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The treacherous rock, regurgitated by the retreating Hooker Glacier, stretched skyward. It was a gut-busting scramble up the sliding rocky-black moraine to reach the old wood-and-iron Hooker Hut for the night. The red roof supported by wavy green walls a welcome beacon after three hours with a heavy pack.

The corrugated iron was hot in summer and cold in winter, especially with the insulation peeled away. Not ideal, but it offered a safe-enough asylum. Besides, the hut had a wooden veranda with views from the tip of Mt. Cook, plunging faster than the downer following a Prozac high, along jagged snow-covered peaks that punctured the sky to the icy-blue hues of the glacial lake below.

 

Susan stopped rocking and pulled at the satin-soft white hem of her best dress. She glanced up at Daphne. Seated across the table in a tweed business suit, Daphne was busy writing. Taking notes. Helping with Susan’s memoir.

“Go on, Mum.”

It was Susan’s 56th birthday and Daphne was putting in an hour of what she called compulsory mother duty. A piped version of Nights in White Satin was just audible in the tiny room. Daphne suppressed a knowing grin: “Just what the truth is I can’t say anymore…” This early-years yarn of Mum’s had become more fanciful with every recounting.

 

We put the billy on for tea and settled in. We’d planned to start up the Copland Pass before the sun caused havoc with the snow, but we didn’t get much sleep.

“You hear that Stace?”

“Wha’?” The skerunch skerunch sounded again. “Yeah... Can’t be a branch. Maybe a possum?”

“Sounds like someone walking about next door,” I said.

“A… anyone there?” Stacey called out. The clat-clatter of pots penetrated the pensive silence. Then there was a tired crrreeeak of a bunk, as though someone was turning over in the old wooden stretcher bed.

We called out again. There was a long silence then another slow crrreeeak. Stace and I picked up an ice axe each, crept to the adjacent door, and counted quietly: One, Two, Three…

We banged open the door and charged inside hoping to scare the bejeezus out of whoever was there. The room was eerily empty.

The occasional creaking continued into the darkness of the night. Stace’s breathing slowed into the gentle rhythm of sleep, and then it was only me and the ghost. My watch read 4.50pm. It had stopped, dead, that afternoon of 22 February.

Stace woke like a box of budgies, chirping at me to hurry up, but my nerves were on edge. I had the collywobbles and an uneasy premonition.

“You’re not going to pike out on me, are ya?” said Stace.

I was still hearing that ghost rattling about, and odd voices in my head, but I decided to tough it out. “I’m coming. Gizza minute,” I said.

It was a corker of a day. Blue skies, snow-covered peaks and not a breath of wind. The going was tough. The snow was surprisingly soft and deep, and I was still feeling crook.

“Strewth Susan! Rattle your dags, would you, woman.”

“Comin’,” I said as I picked up my pace. I still had that prickly sensation on my neck and on my back – you know that nervy feeling of hairs standing on end, of being watched and followed?

 

Daphne muttered in sympathy and kept writing.

 

We’d just reached the bottom of the steep gully. It was chocker with snow and the sun was already quite high. Stace was about to start the ascent when the voice in my head said: “Stop! It’s not safe.”

I figured I was hallucinating from lack of sleep or altitude sickness, and tried to follow Stace. I heard the deep voice again, roaring desperately: “Avalanche… NOOooooo.”

I froze in fear, unable to think or move, waiting to be consumed by the churning snowpack, anticipating its sudden overpowering embrace. Something, or someone, pushed me hard to the left as the NOOoooo reached to an unbearable crescendo, reverberating like a monstrous 747 taking off in the ravine. The crush of white careened and roared down the narrow couloir, tumbling rocks, and ice, and snow. Obliterating everything in its path.

I lay trembling and retching just out of harms way. I must’ve set off my locator beacon before I passed out, because the next thing I knew I was in hospital being treated for hypothermia and frostbite, with the bitter taste of bile still in my mouth. I never saw Stace again, but a climbing party found her bruised and broken body preserved in the ice about a decade later.

A grim-looking ranger from Mt. Cook dropped by at visiting hour. He broke the news about Stace. When I told him about the ghostly visitor at Hooker Hut and the feeling that somebody had saved me, he was the only one who thought me sane. He just nodded and said it was ol’ Darby Thompson looking out for me.

Darby was a mountain guide at the old Hermitage. He died in an avalanche on Linda Glacier after leading an English mountaineer on a successful summit of Mt. Cook on 22 February 1914. 

Rescue workers only recovered the body of the other guide, Jock Richmond, when a second avalanche left him exposed at the icy toes of the tumbled icepack. Jock’s wristwatch had stopped at 4.50pm when the first avalanche struck. This news sent a tingly shiver shimmying, shock-like, up my spine.

Ghostly noises and paranormal activities at the hut have been regularly reported in books and newspaper articles over the past century.

 

Susan stopped rocking again, sensing the catatonia. “Did you get all that, Daphne. How Darby saved me from the avalanche?

 

“You talking to yourself again, Susan?” the nurse said as she poked her head through the doorway, her kindly grin as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s.

Susan’s world shattered again with a tearing roar. Tumbling visions of black and white. She gasped and clawed for the icy surface and answered with a weak smile. She meekly swallowed the proffered pill and felt her world ease into numbness, the voices and visions fleeing to the icy void. So much lay buried in the snow.

“Best you stop that chatter. If matron hears you she’ll up your meds or pop you in isolation one last time and throw away the key,” the nurse chided gently. “Now how would like your birthday eggs? Sunnyside up as usual?”

Another weak smile. The Sunnyside Hospital had closed and been rebuilt as Hillmorton Hospital, but the older nurses never tired of that stupid joke. Susan thought they were the ones who ought to be committed.

She waited until the nurse had left, then shuffled unsteadily to the other side of the table and picked up the notebook. She fumbled through the pages, expecting to see Daphne’s neat notes. It was completely empty.

Susan sobbed silently, in searing sharp shudders, as she sank into the chair and reached for the hem of her favourite dress. Her fingers caressed the hard-cotton white hem of her gaping hospital gown. Her face, at first just ghostly, turned an even whiter shade of pale.