Nathan and Nicky are an amazing couple, committed to getting outdoors with MS. Nicky was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years ago, but this hasn’t stopped them.
When Nathan told me this story, I was immediately interested. There are several factors and decisions in this story that were less than ideal, and some that are great. What’s interesting to me is how MS, bad weather and lack of team decision-making can lead to a potentially dangerous situation. Equally interesting is how Nicky and Nathan started working as a team to manage the situation.
I appreciate Nathan’s honesty as he articulates of some of the struggles that MS brings to outdoor pursuits and good decision-making. MS can make a simple trip unexpectedly complicated and I thought Nathan’s response to a difficult situation was worth thinking about. I also found Nathan’s story interesting because it comes from the perspective of the partner of a person with MS. I found this very helpful. – Nick Allen
As a couple, Nicky and I love the outdoors. Me, I’ve always been an outdoors person. At Christmas, my family camped in the bush rather than the beach. We hunted. But Nicky didn’t. Her experience was limited to the odd day-trip in the forests of the Coromandel.
Nicky was keen to give it a go, but taking your partner into the outdoors can be a difficult thing, particularly when you are not equally experienced. With time Nicky came to love the outdoors and we were just getting the hang of it when Nicky was diagnosed with MS.
MS threw a whole new problem into the mix. Sometimes she could no longer do the things she used to do. Then at other times she did amazingly well. This led to conflict. Our arguments could ruin trips. Our problem was that we were not working as a team.
Our lack of teamwork changed with our trip to Oamaru hut. It was our first time together at the hut. It started badly. The weather was terrible. Not just bad, but terrible. It’d been raining for three weeks solid. This didn’t bother me as I had been to the hut before and knew how to handle the rain.
Nicky, on the other hand, was freaking out. She didn’t want to go because her MS symptoms were playing up. After a bit of an argument we decided that we would postpone the trip by a day. I was pretty annoyed about that. I had been working hard all week and wanted the lights of the city behind me.
However, I realize now that the stress and worry of having to hike fifteen kilometers in the rain, at night was making Nicky’s symptoms worse. To top that off she was stressed about letting me down. I realized this the next day. I shouldn’t have been so hard on her. These are our trips not mine.
The walk through Poronui Station went well. There was enough rain to keep us cool but not so much that we were miserable. We did it in good time and enjoyed the hike. On the way across Poronui, one of the locals stopped us and warned us that the river was high and had to be crossed at the end of the tramp. Nicky asked what we would do if the river was too high to cross. I suggested we continue, see what it’s like, and make a plan from there.
As it turned out, the river was really high. Maybe 1.5 metres higher than normally. In the right place, I could have crossed it on my own as I know how to read the river and I’m a full foot taller than Nicky. Although I was confident that I could cross, I wasn’t confident I could help Nicky if anything went wrong. There was a narrow margin of safety. We went upstream, climbing over nobs and across sodden river plains, in search of somewhere to cross. The river got worse the further we went. We were faced with a choice: Do we head back to the car or stay the night in the bush.
Nicky was fatigued, hitting the wall. When she is fatigued, her symptoms get worse and she gets frustrated. And, standing on the edge of the swollen stream, she was particularly frustrated, having just been stuck in a tree by her hair – an experience she did want to repeat. Frustration is be the most draining emotion you can have. It sucks all your energy and patience from you and Nicky was exhausted.
Nicky wad initially hesitant to stay as we had no sleeping mats or shelter. I knew we could make it work and after a brief discussion, we decided to stay. It was then I said something stupid. I said, “After tonight we will either break up or be together forever.” I was trying to express the fact that the experience would build bonds that last a lifetime. Perhaps I need to plan statements like that more carefully.It was fair to say our night out was pretty easy. We built a shelter out of survival blankets and put our sleeping bags in our pack liners. We joked that if anyone saw our survival blankets and decided to rescue us, they would find us sipping tea and watching Battlestar Galactica on my phone.
The next day was fine, we were comfortable and the river level was dropping. We waited around until the afternoon, by which time the river was low and I knew it was time to try cross. The plan was for me to cross and see how it went. I had to use a stick to help me cross but felt that I could get Nicky across safely. I left my pack on the other side and crossed back to get Nicky. After a bit of discussion, we settled on the best place to cross. I took her pack and rifle, she got the stick, and off we went.
As we approached, we talked about what to do. The idea is to keep moving with a nice solid wide stance. We entered the river, around 20 metres wide, and made it three quarters of the way across without any problems. Then we got to the deepest part, which was coming up to Nicky’s waist. She started to struggle a bit and was getting very wobbly on her feet.
The margin of safety was getting narrower again and, at that point, I decided enough was enough. I dragged her the rest of the way across the river and threw her up onto the bank. I then realised how incredibly stressed I felt. Looking after someone you care about in a dangerous situation is hard. The balance between achieving our set objective and keeping them safe is a narrow one. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
We woke the next day to pouring rain. Nicky had us packed so fast I didn’t get my second cup of tea. We were off, back across the river before It could even rise an inch. Later in the morning, it fined up and the sun beat down on us hard – that’s New Zealand weather for you.
In retrospect, this is the story about how we became not just an outdoor couple but an outdoors team. Yes it’s my experience that gets us into and out of these situations, but it’s her attitude and resilience that make bad situations fun. The value of in having someone who can make a night sleeping under some tinfoil survival blankets fun is worth more than anything in the outdoors.
We will continue to argue about some things but we now know we can be a team and as Nicky says when she’s being annoying, “together forever”.
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