suddenly being in the dark, and the rain. We ran for a while until my headlamp got dim. I pulled out my spare but discovered it had been left on and was completely flat. The terrain grew rocky and so we walked for what seemed like hours. Half way to the road-end we started running again as the track improved, I followed Jo this time trying to take advantage of her brighter light. But I couldn’t quite keep up and so trailed behind, running and then walking in the soft white bubble of my torch’s lowest setting, the only one it had left. It was surreal, as it always is in such situations–the world sliding past in a two meter wide tunnel.
As the kilometers ticked by I reflected on the trip–I knew we would make it. We’d left the hut with 5 hours to go 20 kilometers. Plenty of time. But we’d split up. We’d left Adrian. And while I knew he’d be fine–or at the very least that he was in capable hands and that us staying wouldn’t have helped him at all, it just felt a little bit wrong. Yes, it was practical. It was pragmatic. There were reasons we left. Adrian himself wanted someone to keep going, to finish what we’d started.
And we did. But not really. We’d achieved the objective, arbitrary success, at the expense of the subjective, more meaningful one. I’m not saying it was the wrong decision. Adrian bounced back after some sleep and was at the road end the next day by 1 pm–no harm done. But as a result splitting the team and pressing on with Jo through the night, the whole thing, despite the time on the watch face as we stepped off the swing bridge, still felt somehow unfinished.
And I know that had I stayed, it wouldn’t have been perfect either. A piece of me would have nagged with the wonder, even as certain as it seemed, of if I would have made it, and I’d have had to plan another trip to find out.
But now I feel the need to plan another trip anyway, at least with Neville and Adrian, so that we can finish what we (all) started. Maybe next time, we’ll go even faster, and all cross that bridge in under 20 hours…together. Maybe next time the arbitrary external goals and the more meaningful internal ones can all be met, and the sense of success will be more complete. Maybe next time we’ll get lucky.