A split second changed everything

Denis Shackel’s journey of friendship, loss, and salvation on Mount Ruapehu

Grand Bend resident Denis Shackel lives in Oakwood Park with his wife, photographer Mary Lynn Fluter, and their home is among eight locations on the Grand Bend and Area Horticultural Society’s Home and Garden Tour, which takes place Saturday.
A New Zealander by birth, Shackel grew up enjoying the outdoors, staying active as a long-distance runner, playing soccer and field hockey (he represented the New Zealand national team), and mountain climbing. After working as an elementary teacher for six years, Shackel came to Canada in 1969 to do his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Toronto. He stayed and worked at the U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education for 29 years before leaving to work as a management communications professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey business school.
His move to London – and eventually Grand Bend – was triggered by a fateful day in May 1997, when he and his brother-in-law Bruce climbed New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu.

As told to Casey Lessard

I have only one sister, Kathleen, and I’m really close with her. My brother-in-law and I had talked for years about climbing Mount Cook, which is not only the largest mountain in New Zealand, but it happens to be the name of the school where I first taught; its Maori name is Aorangi. Every morning I would go into class, and here was this magnificent black and white photograph by the door, so I always wanted to climb it. Sir Edmund Hillary – the first man to summit Mount Everest – did all his training on Mount Cook.
Bruce wrote me a letter and persuaded me that it was probably irresponsible to do it because we were both fathers and husbands, and because lots of people had been killed on Mount Cook. He persuaded me to give up that dream and suggested we climb Mount Ruapehu instead. He said, “I’ve not only climbed Mt. Ruapehu ten times, but I’ve taken my daughter over it. I’ll be your leader, I’ll be your coach.” It was something we planned and looked forward to.

May 17, 1997
Kathleen, Bruce and I camped the night before, and Bruce and I started climbing at 4 a.m., before daybreak. Kathleen was to drive the camper van to the other side to pick us up at 5 p.m.
Bruce and I headed off (without ropes connecting each other), and by the time we got to snow at about 3,000’, Bruce says to me, “Okay bro, you have to prove that you can pass the test before I take you any further.” He had arranged with Kathleen that she would stay at the campsite until 10 a.m. because he wanted to be sure I could hold onto the ice axe in a particular way, and I had to demonstrate that I could remember how to stop myself if I fell. He confessed to me that he didn’t think I was going to pass the test and he didn’t want Kathleen to have headed to the other side of the mountain, leaving us without a way home.
The old man passed the test, and we continued on. At this point, I’m pretty happy; he’s a bit surprised and we were joking about it. We went past an old deserted ski slope and beautiful ice fields that weren’t that difficult to negotiate. From 3,000’, we had a fantastic view of the majesty of the surrounding peaks. We could see Mount Egmont, which is 200 miles away. The clarity of the bright blue sky – it was cloudless at that stage – was spectacular. We were increasingly excited to be in one another’s company, and he was giving me a hard time for not being as fit as he was. We were enjoying the view and the scenery.
It was still morning when we got up to about 8,000’, and we could see the peak and where we had to go to reach it. Just out of interest, he pointed out a hut anchored into the mountain, fairly close to the peak. At that stage I didn’t think too much about it.
The glacier was a bit steep at this point – about 45º – and it was going to take a little care to ensure that we got there. He said, “Look. Watch me and I’ll show you how to negotiate that.” He had instructed me how to de-ice a rock; all you had to do was turn the ice axe sideways, hit the surface of a rock sticking out of the glacier, and it would break the ice on top, leaving a rock you could stand on that was wet but not slippery.

