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The tragedy over the long weekend

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 [1] (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 [2] 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 [3], give or take.

IMG_9785 [4]
Looking up.

Looking down.
IMG_9784 [5]

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.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The tragedy over the long weekend"

#1 Comment By Gazza On 31 October, 2013 @ 9:15 am

As usual well written and I find myself in agreement. Certainly something went wrong on this trip, unfortunately it has had tragic consequences but we don’t have enough information to know what has really happened and why people have made the choices they did….assigning blame here is pointless and possibly hurtful to the family and friends involved…who I imagine might well be reading comments on the articles.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 1 November, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

Hi Gazza. I agree, it’s a very sad and sensitive topic. I’m reluctant to venture too close to anything personal. It doesn’t seem like my business to try and understand how everyone is being affected, except to hope people can get through it okay.

I do think it’s important to recognise that the responsibilities and decisions in this type of situation are often far more complex than what’s obvious from outside, and that sometimes things just go wrong. I really like that quote from Sam Newton (above).

#3 Comment By Basketcase On 1 November, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

You are so right about weather reports.
I have a friend who was on Aspiring, got a forecast indicating awful weather arriving in 36 – 48 hours and likely to last 4 – 5 days. So they bailed from the hut first thing in the morning in clear weather with no sign of the storm, only to get hit by it halfway across the bonar glacier. Its only an 8 hour day, so this was only about 16 hours after the weather report that gave them 36 hours.
Long story short, its an absolute miracle neither of them died when their snow cave was buried under 2m of fresh snow overnight (and collapsed twice), and it wound up being a 5 day mission to get rescued.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 November, 2013 @ 11:08 am

How long ago was that? I have a vague memory of reading about something similar in a book somewhere. (Maybe High Misadventure or Survive.)

#5 Comment By Basketcase On 3 November, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

Would have been about 1998 or 1999. At least a year before I met them.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 November, 2013 @ 11:09 am

Thanks. Not the one I was thinking of, then. I eventually figured out that I was remembering the Garden of Eden incident of the Auckland Uni Tramping Club in 1982 (specifically I’d read about it in Mark Pickering’s A Tramper’s Journey book).

#7 Comment By zoneblue On 4 November, 2013 @ 9:46 am

I think your writing on this is fair and sensitive. I often wonder what the source of my interest in outdoor accidents is, hopefully we can learn something, but maybe theres is also an inherant little curiousity about the fine line between life and death?

Anyway i know that area quite well, and how icy and steep that east face often is. I remember once traversing from Fanthoms across to the skifield, and getting to a point where the 50 odd degree slope was so blue and bullet proof that only the merest tips of the crampons bit. And youre looking straight down at the exposure. So its easy for me at least to comprehend why it was, once they crossed the 2000m mark where the grade picks up, that they might have been reluctant to turn around or traverse across to tahurangi. If your legs arent trained, a lot of time on front points is calve aching to begin with. Im no expert, but descending the east ridge in winter, would probably be a down climbing exercise, at least near the top. The couple of times ive descended the east ridge was in summer, and that upper section even then feels steep.

My condolences to the familys.

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 November, 2013 @ 11:22 am

Hi zoneblue. Thanks for the extra insight. I’ve only been up there once, and not as an alpinist. I don’t know the exact details of the weather at the time, but I could imagine them reaching that corner at the top of the Lizard where they were found, and suddenly encountering much more exposed conditions.

I’ve been told that if you’re on the top of that mountain, it’s normally possible to find a reasonably sheltered spot, somewhere in the plateau area around the summit and Shark’s Tooth, no matter which direction the weather’s coming from. If they didn’t have any overnight gear, though, I could imagine they’d not have rated their chances for waiting it out with climbing higher, compared with what they did. It’s just a sucky situation.

#9 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 October, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

The coroner’s inquest has begun. A couple of articles from today:

Fairfax: [12]
APN: [13]

Please be mindful that these aren’t findings of the inquest. They’re media reports of what’s been told to or argued at the coroner.

#10 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 October, 2014 @ 8:21 am

Also from APN: [14]

#11 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 October, 2014 @ 9:17 am

and from Fairfax: [15]

#12 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 October, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

and from APN: [16]

#13 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 October, 2014 @ 10:26 am

Also some alleged issues coming out with communications and transport for rescuers: [17]

#14 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 October, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

Also, from this afternoon.
Fairfax: [18]
APN: [19]

#15 Comment By Mike McGavin On 9 October, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

and Fairfax again: [20]

#16 Comment By Mike McGavin On 9 October, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

APN from today: [21]

#17 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 October, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

Fairfax from earlier today: [22]

#18 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 October, 2014 @ 8:19 am

Summing up from APN: [23]

#19 Comment By zoneblue On 11 October, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

Ive been follow the almost daily herald updates on the hearing too. At least the media have not forgotten the story, as they are prone to do, once the immediate event has past. What i find kinda odd was the emphasis on the rescue logistics. There was nothing said about why the four were at 2500m at 8pm, in the middle of winter it must have been almost dark. Even when the sun is shining it is real cold up there in winter when the wind blows.. Will you try and get a hold of the coroners report when it comes out?

