Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Misery on a Taranaki mountainside

Hiroki and Nicole
Nicole Sutton and Hiroki Ogawa died tragically in a snow cave on Mt Taranaki over the weekend.
Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue member Mike Johns
ROBERT CHARLES/Taranaki Daily News
TOUGH DECISION: Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue member Mike Johns was part of the search and rescue mission on Mt Taranaki last weekend.
I want to put this article on my blog in the hope that climbers and trampers of the future will learn from this and not repeat the mistakes made here. I have worked in mountain rescue teams in Otago and at Aoraki/ Mount Cook and have seen too many climbers die or badly injured due to either poor decisions and or not learning from others.
Here is an excellent summary of events written by Helen Harvey
 In the early hours of Sunday morning Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue member Mike Johns got to within 200 metres of two climbers stuck on Mt Taranaki - only to be forced back by the weather.
Yesterday morning he was winched down onto the mountain, from an air force helicopter, and helped recover the bodies of Nicole Sutton, 29, and Hiroki Ogawa, 31, who died after they spent two nights in a snow cave. The recovery operation took place in near perfect conditions.
It was "a beautiful morning up there, not a breath of wind", Johns said.
But it was a different situation when he and his team started out just after 1am on Sunday - into driving wind, horizontal sleet and rain.
Massive gusts made walking difficult, he said. They got to nearly 2200 metres. The climbers were at about 2400 metres.
"We were the next valley over, but getting close to that altitude. They had given us a rough coordinate that was pretty close."
The rescue team was getting pounded by sleet, he said.
"So one side of your face was going numb. By that stage we were so covered in ice everything was starting to freeze up. It wasn't particularly pleasant conditions."
It got so bad that just after 3.30am they made the gut-wrenching decision to turn around and go back down.
"It weighed on everyone's mind. We discussed it as a team, but our safety came first and we all agreed we were at the point it was starting to get dangerous."
The team, who were carrying 20kg packs, were hoping the two climbers had dug in and were well secured in their spot, Johns said.
"They were probably in a better position than we were when we turned around.
"We discussed digging a snow cave as well and staying up there, but we thought, ‘What are we going to achieve?' We are going to be cold and wet and miserable and no good to anybody. We'd be better off coming back and regrouping and trying again."
There was a wind chill factor of -15 so it was "pretty cold".
Johns got back to the base at 6am. Teams were still assembling and the fourth team to go up made it to the climbers who were dug in just below the rim of the crater.
Normally it is possible to get right inside a snow cave and get out of the weather, he said.
"But they had just managed to dig a slot in the snow and get into it.

Johns spent Monday with the crew of an air force helicopter trying to get on the mountain, but it was too windy. The wind was still howling when the rescue team found the missing climbers about 7.30am Monday.
"Considering how hard it would have been up there - the ice gets really hard especially that high - it would have been a big effort for them to do what they did. So they did really well."
"That's why they made the decision to leave them behind and get out of there."
The search teams will be "going through a bit of victim support, especially the guys who found [the climbers]."
The police also provide support and there will be a formal debrief, he said.
"The guys don't like talking about it. But it was a big operation, especially with people getting so close and having to turn back. There are some people out there with mixed emotions - if they'd managed to get on a bit further . . .
"But at the end of the day all the teams made the right decision. No searchers got lost or injured."
The search involved more than 30 volunteers and Mr Johns estimated they would have spent 2000 hours during the rescue attempt.
"The incident management team ran all the time. We don't usually do that. Often we shut down overnight, but because teams were still going up at all hours, we had to man it the whole time.
"If there were no volunteers there would be no search and rescue in New Zealand."
Taranaki police Senior Sergeant Thomas McIntyre, who was part of the incident management team, said the volunteers had given up their Labour Weekend to help.
The 20 search and rescue people from the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation had driven over from National Park.
"Without [the volunteers] we don't have a search and rescue capability. We rely on them to get the job done."
LandSAR helped with administration and was following the tracks of the climbers who walked out around noon on Sunday.
"Arec [Amateur Radio Emergency Communications] came in and operated all our search and rescue radio. And the Taranaki rescue chopper provided invaluable support."
The air force and the police were also involved in the rescue, McIntyre said.
"It was a big operation. There was a lot of people to manage and mitigate the risk to them, as well as rescue the people who are in trouble."
The tragic deaths of two climbers on Mt Taranaki last weekend has left experienced mountaineers with lots of questions.
How did two people who were well-prepared, well-briefed, with good skills die on the mountain, outdoor specialist Rob Needs was asking.
"Why did they choose to stay the night when the weather forecast was for the weather to deteriorate? Eight people went up there, six got back. Why did two choose to stay? That's what's perplexing those who know the mountain."
Every 100 metres down the mountain the conditions ease a little bit, said Needs, who owns the New Plymouth Kiwi Outdoors shop.
"If they had got down to 2200 metres or 2100 metres the rescue teams would have got to them or they would have got to better conditions and made it lower."
At the moment there are so many more questions, he said.
"They'd done a huge day. They took 12 hours on a trip that should have taken five. Why did it take so long?"
And why did they choose to stay up there?
The couple sheltered in a snow cave, but it wouldn't have been something cosy like the one climbers Mark Inglis and Philip Doole spent 13 days in on Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1982.
There is no snow up on Mt Taranaki at the moment, just ice, he said.
Taranaki Mt Egmont: A Guide for Climbers author and mountain guide Ross Eden agrees.
It would have been like trying to dig a hole in soft rock, Eden said.
"It'll be enough to sit in and keep your head out of the wind if you hunker down."
But they would have needed something to insulate themselves from the weather and they wouldn't have taken a sleeping bag.
"I'm trying to understand why two people could walk down on Sunday morning. Why the other two didn't walk down? Why didn't they attempt to walk down?"
Eden, who has climbed Mt Taranaki more than 350 times, said he wouldn't spend a night on the mountain.
"It's just not an option in my view."
The eight Auckland trampers had taken the East Ridge, which is the hardest way to climb the mountain.
"It's not a place that you take novices and you certainly wouldn't want to be exposed out there in bad weather. It's the least hospitable place on mountain."
The climbers made really slow progress to get to the summit at 7pm, which is too late to get there, he said. He usually calls time about 3pm.
"But it's not that easy to back off East Ridge, to be fair. And if you're unfamiliar with it and haven't got visibility, there doesn't look like there's an option to go back down.
"So I can understand why you would persevere with heading upward. There is easier ground on other side once you get there. The travel time coming down from the summit by the normal descent route is three times faster than coming down east ridge."
The clear message is know the limitations of the climbing party and watch the weather.
"Juggle those two things together and make decisions based on that."
He always tells his clients: "The mountain is not going anywhere. You can always come back."
New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton said climbers were making decisions all the time based on an extraordinary variety of circumstances, some of which could be quite individual around what equipment or what injuries they had, how much food or what clothing they had.
Then there was the individual interpretation of the weather and the varying type of terrain.
"It's very hard to second-guess decision making. There is such a wide variety of circumstances that are individual to everyone." 
Thanks to Fairfax NZ News for permission to run this article.


Gollum said...


Agree with you on the benefits of learning from others' mistakes.

But a lot of mountain accidents also arise from the nature of the environment and, in New Zealand especially, the incredible speed with which conditions can turn from perfect to life-threatening. So I do have some sympathy for this couple who were caught out in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to deal with the cards they were dealt.

We have all gone on routes we probably shouldn't have and that is one way that we and the sport progress. Sometimes the results are tragic, as here. A very sad day for all and I am sure that the rescue teams are having a very bad time given the fact that the young lady was found alive but died subsequently.

Hope your retirement is going well.



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