It was a glorious day with no clouds and a direct sun. I would estimate it to be about 80ºF (26ºC). That week in May the weather was unusually hot during the day and unusually cold during the night. This weather turns ice into what climbers call a boilerplate, so it becomes like steel.
We were really sweating, so it was pleasant to stand and wait. Bruce had taught me to put on layers and layers of clothing: leggings, multiple layers of all sorts of stuff because it was quite chilly when we started. But at 8,000’, we were sweating like pigs. We had stripped off and now I was wearing a sun hat, t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of socks, I had my ice axe and crampons. All of my clothes were in the pack, which he was carrying, and he also had all of the water bottles, chocolate, the food, medical supplies, and everything.
If you can picture him telling me to stay on this de-iced rock and watch, I vividly recall feeling still elated and enjoying it and watching how he went up about 50’ higher than where I was. He turns around and says, “Okay, your turn. Dig ‘em in.” This was a reference to dig the toes of my crampons into the slope.
He cheers me on and encourages me to follow. It wasn’t a matter of going literally in his footsteps because the ice was too hard. He just gave me a rough idea and it was my job to remember how he did it; I was fairly confident so I didn’t have any question that I’d be able to do it. I was aiming at a rock that was sticking out between where I had initially started this stretch and where he was standing. I got to that spot feeling elated. I hit it with the axe, stood on it and I had no drugs but felt a natural high; I was pumped with exhilaration.

A sudden change
From that spot, my exhilaration and excitement changed dramatically because I could see that his right boot crampons were off on a funny angle. He did not have adequate support and he didn’t know it. All I said to him was, “Bruce, your crampon’s coming off.”
At an alarming and unimaginable speed that I would never have predicted, I saw him turn his body slightly, presumably to see what on Earth I meant by the warning. He just went, Bang! and slammed down onto his back. He’s a big guy, plus the weight of the pack, and a 45º slope, and he started a slide that I would never have predicted would be so fast.
Before we could even exchange words, he started a slide that the police told me later would have been over 100 miles per hour within five seconds. He just started this slide slightly to my left and while there was no time for talking, I do vividly recall he was on his back and we made eye contact for a split second. I’ll never forget the look on his face.
I stuck out my left hand and, being on his back, he stuck out his left hand, too. Our hands were getting closer, and when they were about a yard apart, Bruce pulled his hand back.

I’ve taken the years of my life, and when you multiply that by 365, and multiply that by 24 times 60 times 60, I’ve been around for over 2,000,000,000 seconds. The one second that is so profound for me is his split second choice to pull his hand back. We knew what was going to happen. There was no way I could have helped him. Had he accepted my hand, I wouldn’t be here.
In that split second he chose instead to roll over and try to stop himself, so my last glimpse of him before he disappeared behind some rocks beneath me was witnessing his accuracy, his competency; he did everything perfectly. But even with his accuracy, his big muscles and strength, he couldn’t get the axe into the ice because it was like steel. He was unstoppable.

I didn’t know that he was almost instantly dead; I didn’t want to think that way. I remember being so struck with the impact of what he had done and the seriousness of it that I must have blanked out for a few seconds. I came to, hanging onto the rock I had de-iced. In my stunned state I realized, Ooh, he could have hurt himself. This is serious. I might have to carry him all the way down.
When I stood up and started looking down, I was surprised that I couldn’t see him. I called out his name and told him to hang in there. “Bruce, I’m coming. Where are you? Where are you?”
I went on like this for a good hour, increasingly worried, increasingly tired. My legs started to shake. When you’re on your toes all the way up, your muscles get pretty tight. By the time it was about 3 p.m., I was not only physically tired, but I was emotionally a mess because I couldn’t find him and I began to think I’d let him down. I kept looking behind rocks and was increasingly surprised that I couldn’t see.
When the clouds start coming in and block the view of pretty well anything, I was really shaken physically and emotionally and wondered what the heck I was going to do now. Do I go down into the cloud and probably get lost in the bush? Bruce had brought me up based on his knowledge because there are no established routes.
At that point of indecision, I suddenly remembered the hut that he had pointed out and I chose to go back to the hut thinking there would be supplies, radio, cell phone, something. I needed help and I was so confused and upset.

