Climber and writer adjusts to wheelchair life

In the Darran Mountains - Dave’s happy place.

On a wet, cold night in January 2015, Dave Vass's life changed forever.

The Albert Town local of 25 years and director of tourism enterprise Deep Canyon was walking out in the dark from a climbing trip in Fiordland with three friends. It only took an instant for him to slip from the track, fall three meters down a bank onto his head, and injure his spine sustaining a permanent injury. He talks to the Wanaka Sun about that night and the ensuing life in a wheelchair.

So what do you remember about that night?

"We had been in the Darrans for ten days climbing and were walking out. It was very steep and a long day, and we were walking in a storm in the dark. We couldn't cross the river, had to stay up in the bush - and  I fell about three meters over a bank. I flipped upside down and landed on my head. I was lying face down in a puddle before the others came back and rescued me. It is was about ten o'clock at night.

"It was a significant effort to get me rescued. There was a massive storm over us- thunder and lightning for six hours.

"One member of the party ran out to get help, and the others stayed with me. We had no shelter, so put all our gear on top of us and lay there in the rain.

"By the time the rescue team arrived at 5 am, we were on the verge of hypothermia. I was drifting in and out of consciousness.

And the rescue?

The helicopter flew around the storm in the dark to where I was and dropped a winch down through the trees. I got winched up and flown to Milford. The rescue team was also winched out because the conditions were so adverse. The operation closed the road to Milford – it was a big sensation.

"By the time they got me to Milford, my core temperature had gone down to 32C, and I was on the verge of death. I was flown to Dunedin where they did all that life-saving stuff. It was touch and go. I had surgery on my neck to stabilise it, and a day and a half later was flown to ICU at Christchurch Hospital. I spent three weeks in intensive care and then eight months in the spinal unit at Burwood."

So life before the accident- tell us about Deep Canyon

"I started the canyoning business in 1995 with some friends. We had got Emerald Creek [canyon] set up in 1994- then we got wiped out by a massive flood, and all the ropes got washed away. So by the time we got going again, it was 1995.

"At that stage, no one had been canyoning in New Zealand- let alone start up a business. It was pretty quiet for the first few years, and we didn't make a lot of money.

"In those days quite a few of the Wānaka mountain guides started at Deep Canyon, but these days it's just me and Roz [Goulding]. It's been our business alone since 2000 and we employ about six guides plus two in the office.

"Niger Stream is our bread and butter canyon [up the Matukituki road], and we have concessions for half a dozen more.

"We put about 2000 clients through a season. Almost always small groups – never more than five."

What is the philosophy behind your business?

"Our focus is on the small and personal. This is for various reasons – it's how we like it and how customers like it. Also, the canyoning we do is pretty technical – it requires ropes- so the numbers have to be small.

"Our smaller personal trips take people into a deeper level with nature. We go to some fantastic places you couldn't get to any other way and have a lot of fun doing it. That's the way forward. So I'm naturally wary of getting bigger- it can be managed, but it's harder.

"I'm a fan of our trips because we have quite personal interactions with our clients – some come back year after year."

Do you see Deep Canyon growing?

"Growing the company? It has grown slowly but surely, but I'm not convinced getting bigger is a good thing. I think tourism works on different levels, and one is the experience the client has, and the other is the experience the operators have. Another is the experience the community has from tourism.

"I grew up in Rotorua around tourism, and along with my friends, we regarded tourists as absolute scum. All you ever saw was the mass tourism side of things- bus tours of people looking blank going from one attraction to another.

"It's easy to diss that kind of tourism- its high impact and I thought we have got to be better than that.

"Our way works for Roz and me and the guides, and Wanaka, whereas in Queenstown I see a lot of complaints about tourists."

Tell us about your climbing career.

"When I was in high school, I climbed Ruapehu by myself in winter. I climbed all summits and was the only one up there, above the cloud. I came down thinking, wow! This was 1978.

"I headed off to Canterbury [University] to study zoology and botany, but really, I went rock climbing and mountaineering instead.

"The climbing highlights I've nailed down to periods. I had a Mount Cook period. Then I went to Australia and went rock climbing. Then I settled in Wānaka in 1993 and discovered the Aspiring region. Then I focused on the Darran Mountains [Fiordland].

"If I were to nail down highlights, it would be both my new routes on the northeast face of Aspiring. And just about everything I've done in the central Darran's – the South face of Milne stands out. And my many solo trans-alpine explorations.

"I've been climbing in Peru and India a couple of times. I did the south-east ridge of Shivling [India] -this was a  bit under the radar.

"I also went to climb the Boardman Tasker route on Changabang [India] with three friends, but we got spanked by the weather. Then our cook died, and we got locked up in a village for a few days sorting that out.

"Pakistan- it was the same deal with the weather."

How has your recovery been?

"It's a random process recovering from a spinal injury because you just don't know. There are two types of spinal injury- one is complete, and one is incomplete. Incomplete can mean you can have some function below your injury and I'm incomplete. But you don't discover where you are for about two years, and all that time you are working as hard as you can. Then you end up where you are.

So how is life now?

"Happy? I am happy at times. I've lost the vast bulk of my life. But that's not to say there isn't lots of other stuff but it's hard to find that stuff. Some people who have lesser injuries might pursue other adventure activities. But there is f… all I can do."

I've decided for me to reach any level of satisfaction; it has to be a mental thing, and writing is the thing I feel a connection to. That's what I'm pursuing. I'm writing a book, and I am enjoying the process.

"I'm doing some other things to keep my mind going. I'm on the Otago Conservation Board which is challenging. There are lots of different board members with diverse expertise. I have my views on what DOC should be doing and enjoy the research into these issues.

So what are your plans for 2020?

"Plans for 2020? I've never been a planner, I'm into ideas, And these are definitely around writing. Plans might revolve around moving somewhere else, although I'm not that fussed about moving permanently. I have a house here. But maybe Wellington for a year to study, or Golden Bay to write as I did a couple of years ago.

"During the lockdown? It's been quite productive on the writing side. And it's going to be a writing winter- submissions to literary journals and writing competitions for instance.

"But I want some change this year; I'm just not quite sure what it is yet."

Read edition 975 of the Wānaka Sun here.


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