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A reflective account of an accident

There’s an interesting article on the NZ Alpine Team blog [1]. It’s courtesy of Rose Pearson (thanks!), one of two people who suffered an accident near Zit Saddle, within 1 km of Top Kokatahi Hut, late last month. The pair were ultimately located and rescued after eventually being reported overdue. This followed several days and nights of struggling to survive, with serious injuries, in the open, and with luck on their side as far as weather was concerned.

Emphasis is my own:

So what were our mistakes? We didn’t turn around when we reached the icy south side of Zit’s Saddle, which had significantly more snow that the northern side. At this point we could have still extracted ourselves. The second mistake is my own. I began rushing and didn’t act appropriately given the danger of a fall.

Finally, should we have had a PLB? In our case yes. I had just spent $700 on one. I purposely bought the smallest model so it wouldn’t matter if I always carried it. Why didn’t I carry it? I bought it two weeks prior for mountaineering or solo trips. I did not consider user error, or the possibility that all party members could be immobilised. I also didn’t consider the difference in time between rescue due to being overdue versus rescue as a result of PLB activation. In our case, Nelson’s broken and dislocated wrist became much worse as it began healing crooked and he suffered from frostbite as a result of our five days out.

I also didn’t consider that SAR might act differently as I owned a PLB. They knew I had a PLB and I was told by both the West Coast Police and West Coast SAR that they would have come a day earlier if I didn’t own a PLB. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t activate it.

It’s normal to make mistakes, and hopefully those who do can learn things as a consequence. Unfortunately, for those who haven’t yet made mistakes, there are too few reflective accounts from others in public, and this can obscure some of the most useful learning insight for others. It’s for understandable reasons, but it also means that when someone manages to write about their experiences so that others can learn, it’s valuable material.

The article’s definitely worth a read. It contains some very good, and insightful reflections of the immediate consequences, and on what went wrong, both as individual mistakes and what combined to make a risky situation much more critical.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "A reflective account of an accident"

#1 Comment By Wayne Clark On 9 September, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

so…. they were on a high,steep, icy, mountain slope in winter in running shoes….

#2 Comment By Shaun On 9 September, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

I’d have thought running shoes was pushing it in winter, and is the crux of this accident story. A few years ago an Otago University student died after crossing a short icy gut close to Liverpool Hut. He was wearing running shoes, intent on keeping his alpine boots dry for the climb of Mt Barff planned for the following day from the hut. Johnny Mulheron wrote a good accident report on this in the FMC Bulletin June 2010.

Glad this party all survived.

#3 Comment By Basketcase On 10 September, 2013 @ 9:11 am

I remember that weekend, and knew the student, who was also one of the best friends of a friend of mine.
The hard part (for me personally, and several of my friends in the same situation – former OUTCers) is that a large group (about 60) of the club were down the valley at Aspiring Hut that weekend for an annual celebration. So I knew a dozen different people who were in the area at the time, and after the first news report I caught on the radio at 9am Sunday morning, I could find no more information till 4pm that afternoon. So we didn’t know who it was, which one of our friends was involved.
Third OUTC funeral I had to miss because I was out of town.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 September, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

“Third OUTC funeral I had to miss”


#5 Comment By Basketcase On 1 October, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

Thankfully the only one related to a club trip.
One other was a private trip, and the third was a pushbike accident in town (hit by a truck).

#6 Comment By Wayne Clark On 9 September, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

rose is an accomplished climber, may be a case with the shoes that she wasnt doing a difficult alpine climb so she would be fine with shoes, as she mentioned she didnt need them at arthurs pass earlier on but she should know how conditions can change rapidly and the south side of any mountain can be a completely different proposition…

#7 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 September, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

Thanks for the comments, everyone, and that’s a good point. I’d managed to read straight through the shoe thing. Rose didn’t even mention it further down. 🙂

I know there’s some contention amongst certain people about shoes versus boots in all circumstances. She says nothing about what sort of shoes they were, and if they’d thought they wouldn’t need an ice-axe and crampons, maybe the mindset was also that shoes would be alright for the same reason.

I think Shaun would be right that the presence of shoes in those conditions might have contributed directly to the accident (pending further info). In my head I still think that Rose’s comment about not re-considering their plan, when conditions turned out to be different from those anticipated, is also a rather critical thing. As in, if you’re going to screw up somehow with your gear, then actually recognising the gear you have is wrong for the upcoming situation, and dealing with it by avoiding the upcoming situation, is one of the first things that can be done to avoid a possible accident.

#8 Comment By Rose Pearson On 30 September, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

Hey guys,

Rose here. I agree in terms of shoes – I should have mentioned it later on (and will alter the article so it is addressed). However, I believe it is important to remember the main mistake was: a failure to turn around when we encountered unexpected conditions we didn’t have the correct equipment for. Just like weather or not we had a PLB, or ice ax, our foot ware is a secondary issue.

In our case, I think the most important piece of equipment that we were missing that was an ice ax not a pair of boots. This is because an ice ax can be used for both stopping a fall and cutting steps while pair of full-shank boots can only be used to kick steps. If I had fallen where I did with full mountaineering boots, I am confident it would have made no difference. In a similar vain, it is interesting to note my brother did have standard no-shank tramping boots; these proved as in-affective as my running shoes at kicking steps. Thus although a set of full mountaineering boots could have changed the outcome, it would have still be a mistake to continue down from Zit saddle with just boots as in the case of a fall we would likely be unable to stop ourselves. Conversely if we had ice axes and no boots we could have safely traveled down the snowy section.

#9 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 October, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

Hi Rose. Thanks very much for clarifying. 🙂