I saw this stark record on a website this morning. A wave of emotions from sadness to guilt swept over me. This was a death I had somehow shut out of my life since I got the news two days later, on March 28 1967.
Michael Cooper was my cousin. I was 24 days older than Michael. Our paths crossed frequently on the athletic track, mountaineering scene and on the Otago Youth Council. Michael was a brilliant student at King High School in Dunedin, and then went on to Otago university. He died on Mt. Awful, Otago, New Zealand. almost 44 years ago.
Gillespie Pass and Mt. Awful where Michael Cooper died.
It was an early Easter weekend in 1967, and I went off with friends. Unbeknown to me, Michael had joined a group of mountaineers from the Otago University to go climbing up the Young Valley, their goal Mt. Awful. Mt Awful, a 2192-metre peak near Gillespie Pass, dominates the headwaters of the Young River. Its neighbouring peaks are Mt. Horrible and Mt. Dreadful.
At the end of the weekend of Michael death, I was elated after doing one of those then rare ascents of Mt. Huxley. Death somehow stalked us that long weekend. When walking up the Hopkins Valley we came across a memorial cairn to a group of young Otago climbers who died from rockfalls on Mt. Trent in 1938. We said a silent prayer as we walked by. When we were on our climb of Mount Huxley, Jim Cowie told me of a climber who had died on this part of the mountain some years earlier.
On our descent, my rope mate Graham Lockett fell and as he slid rapidly passed me, he cut my face open with a glance from his ice axe. Fortunately we were roped together and jointly, arrested the fall. But there was blood on the snow.
Bob McKerrow (l) Graham Lockett and Keith McIvor on the summit of Mount Huxley March 27, 1967. Photo: Jim Cowie
While we were putting a camp in under Mount Huxley on March 26, 1967, and preparing for our big climb the following day, Michael had camped on a ledge somewhere under Mt. Awful, and as he walked along a ledge to get some water to cook the evening meal with, he slipped on some mountain tussock, and fell to his death over a rocky ledge and down a mountain face. Eighteen years old, academically bright, handsome, athletic and the world was at his feet. A life snuffed out like a flame from a candle.
Three days later when I arrived home elated having climbed Mount Huxley, “ My Mother hugged me and said, “ Michael Cooper is dead.” I was numbed.
In the conservative 50s and 60s, we were never encouraged to go to funerals and somehow I never really grieved for Michael.
Sadly for his father and mother, my Uncle Campbell and Auntie Mavis, they had lost their first son, Murray. His death was on the same website I visited this morning.
Cooper, Murray Campbell, Born Feb 15 1940 in Dunedin,, Otago, New Zealand, Died 1945 in Portobello, Dunedin, , Otago, New Zealand
Uncle Campbell lived in Portobello and used to take a small ferry across the Otago Harbour to his work in Dunedin. One night he came home and he looked for Murray, who usually met him at the ferry, and he could’nt see him. A few minutes later his body was found floating in the sea. Campbell and Mavis are dead, but one son, Maxwell survives.
The same year two other close friends who were emerging mountaineers died: Richard Tilley killed by an avalanche on Mt. Avalanche in Arthur’s Pass, and Howard Laing, in a car accident.
I remember writing a poem at the time about the deaths of friends on mountains. Perhaps that is how I worked through my grief:
All stones we learn as children
Are dead inanimate things
But stones falling on a mountain
Are alive with a death that sings
A stone's song is enchanting
Fit for mountain Kings
First it’s high, then low
Lachrymose from the strings