Perched on a seat of snow, next to the ice-encased shelter where he nearly lost his life in a volcanic eruption a decade ago, William Pike reflected on his "wild rollercoaster" since that earth-shattering night on Mt Ruapehu.

Hidden by his climbing overpants was the carbon-fibre and titanium prosthetic below his right knee - the limb claimed by the mountain.

What the explosion could not take was the young adventurer's iron will.

"Broken and battered" in a Waikato Hospital bed after his courageous rescue and miraculous survival, the then 22-year-old schoolteacher was already planning a return to the scene of his near-death.


"Waking up in hospital the first thing I remember was my dad coming into the intensive care room and putting on this brave face. He explained that I'd been in this big accident and... that the doctors had had to amputate my right leg," Pike recalls.

"[He] helped me sit up and for the first time I could see that there was no bloody leg there. [It] frightened the hell out of me, because I needed that leg to be William, to do all my climbing and my teaching, and be who I was, and I couldn't imagine life without it.

"[But] as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months in hospital, I realised that nothing was going to bring back my leg, and I started setting myself some goals. Learn to walk, return to teaching and climb back up to the Dome Shelter."

Embracing his second chance at life, Pike has climbed mountains, found love, become a father and, through the William Pike Challenge Award, is inspiring thousands of Kiwi kids to become confident, resilient and connected explorers - prepared "for whatever life throws at them".

"Often I get asked the question - 'Do you wish you hadn't lost your leg in the eruption?'," says Pike.

10 years ago William Pike lost his leg in an eruption on Mt Ruapehu. Last week he climbed the mountain again.

"Of course I'd like to have my leg, and be able to go higher, faster, further. But this accident 10 years ago has put me down some pathways which I'd never thought were possible, and I've met some incredible people."

"I have had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And I'm just so grateful to have the impact I can now have with youth right around the world. Without Mt Ruapehu, the William Pike Challenge Award wouldn't exist."

Ten years after the accident, Pike last weekend returned to Ruapehu and climbed to the Dome shelter, near the mounain's crater lake.

Sitting at his North Shore home with wife Rebecca and 4-month-old Harriet - a future he thought would be cruelly snatched from him - he tells the Weekend Herald returning to Ruapehu was an expedition to reclaim his life.

Pike was on the mountain on September 25, 2007, to give his best friend and fellow Clevedon School primary teacher James Christie his first taste of mountaineering.

"I was so excited. There was a great weather forecast. I was looking forward to showing my mate the ropes and introducing him to a sport that I was just so mad passionate about."

The pair headed up the mountain the day before, snow-caved above the ski field for the night and made it to an ice-covered Dome Shelter early in the afternoon. They dug the hut out to store their heavy gear, and set out for Ruapehu's summit.

But with soft snow underfoot, Pike decided it was too risky and turned back three quarters of the way up. By the time they got back to Dome Shelter it was dark. They considered making another snow cave or pitching their tent but decided to stay in the hut - a choice that probably saved their lives.

With "a perfect forecast" for the next day, Pike set his alarm set for 4.30am and told Christie, "Mate, we can be walking along the summit ridge for sunrise. You can't get anything better than that."

They had barely got to bed when the mountain erupted, about 8.20pm.

"I heard this rumble outside," Pike says. "So I sat up and listened. And then all of a sudden, just this huge bang. The door exploded open, and tore off its hinges.

"I just shuffled across on my knees and looked outside and I could see Mt Ruapehu erupting. I just remember this deafening jet plane roar as everything was coming down.

"Mud and rock started piling into the hut. I was yelling and screaming, and I could just feel rocks hitting my right leg in particular and just crunching it and smashing it, and ripping flesh off it.

"And at the same time there were rocks smashing in the walls around me and crushing through the floorboards. It was dark as well and I was fighting so hard to get those forces off me. I'd never experienced forces that great before. It was completely overpowering.

"And the water then just kept coming. It was up around my knees, up around my waist, and then I was completely submerged. And... who thinks they're going to drown on top of a bloody mountain?"

Almost as quickly as the water rushed in, it drained away.

"The floorboards had all broken and it all seeped through. I was able to breath again and everything went really quiet."