Seeking shelter
As the sun started to curl around the mountain and it started to get colder and colder, I was heading up. It was probably not a smart move because as I got to the spot fairly close to where he slipped, I could now see the hut, and it was further than I thought, and there was a 12-15’ tall ice wall between where I was standing and the hut.
Eventually when I did get to the hut, I found a thick coat of ice on the door and I had to use my axe to get in and pry open the door. It was then I realized I had not made a smart move. There was no cell phone, no radio. It was about a 10’ by 10’, 2×4 structure with corrugated walls and a peaked corrugated roof. It had had people in it, but there was evidence that no one had been there for months. It was quite deserted.
It was designed to spend the night and there was a cupboard in each corner of the hut. The cupboards were conveniently labeled food, blankets, supplies and such. You can imagine how I felt when I opened up the lids of each cupboard and all I saw were floorboards.
The last box interestingly resisted my attempts to open it because it had a big padlock on it. I had my ice axe, so without concern for whether it was government property or not, I smashed into it and found a can, which I knew was an empty kerosene can. Someone had soldered it shut and written on it, For Rations Food. I could have done with a Swiss army knife or can opener, but I had plenty of time. I knew I was in for the night.
Kathleen was expecting us at 5 p.m., and knowing she would have sounded the alarm, I was confident that somebody would be out looking for me, but not tonight. Nobody in their right mind would go up in the air at night. If I could make it through the night, probably a helicopter would come. There are lots of choppers around there for this very reason.
I wanted to open the rations can, so I used my crampons to punch into it and pried open enough of the tin to pour out its contents.
There were three or four cans of spaghetti in it, with 1983 written on the outside of each can. This is 1997. There were candles, and a box of matches, which were a real Godsend because they worked.
I was not hungry, but I would have given anything for the water bottles in Bruce’s pack; I was thirsty as hell. When I opened the spaghetti cans, there was rust on the inside and it stank. I didn’t care that I couldn’t eat it; it was the can I wanted. It didn’t take much to throw out the rotten spaghetti, chip some ice off the door, and put another empty can with candles in it, and melt the ice to quench my thirst.
Oddly, there was a New Zealand lager stein can up against the wall, and it was not frozen because it had been in the sunlight during the day. Being a beer drinker, I went to it and grabbed it because of my thirst thinking it would be smart to drink it. Fortunately my head kicked in and said, If you drink this, your dehydration problem’s going to get worse because of the alcohol. To eliminate temptation, I popped it open and poured it out through the cracks in the floorboards.

It was a long night. It’s not only dark but it was also cloudy so there was no moon, and when I blew all the candles out, it was so dark it was kind of spooky. I got one candle burning and thought, this will get me through the night. I started jumping up and down on the floor just to keep warm, but eventually collapsed on the floor. I remember being huddled up and shaking like a proverbial leaf. I thought I knew what cold was before this particular night. It was reported in the paper the next day that the temperature had dropped to –30ºF (-35ºC). I didn’t even get frostbite.

There were two things that I planned to get me through the night. One was jumping up and down. The other was when I breathed in, the air was so cold it felt like pins and needles in my lungs. I was on the floor shaking uncontrollably, and having to be not only uncomfortable with the cold, but there was a stabbing sensation in my lungs. The air would warm within me and take away the pain, but eventually I had to let that warmer air go and I’d breathe out. Out loud, all by myself I’d breathe out this precious air with the counts of 1…2…3…4…5 and at the end of the fifth second, I’d thank God I got through those five seconds and I’d breathe in again.
That has become an amazingly profound personal conviction that we can overcome whatever just one step at a time. Five seconds at a time, I got through the longest night of my life. All you have to do is keep your eyes on the goal, which in my case was to see the rising sun. I’m also now convinced that where there’s no vision, people will perish. Because I hung on to that expectation of seeing the sun, I did it one step at a time.

Light in the darkness
Before this event I did have faith that God exists, but my spiritual life wasn’t alive. But now having this experience, I’m absolutely convinced that He exists. When I made the decision to go to the hut and got to the spot where I saw the ice wall, I was pretty tired. I could see where I wanted to go, but this vertical wall was really overpowering. The words I heard could have come from inside of me, but it felt like it was behind my right shoulder. The words were literally, “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” At that point, I suspected it was Scripture, but I know I got up that blooming wall not on my own strength.
When I was on the floor, shaking and cold, I was aware there was a makeshift table made of plywood and from the floor with the candle burning, I was aware that there was something on it. I crawled on my hands and knees over to the table.
Have you heard of the Gideon Society? Those people get around. Here was a blue covered Gideon Bible in this blooming hut at 8,000’ on top of Mount Ruapehu, and with my candle lighting the way, I opened up the cover. Someone had typed in the front of it, “In times of…” and there was a list of different conditions with page numbers. “If you’re happy, joyful, sad, whatever…” The piece that really jumped out at me was, “In times of despair, turn to page 1048.”
So I flipped over to 1048, and – although I had read about this, I had never experienced it myself – when I turned to 1048, the right hand column at the top of the page jumped off the page like it was emblazoned in fire, and it read, “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” I had an overwhelming sense that I was not alone.

