William Pike used his survival story as a force for good. Photo by Tessa Chrisp.

Survival story: caught in a volcanic eruption


On the face of it, William Pike is much like other New Zealand men in their late thirties. He likes tramping, fishing and keeping fit. He appreciates the value of good friends and enjoys spending time with his wife and children. But William’s life has not been like most people’s.

In September 2007, William, then aged 22, and his friend James Christie set off on a mountaineering trip that would change their lives forever. It was a bluebird day, and the pair were hiking up Mount Ruapehu. Like kids in a playground, they revelled in the chance to have the upper mountain to themselves – encrusted in ice, 2,500 metres above sea level. In fading light, the pair decided to shelter for the night in Dome Shelter near the crater lake. They tucked themselves into their sleeping bags in minus 8ºC conditions, tired but satisfied. Life was very good.

Around 8.20pm William heard a rumble, and the door of the tiny shelter suddenly blew open. He stood up to investigate. Mt Ruapehu was erupting and a slurry of mud, rocks and water crashed into the cramped hut, submerging William’s legs and ripping flesh from his bones.

William Pike survived a harrowing ordeal when Mount Ruapehu erupted.

William Pike survived a harrowing ordeal when he was caught in the eruption of Mount Ruapehu. Photo by Tessa Chrisp.

Despite using ice axes and shovels, the pair couldn’t release William from the deluge. It soon became apparent that James – uninjured – would have to walk down the volcano to seek urgent help.

After an hour of running, James came across a snow groomer at Whakapapa Ski Field. From there, the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue team mounted a daring night-time rescue operation. By 1.30am help had arrived at the hut and William was on his way to Waikato Hospital. 

This is just the start of William’s story. Doctors called his survival a miracle. He needed a series of operations to amputate his right leg, and then began the gruelling rehabilitation to walk again.

“I was one lucky kid,” William says. “Yes, I had wild thoughts going through my head at that moment on the volcano, but I somehow pushed aside those fears of never walking again, and slowly and surely I made my recovery.”

William Pike has used his survival experience as a force for good.

William Pike has used his survival experience as a force for good. Photo by Tessa Chrisp.

Maybe it was the intrinsic motivation and optimism he grew up with that helped him in those hours of clock-watching as he tried to stay awake on the mountain, awaiting his friend’s return. Or maybe it was just his 'she’ll be right’ Kiwi mentality.

“I had to come to terms with dying that night. I thought of my friends and family – that twisted my guts and told myself not to give up.” 

Growing up in Auckland, he describes himself as a shy lad and not particularly academically gifted. “The world was opened up to me as a teenager when I went on a week-long adventure with my outdoor education class in the Kaimanawa Forest Park. It was winter, and we were sleeping in wet tents but having a blast!” 

In these moments William started to identify a value that would become a lifelong passion for him. “I realised I loved anything to do with the outdoors and, at the same time, I was learning how to communicate, to be a problem solver and how to lead others.”

Looking back, William recognises it was these outdoor experiences that prepared him for what was to come.  

“I just had to focus on tomorrow. It was my sheer bloody-mindedness and high level of fitness that kept me going after the accident,” he says. “My friends and family were also invaluable at this time. I was so lucky to have built relationships through my sports and outdoor adventures.” 

William returned to full-time teaching two years after his accident. He worked with a Taupō school to build a youth development programme aimed at developing life skills and positive youth development. “I had a vision but no idea how to fulfill it!”

Today, schools around the country participate in the William Pike Challenge.

Today, primary schools around the country participate in the William Pike Challenge. Photo by Tessa Chrisp.

After writing an article for the Education Gazette about his successes with the Taupō school programme, countless other schools started to ring William wanting the programme in their own school. 

“My next massive leap of faith was to leave teaching and set up the William Pike Challenge,” William says. Having little business experience, it required a large step outside of his comfort zone. But the results have proven to be highly successful, with 108 schools participating in the programme in 2023 alone. Eleven years since starting, the William Pike Challenge has prepared thousands of children around Aotearoa for an exciting future and taught them that they too can do anything they put their minds to.

“Through completing five outdoor activities, 20 hours of community service and 20 hours on their passion project, students can develop confidence, resilience, critical thinking and goal setting,” William says. “We provide the schools with the support, resources and inspiration to make it happen.” 

William’s message to young students is that one thing differentiates those who achieve success and those who don’t: “The key is to step outside your comfort zone,” William says. 

As an in-demand keynote speaker, William embodies this determination to succeed without limits, using his accident as a force for good in the world. 


Story by Kathy Catton for the Spring 2023 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Kathy Catton is a Christchurch-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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