William Pike takes his first steps with his prosthetic leg at the Limb Centre, Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
William Pike takes his first steps with his prosthetic leg at the Limb Centre, Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Pike had been pinned in a sitting position, his lower body encased in the volcanic debris. Christie, who fortunately had been out of the path of falling rocks, sprang out of his bed and tried to free his trapped mate - firstly with his bare hands, then with an ice axe and shovel. But to no avail.

Determined to save his friend, Christie made the brave decision to head down the mountain for help. Wearing only thermal underwear when he sprang from his bed, he managed to dig out his soaked boots (but without crampons), borrowed Pike's jacket, and with his head lamp fortunately still working, headed into the unknown about 9pm.

Pike vividly remembers his last words to Christie. "I said can you please tell my friends and my family that I love them. Because I didn't think that I'd see him or anyone else again.

"And he said, 'Nah mate, it's alright, you can tell them yourself', and disappeared into the darkness. Quite movie-like."

A decade on, Pike is still awed by the courage of his friend - his first time mountaineering, leaving the relative safety of the hut to run down the mountain in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, without proper clothing, in the dark, not knowing exactly where he was going.

At the time however, Pike, buried to his knees in the dark, his head lamp having fizzled out, did not think he would survive.

"I was sitting there with my hands up underneath my armpits, slowly catching my breath from really panicking, trying [to] keep myself warm and just shaking violently because it was just so bloody cold up there (-8C) and I was wet.

"It was extremely painful and uncomfortable but I was really focused. I knew that if I kept panicking, things would only get exponentially worse, so I started to do some mathematics in my head.

"I worked out that I thought it would take rescuers at least 10 hours to get to me. I worked out that I had maybe five hours to survive in those conditions, so it dawned on me really quickly that I was going to die up on the mountain.

"I felt like that was too soon. I'd been cut short of all these opportunities and these things I wanted to do. I was thinking about my friends and my family, and that really twisted my guts in terms of, 'How will they find out, and how will they react when they got that news?'.

"Then I was thinking about all the things that I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to find a wife, I wanted to have kids, I wanted to be the best teacher I could be. I had so many plans for mountaineering [and] outdoor adventures. And all of it had just been taken away from me, just pulled from underneath my feet.

"At the same time I was stoked with life, because I had felt that I had given everything a go, and that I had done the best that I could possibly do.

"I was quite content sitting up in that Dome Shelter, knowing that I was going to die up there. Then [I] remember just drifting off to sleep thinking that I'd really never wake up again."

He lost consciousness about 9.30pm.

However, after about 45 minutes of running and scrambling down the slopes, and following some ski tracks, Christie had noticed a light in the distance, which turned out to be a snowcat. The driver alerted the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, Pike says.

A team of eight went up on a snowcat to rescue him. "In my opinion, they put all their lives on the line for just my one life. So that was very courageous."

The rescuers got to him about 1.30am. Pike was unconscious and non-responsive. "They took my body temperature and it was 25 degrees Celsius," he says.

They dug him out, splinted his leg, and took him to an awaiting ambulance. He was flown to Taumarunui Hospital and then to Waikato Hospital. One of the doctors later told him how he could smell an "overpowering stench of sulphur".

Pike's father Barry, mother Tracy, and younger brother Andrew - summoned urgently to the hospital - had seen him being wheeled in from the helicopter "covered in grey ash" and unresponsive.

"They were really quite shocked. It was such a traumatic time for [them]," Pike says, tears running down his eyes.

He awoke in hospital the following day, at first thinking he was in a snow cave. "And I do remember quite clearly thinking to myself, you beauty - I'm alive. Because I did not expect to wake up."

Pike underwent 15 operations over the following nine weeks at Waikato Hospital, where he received "world class" care. He overcame his doubts and determined to take the world head-on.

"I remember looking down at my legs in hospital and thinking 'how on earth am I going to get my life back on track again?' But I just decided that I'd push aside that fear and doubt."

Discharged in a wheelchair, he progressed to crutches and after being fitted with a prosthetic limb, threw himself back into training - bush walking, sea kayaking, cycling and swimming.

