UT graduate student recalls near-death experience

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Interpersonal communication studies graduate Rachel Lloyd studied abroad in New Zealand where she would find herself lost in a forest with her mother. They were lost for five days until a helicopter spotted them and came to save them.
Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Lost, hypothermic and nearing death, Rachel Lloyd found herself isolated in a New Zealand forest with no guarantee she would make it out alive. 

Last April, the interpersonal communication graduate student studied abroad in New Zealand before returning to the U.S. to begin her graduate education at UT. While there, she planned to go on a short hiking trip with her mother, Carolyn. But New Zealand’s terrain is more mountainous and hiking courses are more strenuous than those in the U.S. It’s rare to run into other hikers and most lack active park rangers or check-in counters. 

The Lloyds chose to hike the Kapakapanui track of Tararua Forest Park. But what started as a six-hour mother-daughter hike soon turned into every traveler’s worst nightmare: five days stranded in dense, unfamiliar terrain during the dead of winter.

“I thought I was going to die,” Rachel said. “I wasn’t okay with it, but I trusted in my faith and thought this was God’s path for me, so I accepted it as a potential.”

Day One
All was well on the way up to the summit. They followed orange triangle markers up the path, making it to the top before sunset. But as they headed down, they could only find blue markers, and the Lloyds became disoriented. Assuming the blue markers were the second stage of the trail, they continued along the path. 

After seeing four or five, the signage disappeared. But as they trekked back up the path, the terrain became extremely steep. At times, Lloyd slid on loose rock and had to grab onto anything she could to stop herself from sliding down.

The Lloyds thought they might have been knocked down by previous hikers or wind and continued down the mountain in the direction of the last blue sign.

“We went down the mountain for 15 to 20 minutes and realized that it was not right,” Rachel said. “But at that point, it was too late. The area was so steep that we couldn’t climb back up even if we wanted to.”

Realizing they wouldn’t be making it home that night, the two looked for a viable resting place. The only one they could find was on a V-shaped tree protruding from the edge of the cliff. 

Day Two
The next morning, Rachel took charge.

Knowing they couldn’t stay at the top of the mountain because it lacked resources and visibility, the two miraculously made their way down the edge toward the river below. 

Throughout the day, the pair went back and forth across the river.  They attempted walking on the narrow edges, but the water’s elevation was constantly shifting. When one side of the river got too deep, they threw large stones into the water to create a path and cross over to the shallower side. 

But the rocks were slick and surrounded by the rushing water. As Rachel attempted to hop from one rock to another, she slipped. 

“I fell, hit my head on the rock behind me, and completely submerged myself in the freezing cold water. From that point on, I could never get warm,” Rachel said. “My body just started shutting down.”

That evening, they came across an open field where they slept, suffering winter winds that dropped to forty degrees
Fahrenheit throughout the night. Rachel developed hypothermia and her health rapidly declined. In their attempt to stay warm, they covered themselves in fern leaves and shared body heat by laying on one another.

Day Three
The next day, Rachel began to lose feeling in her body. Her legs felt heavy and she found herself struggling to walk properly or even at all, causing her to fall multiple times into the river again as she attempted to cross along the rocks. 

With no service and little phone battery left, Rachel periodically took screenshots of her “Maps” application to gradually track their location. She remembered where their car was parked and used the screenshots to gauge how close they were from it. While taking the last screenshot, her
phone died.

Day Four
On the fourth day, the river became too deep and they were unable to move forward. The bleaker her chances of

survival looked, the more Rachel reflected on possibly never getting the opportunity to explore Austin or be at the University she worked so hard to get into.

“At this point, I was just done,” Rachel said. “My mom had to carry me several times throughout the trip. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t feel my arms, my legs, my hands. I was not coherent, and I couldn’t really form sentences.”

As Rachel grew weaker, Carolyn remained determined to get both of them out alive.

“After several days without encountering a single person, I knew I had to do something,” Carolyn said. “I just wanted to survive and have my
daughter live.”

She gathered fern leaves and stones and created two large “HELP” signs. After each letter, she checked on Rachel to make sure she was still conscious. 

“We just laid together on the fourth night,” Rachel said. “The hardest part of the experience was watching my mom watch me suffer. You could see the pain, and it was just something I can’t even describe. She was trying her hardest to keep me alive, but there was just nothing she could do.”

Day Five
Finally the distinct sound of a helicopter alerted the Lloyds. Help had arrived. 

The helicopter spotted the “HELP” signs as Carolyn jumped and screamed to get their attention. With her vision and senses failing, Rachel began to feel delusional and even mistook her rescuer for Jesus. 

“I couldn’t remember anything at the time, but I will never forget the name of the pilot who saved me, Jason; the police man, Anthony; and the ambulance woman, Kate,” Rachel said. “Jason’s face is as familiar to me as my best friend or a family member.”

After her difficult time at the hospital, Rachel became an advocate for hiker safety and volunteered in New Zealand to help starving individuals. She plans on
volunteering in Austin and potentially starting her own charity organization.

“I become friends with these people,” Rachel said. “I never want anyone to feel hungry the way I did.”

Despite her harrowing experience, Rachel has developed a heightened outlook on life. She hopes to continue spreading messages of faith to others. 

“This whole thing is positive,” Rachel said. “How many people get to go through that and survive it? [It] has made me feel even more blessed to be able to walk on this campus everyday. It’s just this idea of embracing every opportunity you have to the fullest and making choices and decisions that honor that.”