People who read this may have heard about the climbing tragedy up Mount Taranaki over the weekend, within Egmont National Park. I’ve wandered around the park a few times, and I walked to the top of the mountain in late 2010 (via the most direct and easiest route). I guess this accident feels closer to home for me than some others, despite me not being an alpine climber.
So far, this article is the most down-to-earth media collation I can find of what is and isn’t known.
I’ve checked my photos from my own most-recent visit. The following two photos respectively show the area near the top of The Lizard, standing with the camera at 2435 metres, but on a nicer day. The Lizard veers around to the right (in the second photo) below this rocky spine. The two climbers reportedly chose to dig themselves into the ice, located at about 2400 metres, slightly below where these photos were taken, having climbed the East Ridge and come down from the summit. On a topo map, that would have placed them about here, give or take.
During the time that things have unfolded, there have been a variety of mis-reports and partial reports, followed by cascading opinions, judgements and even blame, often based on not much more than scant second-hand information that’s been relayed by reporters who are not always well acquainted with either the area or with the outdoor scene in general. It’s very true that Taranaki catches out many people, including experienced and skilled climbers. The mountain has the unenviable title of being the deadliest mountain in New Zealand. The title results from a combination of several factors which include its accessibility to the inexperienced and non-alpine crowds, and the particular sudden-ness with which conditions can completely change.
From the article linked above:
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.”
I don’t think it’s reasonable to criticise people for simply being on the mountain, even with a bad forecast for late in the day, but this is what I’ve seen occurring in some forums. I was up near the tops in the Tararuas with some tramping club friends at the same time, 1000 metres lower and less cold, but still with forecast 110km/h winds. We kept ourselves in a sheltered area, with bail-out plans, in the hope that we might have a reasonable weather window for a few hours that could enable us to scoot over the tops and into the interior of the range. (For us, it didn’t eventuate.)
There are ways to manage such types of risk, and there can be a balance with trying to take advantage of possibly-incorrect forecasts whilst still being prepared for bad weather, including that which can easily occur during good forecasts. Weather was excellent when the group started despite the forecast for the following the day. People sometimes make different judgement calls, but being a New Zealand Alpine Club group it’d be unusual if there weren’t at least people involved who had assessed the risks in a qualified way, rightly or wrongly, and made decisions about attempting the route which was attempted with the time that was available, and for the people who were going, probably with bail-out options and times.
Ultimately, though, sometimes people simply screw up. It’d be tough to find a person who frequents the outdoors who hasn’t messed up, one time or another. It’s usually okay to the extent that nobody hears of it, because other factors don’t combine to result in serious consequences. Smart people learn something when they realise they’ve made a mistake, but on occasion this type of thing still happens and there’s no opportunity to learn.
There are many unanswered questions around how and why the group of four split up, whether there was an injury (perceived or otherwise), why the day’s plans took as long as they did, and generally why things didn’t work out. Something’s clearly gone wrong, however, and some of the most critical questions may never be answered. I’m hoping, though, that those involved will be given the benefit of the doubt, certainly unless a proper investigation could show otherwise.
In the end, despite all the precautions that can be taken, alpine climbing still contains an element of accepted risk. Right now my thoughts are with the friends and families and all those others affected, including others in the climbing party and the dedicated and expert volunteers and professionals who made up the rescue operation. I hope that over the coming year, when things will certainly be analysed more fully, everyone can learn something positive from this tragic accident.