He returned to the classroom in 2008, part time at Murrays Bay Primary School. Reaction from pupils, including the question, "Excuse me, is your leg going to grow back?", helped him retain a sense of humour. "Kids are just so honest."

The following year a parent and deputy principal from Taupo's Hilltop School asked him to help with an outdoor education programme there, which led to the William Pike Challenge Award.

He wrote an article about the award, the "coming together of my two passions - the outdoors and education", which ran in an education magazine. "And my phone started ringing off the hook."

By 2012, he was overseeing the programme full-time as its director. It now operates in 57 schools throughout New Zealand, and in an international school in South Korea. More than 5000 children ('Pike-lets') have been through the programme.

The year-long youth development programme sees Year 7-9 students, aged 11-14, participate in five outdoor activities, undertake 20 hours of community service and spend 20 hours developing new hobbies.

"The William Pike Challenge Award is all about growing a world full of young explorers," Pike said.

Support of family, friends and the community had helped him survive his ordeal and bounce back to health and happiness. He wants the award programme to prepare young Kiwis "for whatever life throws at them".

Pike also shares his message as a celebrity speaker. He was invited to address Westlake Boys High School, where he had been a prefect and member of the water polo team that won the national champs three years in a row.

"I sat in my wheelchair on the stage, a bit of a nervous wreck, and shared [my] story. And I got an overwhelming haka afterwards. I was like, wow - people were quite moved from that. So I thought, okay, I'll give this a go.

"I tell the Mt Ruapehu tale, and my stories are wrapped up in messages that challenge people to see the power of purpose, to be explorers, to be obsessed in a good way and how daydreaming can be the fast track to success - not only in the outdoors but in everything we do." 
The 2015 Young New Zealander of the Year finalist's story has resonated in print too. Pike's autobiography Every Day's A Good Day has sold more than 12,000 copies and been produced in Braille.

Pike, who this year won a Blake Leader Award, returned to mountaineering in 2009 and first climbed back to the Dome Shelter in summer in 2012, with Christie.

In February this year he scaled Mt Scott in Antarctica. After the 18-hour climb to the summit and back, he said he woke at the beach with a start to realise: "I'm in Antarctica and there's monstrous icebergs floating by and there's penguins over there, and a humpback [whale going] up and down - a dream come true."

The first mountain Pike scaled with his prosthetic limb was the first he ever climbed - Mt Tongariro. It has triple significance, as it's also the scene of his proposal to wife Rebecca. "So Tongariro has a special place in my heart."

He and Rebecca, who met when both were teaching at Murrays Bay Primary School, married in 2015, and spent a month camping and tramping around the South Island for their honeymoon.

Daughter Harriet was born four months ago. "Being a dad has definitely changed my life. I think it has given me a new perspective on life."

He delayed last week's climb to the Dome Shelter from Saturday to Sunday because the weather wasn't great. "The girls were definitely at the front of my mind. It's certainly not going to stop me exploring and being the person I am, but I definitely take things easy and think about these special two girls."

Last weekend he made it to the Dome Shelter about 8am and stood before the hut, which had both saved his life and trapped him 10 years ago.

"I remember just sitting there and taking a moment to reflect on the last 10 years of my life, from lying in that hospital bed all broken and battered, to getting back up to that mountain, and all the milestones [since] - the youth development, the speaking, meeting my wife Bex, having Harriet... It's been a wild rollercoaster ride.

"I didn't know if I could ever get back up there to that special place. People think 'you must hate the mountain'. No, not at all, it's one of the most beautiful places that I've ever come across. So to get back there with me how I am today was massive.

"I'm William the outdoorsman, the adventurer, the mountaineer, and I temporarily lost a bit of that self-identity. So to sit there and to reflect was [an] immense feeling of satisfaction that. I'd knocked the bugger off."

He plans to return in another decade, with Harriet - a bright baby, full of smiles as she bounced on his knee during the interview.

"So 10 years ago, the eruption happened. Ten years later I climbed up to the Dome Shelter. And in 10 years' time I want to take [Harriet] with me back to the Dome Shelter. I think that'd be a fitting challenge. I want her to be a little explorer."