Topic: Right and Wrong by Garrick Batten

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Right and Wrong

 

It was a beacon in the clagging mist. Mountain mist so thick that I could hardly see my knees, let alone the print in the snow of a familiar rubber sole of Sandy’s boot squashing white sugar crystals. And then a second in another patch of snow further along the ridge to point the way back.

We had pitched a fly camp on the bush edge in the Lewis Pass area at about 4000 feet as base for a couple of day’s deer stalking. On the previous evening as we had climbed up to bush through tussock, scrub and matagouri we had seen faraway deer moving down into the valley.

“Going for an evening feed,” said Sandy.

A better observation would have been that deer knew that bad weather was coming on the tops. He wasn’t an experienced hunter.

There had been quick, hard-driving squalls of rain hammering the tent in the night, but not enough to put us off from heading out after a quick brew in the dawn light. We agreed to each take one side of the leading ridge each as a sensible precaution from another hunting accident that had been filling news media lately.

So I scrambled my way across guts, clambering over and around boulders, slipping on scree as I sidled along the bush edge. There was occasional deer sign, some recent and enough to stimulate some excitement and hunting drive, despite the physical challenges to keep going.

The mist came down as quickly as a duvet thrown over my head. It swirled a bit in the breeze, broke up, closed in and then the damp white envelope cloaked me, the bush and the land. There would be no more hunting in this. Any excitement drained away and I was now just lonely on a mountainside. Maybe it would lift, but after about half an hour sitting on a boulder, getting cooler and damper by the minute, I decided to head back to camp and a late breakfast.

The prospect of clambering back along the same broken route was not an option so I chose to go straight up the face. If I got to the main ridge I could follow it back to the tent that was pitched in the bush on the end of it. And I’d still be safe from Sandy.

Going up was less of a struggle and easier than going around, but not much. Bent over to the slope, hand and footholds were easier to see but it was partly instinct that helped me to keep moving upwards amongst rocks and mountain plants that I could feel and barely see. The mist blanket had got thicker – a whiteout of cloying damp droplets building to pearls and dribbles on my face and clothes. I was a bit spooked and getting ever colder, despite parka, beret and woollen trousers. Eye-clouding nose-dribbling cold.

At last, after about twenty minutes of scrambling, I reached the ridge top, a narrow rocky spine, level, with some big boulders and patches of old snow. It sounds strange now, but I couldn’t decide which way to go.

Left or right?

I had heard before of people being lost in mist and now I was having the lesson myself. I was completely disoriented by the twists and turns of forcing my way up the slope, and probably physical stress on an empty stomach. I have to admit to some panic as I started to see the consequences, even if I couldn’t see the way home. But I also knew from an old bushman that when in trouble, the best thing was to take some time out to let your mind settle.

I rolled a cigarette, lit it and sat on a rock in the mist. We all smoked in those days, so I wonder what people do in the same situation these days. Tobacco or the simple action of drawing and puffing smoke was calming and thought-clearing. I was sure that I was on the main ridge. The camp was at the end of it. So long as I kept off the other face I was safe from a stray bullet.

Which way to go?

There were only two options so a 50/50 chance of being right.

Right?

So I turned right and within three steps had found the boot-prints beacon. They were going in the same direction! Sandy had obviously done the same as I had, climbed to the ridge and followed it back. I was now well on the way home and wondered whether he had got the fire and breakfast on the go. My spirits lifted immediately. I actually felt warmer.

Suddenly there was a bit of a wind gust and a big blue hole broke in the mist. I could see for miles. I could see snow–capped mountains above dark green bush slopes, but that was not what I should be seeing. I should be looking down over bush into dun-coloured tussock slopes, lower hills and the main valley.

I was going the wrong way – heading for the West Coast and probable disaster.

I had been confused and panicking a bit before, but now I was completely disoriented. Stomach pit touched socks. Sandy’s boot-prints should have been leading me back to camp, yet they were leading me west.

Could I believe my eyes - boot-prints or snow-topped peaks?

As the mist clamped down again, I rolled another cigarette because it seemed to have worked before.

Right must have been wrong. I turned around trudging back along the ridge until I saw flickering flames and smelt breakfast bacon. Sandy had climbed straight up the ridge on the way out first thing in the morning, and those were his tracks that I had seen, not him returning.

I didn’t tell him of my experiences. This one was for me alone that Labour weekend. Mountain safety lessons come in various ways, and Nature can be a greater threat than a fellow hunter.

 

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/73BT-YRMN

 

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Right and Wrong by Garrick Batten


Note:About the author: A lifetime involvement in agricultural activities in New Zealand and overseas is the foundation for Garrick Batten's writing. He has moved from technical information including numerous pamphlets and two specific goat books to nostalgic fiction, recently published, and hybrid reference book, "What Happened to Haystacks and Horses?", covering changes in the last half of last century. He is now trying to encapsulate rural life in short stories and a monthly newspaper opinion column.