As almost 100 strangers scoured the bush for her missing husband, Juliane Jutz was living with the anguish that she could have done more to help rescuers in their search.
Reluctantly stuck at home 40 minutes away from the Tararua Ranges, where Alastair Shelton had disappeared two days earlier during a mountain run, Juliane couldn't believe that was how their love story would end: she at her mother-in-law's house trying to reassure the couple's two girls, Luisa (3) and Clara (11 months), and Alastair, alone, lost in the bush, in torrential rain and freezing temperatures.
“I felt incredibly guilty,” says Juliane. “I was getting so frustrated at myself that I didn't know his exact route. It's Alastair's hobby and I have to admit, sometimes I don't really listen. When you've got two kids, you know, your mind is on other things quite a lot. But I was beating myself up, thinking that I should have paid more attention, because then maybe I'd know something. It was a horrible feeling.”
Now reunited with her husband of five years after rescuers found him, Juliane says the three days he was missing were the darkest and scariest of her life.
“It was like a movie,” she remembers. “When I went to where the searchers had based themselves, there were all these screens with maps and photos. It was straight out of a film, too unreal to be real. This was my husband they were looking for.”
The Wellington family's ordeal started when Alastair failed to return from his run as scheduled at midday on December 29, leaving Juliane, the girls and his mother waiting at the base of the mountain where they had planned to meet him.
“I wasn't worried initially, but by 6pm, police had started sending searchers up and I realised it was getting serious," she says. “No-one had seen him at all, and that scared me. I thought he must have fallen off the main track and be injured or something, otherwise why had he not got himself out?”
Alastair had come off the path in misty conditions, and what followed was two nights of pure hell for Juliane and her family. As much as she wanted to be up there searching with rescuers, Juliane knew she had to look after her girls.
As she waited for any sign of Alastair, Juliane admits she struggled to keep calm. “When it got dark, I got pretty low,” says Juliane. “There's just much less hope when it's dark. I couldn't sleep at all, and I started having panic attacks, which I've never had in my life. So I just waited for the morning, and as silly as it sounds, when it started getting light again, I started hoping.”
However, there was still no sign of Alastair, and Juliane was faced with the task of explaining his absence to daughter Luisa. “That tore my heart out. She was asking, ‘Where's Papa?’ I tried to be as honest with her as I could.
I told her, 'Daddy's hiding in the mountains and he's hiding really well, and no-one can find him.’ And she said, 'Why's he hiding so well? I really want to see him.' That was hard to hear.”
As darkness fell for a second night, Juliane reached her lowest point throughout the ordeal, and started thinking her husband wasn't coming home.
“I was preparing. I needed to start thinking about what I was going to do when he didn't come back, and that was terrifying. Oh my God, I was just… ‘How am I going to do this on my own? This isn't how we'd planned our lives, the girls won't even remember who Alastair was.’ That sent me more into panic mode.”
After another sleepless night, a beautiful morning dawned. While others were positive that it would be the day they found Alastair, Juliane had lost all hope.
“It was a nice day, but by then I thought, ‘Who cares? He's not going to make it anyway,’” she says quietly. “‘Who cares if they find him now, he's dead.’”
But after three agonising days, a phone call for Juliane made New Year's Eve a time they will always treasure. “The police officer on the other end of the phone said, ‘Someone wants to talk to you,’ and it was Alastair,” she smiles. “It was the best phone call of my life.”
Searchers had found Alastair after he'd managed to locate a hut and leave a note for rescuers, telling them the exact route he was taking to try to escape the ranges.
"I've never been so relieved," says Alastair, who is still sporting cuts and scrapes from his ordeal, as well as a broken toe. “I did think I might die up there, but my greatest fears were for my family. I knew I was still alive, and they didn't. I just felt so bad for them, for putting them through that.”
“When I saw him for the first time afterwards, I was mad,” adds Juliane. “I was so relieved, and I had all these emotions, and they all came bubbling up as anger. I told him I loved him and I was so relieved he was alive, and I hated him and I couldn't believe he did this to me! It was quite strange.”
Now safely back at home, Juliane and Alastair cherish every moment together, and say the whole experience has made them see life differently. “We're definitely making the most of all the moments we've got,” says Alastair.
“I'm also wanting to volunteer with Search and Rescue – I feel like I owe so many people for finding me. I need to give something back.”
In the meantime, Juliane has banned any more solo mountain runs – ”That's fair enough,” says Alastair – and Luisa has also weighed in about when Dad's away. “Daddy needs to not go for such long runs.”