When you’re shaking uncontrollably and you’re dressed in those clothes, you don’t sleep. I just literally went one step at a time focusing on the expectation of seeing the sun. Halfway through the night, the clouds did disappear and the moon did arise, so I could see that there was a high probability that the morning may be cloudless. I needed a bright sun if my rescue plan using the shiny can was going to work.
When eventually the sun did come up, I remember the rim appearing. Talk about a slow rising sun. Eventually it came and now it was bright enough where I knew a pilot would be getting ready to take off now. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I was privileged to hear the wings whirling.

So close, and yet…
I was able to use the inner shiny surface of the beer can as a mirror for a beacon, and I was now clutching at the door with my reflector. When the sound appeared and there’s a chopper coming my way, I could now read on the side of the fuselage, R-E-S-C-U-E in big letters. I was now reasonably confident that I was going to be rescued, and I lost it. I dropped the can and I started waving. I don’t know how many yards away it was, but it was close enough that I could read the lettering, and the blooming thing suddenly banks, does a 180 and rockets off at top speed, disappearing behind the edge of the mountain.

At that moment, I felt that I had been stabbed. I collapsed on the floor of the hut, just a blithering mess. I’ll never forget that wave of thinking I’m safe, and then I’m screwed.
From the floor of the hut, as I sobbed uncontrollably, I heard the motor suddenly drop down the mountain and it occurred to me then that they probably did see me. They’ve probably gone to land somewhere.
Sure enough, within maybe a minute or two, I heard the sound again and it reappeared. Even then, I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it; the slope of the mountain is so steep and they couldn’t land on the roof of the hut. I underestimated the amazing skill of the pilot and when it got within about 30’, I simply watched them hover about three feet from the slope of the mountain and suddenly I could see two pairs of legs jump and click onto the ice.
I was a mess. They bundled me up and poured hot chocolate into me.
Their first questions were, “Are you Bruce? Are you Denis? Who are you?” They kept saying to me, “Where’s Bruce?” I explained that he had slipped and I still hoped that – thinking he had the pack – my prayer was that he wasn’t injured, but even if he was that he could keep himself warm and deal with where he was getting through the night.
In the light of the answers I gave them, a couple of guys stayed with me and then the pilot took off again looking for Bruce. He couldn’t find him, so the chopper came back and I allowed them to lift me into the chopper.

I said to the pilot, “How come you got so close and you banked?” I told him how devastated I was.
In a matter of fact way, he said, “You see, we filled up the helicopter with as many people as we could because it made sense to have as many pairs of eyes as possible.” But there was no room for me in the helicopter.
I wasn’t angry, but I tactfully pointed out, “Well, it would have been nice if you had given me a wave or yelled that you’d be back.” I’ll never forget the answer.
“Oh, yeah, mate. I guess you’re right. Next time we’ll do that. Thanks, mate.”
He brushed it off like it was no big deal, but it was a big deal for me at the time. Now I can laugh about it.

