Athletics: Marathon journey ahead for Wilson

Nobody has ever completed the marathon journey known as the Cook to Cook in one outing. Sarah Wilson is about to have her second crack at it and, as APNZ's Daniel Richardson found out, she's lucky to be around to have another chance.

When Sarah Wilson was buried under a metre of snow on Mount Cook in November 2011, her only chance of survival relied on friend Cat Shand digging her out with her bare hands.

An avalanche struck when the pair settled in for the night as they made their descent down the mountain and it was due only to sheer good luck that Shand was even able to perform the rescue mission.

When the snow rumbled down the mountain at break-neck speed, Shand happened to be standing up rather than lying down in her sleeping bag, as Wilson was, which meant Shand didn't become submerged.

With time against her, Shand was able to dig Wilson out of what was potentially an icy grave and the pair even dug their gear out and spent the night on the mountain - complete with frostbitten fingers - before trekking out in the morning.

They had visions of completing their journey up the South Island on a road bike but were unable to grip the handlebars and a doctor told them that Wilson's first attempt at the Cook to Cook expedition needed to be aborted.

"We didn't really know how bad it was," she recalled. "We got down to the base of the mountain and, because we walked out - no pressing this emergency button thing - we just didn't know how bad our hands were.

"We knew they were cold but we just didn't know and I remember saying to Cat, 'one day off and we'll be on our bikes and we'll be away'. I'll never forget the phone call with the specialist that night. He was like, 'girls, I think you might need to take a month off'."

It was an experience that would have put most people off adventuring, but not Wilson.

During the next two-and-a-half weeks the Kapiti Coast 50-year-old will dive into her second attempt at the expedition.

The task involves climbing Mt Cook, cycling 700km up the South Island then crossing the Cook Strait in a tandem kayak and it's a feat that has never been completed before in one trek.

The journey is scheduled start either today or tomorrow but that is flexible and they're working backwards from a tide window in the Marlborough Sounds between January 19-24, which dictates when they will be able to complete the kayak.

Wilson's last attempt nearly proved fatal but fear is something she has no problem confronting.

"I've thought a lot about fear, particularly in the past year and I think, more and more, fear is something that people push away," she says.

"We medicate, we don't want it, we want to overcome it but actually there's a lot to learn if you literally breathe in to it. So I actually use breathing, I consciously breathe in. It's funny, because when I was trapped in the avalanche, I couldn't breathe. There wasn't enough oxygen so the big moment when Cat pulled the snow away from my face and I took a breath in, it was a pretty special moment. I've used that to inspire myself."

It's why she will give the Cook to Cook another go.

"I guess it's one of those missions you kind of get in your head that doesn't let go of you," she says. "Forgive me, but I think it's a really cool idea and it was this idea that you can have a world-class adventure in you're own backyard anywhere around New Zealand. I travel to do adventures but I love having them here."

Wilson's journey is one of seven Hillary Expedition Grants administered by Sport New Zealand announced in November and this time around she will take on the challenge with a collection of people.

Bridget Janse will tackle the climb with Wilson and Bronwyn Ward will join the pair for the cycle, although a support group will also ride with them in a trip that will take six days to complete.

"Instead of road biking the whole thing, we are going to come up via Hanmer and mountain-bike up the Rainbow Valley so we are going to mix it up a bit with some different scenery," Wilson says.

From there, Wilson will link with her 24-year-old nephew Luke Wilson for the kayak leg that will take another two days.

The family act for the kayaking trip is something that didn't seem likely a few years ago.

"He's a real treasure, is Luke," Wilson says of her nephew. "He likes risk. He's a young man and he had risk in all the wrong areas in his life... The second time he was in front of a judge the judge said, 'you have leadership skills, they're just in the wrong area'. So he discovered the outdoors and he's now become an outdoor instructor and he's just way-keen.

"He inspires me, actually, just because he's out there and doing stuff and he's just turned his life around. It's impressive. I'm his adventure aunt so it's a bit of a power combination."

You get the feeling few people have a more enthusiastic outlook on life than Wilson, which she channels into her work as an adventure coach.

"It's kind of life coaching with an adventure twist," she says. "So we create goals and milestones and all these good things and then we use adventure like a motivator for people to really get stuff beyond just talking about it. So I do that with teams and individuals."

Wilson will have a few inspirational stories of her own to tell if she can conquer the Cook to Cook journey in the coming weeks.


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