Shit happens.

It doesn’t matter how experienced or knowledgeable you are. When you put yourself at the mercy of the bush, there’s always a chance that something will go wrong. It pays to be prepared.

Nathan was pretty lucky he had brought along a PLB emergency beacon when he and a mate set off for The Castle and Mount Owen from Long Gully, on the south coast of New South Wales. Both experienced hikers, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what went wrong on their adventure but they handled their situation well and sought help when they absolutely needed to.

This is their story…

PLB Rescue in the Budawangs

Off to good start at the first night’s campsite – Sassafrass Campground.

At 4:30 Wednesday morning (day four of our trip), the sound of thunder echoed up the valleys of the Buddawangs northern end. Two young men woke up and hastily packed their gear and readied themselves for a hard day’s walk. The sun came up, the tent was quickly stowed, and an interminable slog began.

We lost the trail in the thick overgrowth of the rainforest south of Watson’s Pass on the way to Hollands Gorge, resorting to map-and-compass navigation we were confident of where we were, knew exactly where we needed to be, but were having difficulty finding a navigable route.

Taking our path slowly and steadily we descended small creeks until we reached the junction between Camp Rock Creek and Holland’s Creek and the small campsite there that had been our intended destination the night before. The sight of the fire-pit and rocks piled by previous travellers as stools heralded our return to the trail and buoyed our spirits significantly.

PLB Rescue in the Budawangs

The trip down the pass to Holland’s Gorge.

PLB Rescue in the Budawangs

It was pretty tough going, even before things turned bad.

The rain lifted in perfect synchrony with our moods and morale was on the rise. We set off up the Beautiful Hollands Creek with renewed enthusiasm stopping briefly at a sandy bend to marvel at the tea coloured water and refill our canteens with the same.

While navigating one of the tiny tributaries which intersected our path, the boulder upon which I had been standing slipped through the sodden earth and slid out from underneath me. The fall was inevitable. Unavoidable. There was no time to correct or move to a better position.

I went down. Hard.

The nightmare of a serious fracture was immediately dispelled but the ankle was not a hundred percent. I deployed the trusty first aid kit and anti-inflammatories, strapped on my boot and made slow but steady progress. I leaned heavily on my trusted hiking stick and my companion’s pathfinding skill that day. Feeling certain that we could, we pressed on. Albeit at a slower pace and knowing that today’s journey would take us up a ridge, a far superior extraction point if nothing else.

When I say we ascended the ridge above Angels Creek, I mean we elevated ourselves. Almost 500 metres up in just over a kilometre. Achieving this in around two and a half hours was a proud moment. This brought us to a camping cave, a campfire and a critical point.

We set about drying the gear which had remained soaked through our scrambling through the dense, wet undergrowth beside the creeks, and got some rest. The night was long and cool, my ankle throbbing through the night reminding me of the choice we would need to make come sun up.

PLB Rescue in the Budawangs

Post fall, we climbed up the ridge to an unnamed camp cave for our last night.

Dawn broke and we packed up and hit the track but on the uneven terrain, my step was not as steady as it had been yesterday. My pace wasn’t good enough to get us through the entrance to Monolith Valley. I threw away my pride and admitted defeat. It was time to call for help.

We ascended to the cliff immediately above our previous night’s camp and activated the tiny yellow box. Remembering all the little instructions about finding clear sky, as high as possible. All those little tips that I promised myself I wouldn’t need to know but should learn anyway.

We sat waiting for almost two hours, jumping at every jetliner overhead, eager to hear any aircraft sound. Hoping it was for us.

As we sat I worried I had wasted time and resources searching for us when we could have soldiered on. I worried we had embarrassed ourselves like those people who set out for a week camping with a woollen blanket and a sack of spuds. I was wrong.

The rescue helicopter found us. The paramedic dropped down, talked us through the procedure, and winched us to safety. Once we had landed the crew talked to us excitedly about their bushwalking experiences in nearby areas. Finally, they thanked us for doing what we had done in setting off the beacon before my condition had deteriorated further, and for making this decision now and not at 5:30 at night at the bottom of a gully. Loved ones were phoned. Tensions were eased. We were home safe and sound.

I’ve had some time to reflect on the whole event and I think the key lesson is simple.

Before you set out, when you are calm and rational, set out clear rules for yourself about what conditions will trigger you to set off the beacon. Trust in this plan. Understand your first aid kit, understand yourself, and keep calm.

There’s always time for a little panic in your sleeping bag when you’re safely tucked in for the night, but stay calm under pressure and you’re already halfway there.

PLB Rescue in the Budawangs

The aftermath.

Nathan and his mate saved activating their emergency beacon for the worst case scenario which as his rescuers confirmed was the right thing to do. Most people never need to activate their PLB, but considering their availability, there’s no excuse not to carry one.

These guys actually hired their PLB from The Bushwalking Blog. It’s been the only time one of my beacons has been involved in a rescue, thankfully, but it makes me pretty stoked that my service might have played a part in saving someone’s life.

If you’re looking to hire yourself a PLB emergency beacon, check out my ultimate guide to online and offline PLB hire services. If you think you’d use one regularly it’s probably time to buy one. I’m working on a guide for this but in the meantime, Wild Earth has the RescueMe PLB1 which I can absolutely recommend, as it was involved in this rescue.

Hike safe and smart.

Got any thoughts on Nathan’s story or have a story of your own? If you have anything to say please let us know by commenting below.

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