Finding Bruce
Before they dropped me at the hospital, they took me to the base of the mountain where there was a proper landing strip for the chopper and a big hut that had a lot of supplies. They set me by the fire and were very caring, and kept asking me the route we took. Twice while I was there, I saw the chopper take off in the light of more information, come back and ask more questions. It was the third time he took off that it reappeared fairly quickly. I could see it land through the window and the pilot opened the door and jumped out.
He ran to the hut and his greeting was, “Found him, he’s dead.”
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. But I think he was a smart man because I would have preferred to be cut with a sharp knife than a blunt one. Then they took me to hospital and another chopper went to pick him up. I had to identify his body. They warned me it wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was clearly him.
When we landed in the base, the rescue organization had not only contacted Kathleen, but they had picked her up and brought her to where I was. I got out of that helicopter, and there she is. I think she knew who was going to come out of the helicopter, but the embrace… we didn’t say anything for ages; we just sobbed.
God got me through that night, and it’s in his grace that I’m alive today. Bruce was a deeply loved man in his community, and at his funeral someone described him as the most Christ-like man the speaker knew. I do personally believe that “Greater love hath no man than he who would lay down his life for his friend.” That’s what Bruce did in that split second.

Finding Mary Lynn
Six days after I got back to Canada after burying Bruce, I met this woman called Mary Lynn, and I think I was rescued from that mountain to meet her. She’s the best thing to happen to me.
We met through a mutual friend, and she had to come to Toronto to be the photographer for the 100th anniversary of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Our friend Gordie planned for the three of us to have a drink together at the Royal York, where the event was. I was living a few blocks from the hotel.
Gordie phoned me minutes before I walked down the road and said, “Look, I’ve got a business problem and I can’t come.” I nearly didn’t go. I went down there not knowing what she looked like. I arrived early, and I couldn’t see anyone else looking for someone, so I just sat in this chair with big leather wings on the side of it.
Mary Lynn was up in the ballroom doing her photography, and she’s very time-conscious, too, so she excused herself at 10 – when the function was supposed to end – saying she would go downstairs, meet this person and come back. She came down to say hi and to ask if I’d be patient enough to wait. She looked around from the elevators and saw this guy waiting in this chair.
Typical Mary Lynn, she creeps around behind the chair confident that it’s me, and my first impression of this gorgeous woman was this face appearing around the edge of this leather wing.
“Boo! You must be Denis.”
Well, not only was it a surprise, but I sprang to my feet and out tumbles, “You look stunning!”
She went back to her work and we were going to go have a drink at the hotel bar, but I had had time to think and when she reappeared, I said, “I think there’s some wine in the fridge. Would you like to come back to my condo?” What a line, huh?
Her answer was, “Okay, I’ll just go tell mom.” She was in the royal suite because that was the payment for the work. Her mom is a very Orthodox Christian, but she said okay.
We laughed and had some wine, and I told her about Bruce, and she told me her equally gut-wrenching story about losing her husband, who died in her arms of cancer.
Within the next few weeks, she needed an assistant for an engagement shoot, and I helped her. Turns out, the groom owned a hotel in Paris and Mary Lynn had been saving for years to take the boys and her mother on a European trip. She was going to be at his hotel in Paris the June 23rd and I remembered his name, tracked him down and phoned him, and said, “You make sure Mary Lynn’s in the hotel on Saturday morning.”
I flew through the night Friday and turned up unexpectedly. I just happened to have a rock in my pocket, and slipped it on her finger – she said yes – and I flew back to Canada; they carried on with their trip. We were married a year later.
We bought a cottage down the road in Grand Bend when we were engaged. Mary Lynn was born in Sarnia and loves the lake, so it didn’t take much persuasion to say, “Let’s build here and live here permanently.”

Calling Grand Bend home
I’ve always had a passion for architecture and design and always had a longing to go contemporary with glass and stainless steel. I not only designed this place, but because music is such a big part of my life, I was really fortunate to get hold of a pair of speakers through some consulting I did for IMAX. It was only through that contact I had heard of them. There are only three of them in North America: Stevie Wonder’s got a pair, and Universal Studios has a pair. I designed the whole house around these speakers. The friends I had at IMAX were kind enough to take my first drawings of the house, put it through their computers and say, “Well you need to push the kitchen back and change this wall, etc.”
We’re still pinching ourselves that we’re living here and that we’ve been blessed with a space that we absolutely love. We love the community and we now go to the Anglican church here. We don’t deserve this, but we’ve been richly blessed with one thing after the other.
The home is part of the Home & Garden Tour July 5. Tickets ($15 advance, $20 on the day) at Sobey’s or the Tender Spot, and include lunch. For more info, call Bob Putherbough 519-236-7884.