#20 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 October, 2014 @ 11:45 pm

Hi @zoneblue. The rescue logistics focus might just be because that’s the most interesting or relevant-sounding part of what’s being heard, at least when it comes to reporting it, but that’s just me guessing. There has been at least some talk on how the group of 4 continued summitting when others turned back. It sounds as if they got held up longer than intended when they had that accident near the top, and that probably created new problems on the way down. But it also sounds like nobody’s clear on why those two people stopped where they did and went no further. Sometimes accidents can have very emotional effects on people, or it might have been totally unrelated. We may never know.

Also, at the time this happened (and during the rescue op), it was being generally reported that they were in a snow cave. Even after they were located, [24]. I remember thinking that they’d probably come out fine because of that. Based on the thin information, the other couple further down, who’d set off a PLB, sounded as if they were in more trouble.

Since then it’s become clear that there was no snow cave. There was only a flat, dug-out ledge that was probably fairly ineffective in the circumstances and apparently didn’t protect much of either of them from the elements. The Herald’s latest summing up, including notes on at several of the text messages, makes no mention of any info about a snow cave (or even a ledge). Now I’m wondering where that report came from, especially if the thought they were in a snow cave was taken by rescue officials and it perhaps influenced priorities.

Another useful line of questioning might be if anything could have been done differently, preparation or training or otherwise, which might have improved Nicole’s chances of survival after rescuers finally reached her, given that she was alive and conscious for a short time. It’d be tough to criticise with such unique and difficult circumstances, but I hope the inquest has addressed that, at the very least so there’s either no reasonable doubt or so that anything useful can be learned for use by future rescue teams.

Anyone can request the coroner’s report. Getting the Tararua one was non-trivial (for me), but only because I almost never deal with snail mail these days. I had to buy an envelope and buy a stamp, and find a pen, and send a real letter. Maybe that process has been updated now, or maybe it was that way intentionally. I’ll probably wait and see what’s reported, but it could be interesting to read so as to avoid the media filter.

#21 Comment By zoneblue On 14 October, 2014 @ 7:30 am

Thanks izogi. Theres probably two sets of risk assessment at play here, first in deciding to venture into the alpine terain in certain weather conditions. The secondly being decision making in crisis conditions.

We perhaps have all at times ventured out into suboptimal conditions, perhaps for the challenge, experience or whatever.

However I think that if there are common threads with the Tararua incident, they concern the effects of hypothermia on brain function and the thinking process.

“Nicole said she just wanted to go to sleep.” –www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/10586167

Wanting to just sit down and go to sleep, is one of the classic symptoms, and suggests the possibility that hyperthermia had already set in prior to reaching the crater. That might possibly explain why they failed to descend.

“My whole instinct was to go down. Losing height was a paramount concern.” –www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/10586167

As bystanders, at room temperature, we can see the logic of that risk assessment, made by one of the four that managed to descend. But for those under the effects of hypothermia, that reasoning ability may well be impaired.

Whatever makes partys ascend into exposed terrain and challenging weather, both incidents indicate that in deciding between exposure and other percieved risks, that exposure to the elements is the greater hazard. The trap of ones own deteriating decision making is particularly worrying in those curcumstances.

Back in the day they used to show a dramatic educational film about hypothermia, in scouting, and in some schools. Dont know if they still do.

#22 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 October, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

Hi @zoneblue. The dramatic educational film to which you refer [25], now online thanks to the NZ OnScreen.

Yes and I didn’t mean to diminish the obvious importance of good decision making and preventative safety when musing over the coroner’s analysis of the rescue operation. It does sound as if they made a risky decision, but I’m reluctant to judge them on that without more info than I have.
My gut feeling is that there’s probably more detail to what went on to result in those two stopping where they did than what’s been focused on in coroner media. Very possibly some of the most relevant stuff hasn’t been reported to the coroner, and may have died with those two people. I’ve wondered if there’s more of a story to what happened with that 150m fall near the top after which the group split up with the other two heading down more rapidly. It’s risky to muse over that type of stuff without solid info, though.

#23 Comment By Mike McGavin On 21 November, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

[26]: Hypothermia killed Taranaki climbers.

The coroner’s report is out now, and I’ve been kindly forwarded a copy from a third party. If anyone’s interested to see it, please flick me an email ( [27]).

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

#24 Comment By Mike McGavin On 22 November, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

And another article from Fairfax: [26]