Tragedy  Tears on Taranaki

What lessons can be taken away from the 2013 Mt Taranaki tragedy? Nick Plimmer considers the unfortunate events.

Area: Mt Taranaki, Egmont National Park

Activity: Mountaineering

Deceased: 31-year-old male, 29-year-old female

Date of Incident: 28 October 2013, Labour Weekend

Weather Forecast: Saturday: Cloudy periods with a few showers. Snow flurries above 1900 metres. Strong westerlies rising to gale. Sunday: Rain easing to showers in the afternoon and snow lowering to 1100 metres. Gale westerlies.

Summary

A group of 16 people on a New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) Auckland Section trip to Mt Taranaki arrived at Tahurangi Lodge on Mt Taranaki between 9:30 p.m. Friday and 2 a.m. Saturday after driving down from Auckland. The party planned to climb Mt Taranaki in two groups, with one tackling the North Ridge (grade 1-) and the other the harder East Ridge (grade 2+). Participants in both groups ranged from experienced mountaineers with instructor qualifications, to beginners, whose only mountaineering experience was a NZAC snowcraft course.

After rising between 5 and 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, the NZAC members gradually organised themselves into the two groups, and left Tahurangi Lodge between 7.30 and 8 a.m. At this stage, the female (deceased) changed her mind and switched from the group tackling the easier North Ridge, to join her boyfriend (the male deceased), who had convinced her to join the group aiming for the harder East Ridge route.

The North Ridge group of six people made an uneventful ascent of Mt Taranaki. High on the mountain they encountered icy conditions. As they summited around midday, a clear sky with no winds gave way to intermittent whiteout conditions and strong winds. By the time the group had returned to Tahurangi Lodge at around 5.30 p.m., it was raining continuously, with very strong winds and occasional hail and snow.

The East Ridge group of 10 people made good progress until about 11.30 a.m., when they encountered hard, icy conditions approximately 500 vertical metres from the summit. They split into three climbing teams, pulled out ropes and started pitching. The teams made very slow progress due to the steep slope, hard ice, the inexperience of some of the climbers and a shortage of technical equipment. The first team summited quickly without using ropes. The second team, who were pitching, turned back 150 metres short of the summit at approximately 4.30 p.m, and returned to the lodge. At their turn-around point, there was zero visibility, with freezing temperatures and gale force winds, making it difficult to communicate. Some members of this group started to become hypothermic.

Although climbing close to the second team, the third team of four people, which included both the deceased, continued on to the summit. Their plan was to summit, then return to the lodge via the easier North Ridge route. Climbing in a white-out, with snow and gale force winds, they reached the rim of the summit cater below the Shark’s Tooth, then made a slow and difficult descent into the crater. They arrived at around 8.30 p.m., in full darkness and extreme weather conditions. Soon after starting the descent of the North Ridge, one of the four climbers slipped and fell, injuring their leg. Another of the four climbers reached the injured climber and continued down with them. Neither of these was one of the deceased. They lost their route on the way down and spent a long, cold night out with very little shelter. At daybreak they returned to North Egmont Visitor Centre and were taken to hospital.

Possibly because of advancing hypothermia, at the site of the slip and fall the deceased pair stopped descending and dug a shallow snow trench some 200 metres below the summit, at approximately 2318 metres. Using their cell-phone, they alerted club members to their predicament late at night and later managed to communicate with search and rescue using text messages. A search and rescue operation was launched, and numerous attempts were made to reach the pair by foot and air, in extreme conditions. The first rescue attempt was made by two members of the NZAC group, who left Tahurangi Lodge at 11 p.m, but the terrible weather forced them to return after an hour of ascending.

Finally, a rescue team reached the two climbers at approximately 7.30 a.m. on Monday, roughly 34 hours after the alarm was first raised. When the SAR team reached them, the man had died of hypothermia. SAR took steps to stabilise the woman but she died of hypothermia about an hour later. The bodies could not be recovered until the next day because of the extreme weather conditions.

Cause of deaths: Hypothermia

Comments:

Mt Taranaki has been the scene of numerous accidents and fatalities. This is multi-factorial: the mountain has easy road access, an inviting summit, and a classical andesitic volcanic shape that starts out as gentle slopes but almost imperceptibly steepens towards the summit. While not high compared to the Southern Alps, Mt Taranaki (2518 metres) juts out into the Tasman Sea where prevailing moisture-laden westerlies batter the mountain, often resulting in extremely hard sheet ice.

Conditions The climbers faced very hard ice conditions on the Saturday. As Mt Taranaki is well known for producing this type of ice, it is not unreasonable for the climbers to have expected such conditions.

Weather forecasts All trip participants were aware of the weather forecast, which had been emailed to them and was discussed on the Friday night. They knew that the weather would deteriorate by mid-afternoon, and their original turnaround time was in part based on this forecast. The forecast proved accurate with an obvious deterioration of conditions, including increasing wind and cloud from the west.

Experience Some members of the East Ridge group were not experienced enough to attempt the grade 2+ climb, as their only experience prior to this trip was a snowcraft course. The lack of experience would have slowed their rate of climb and contributed to them not taking enough technical equipment. It is important for inexperienced climbers to practice their general mountaineering skills on easier climbing routes before attempting more technical routes. Equally it is important for more experienced climbers to mentor inexperienced climbers.

Equipment The East Ridge group had a severe shortage of technical equipment. They did not have enough ropes, and the ones they did have were too short. This, along with sharing the inadequate number of ice axes, dramatically slowed the group down and increased the risk. Overall, the majority of the climbers were adequately equipped for a day trip only. For any outdoors trip, the equipment taken must be carefully considered by individuals, and groups as a whole. Necessary equipment needs to be carried to suit conditions that can be reasonably anticipated, including survival and emergency equipment appropriate to the trip.

Fatigue Some of the climbers had as little as three hours sleep because of the long drive from Auckland, followed by the two-hour walk to Tahurangi Lodge on Friday night, and the early start on Saturday morning. Fatigue impairs cognitive ability, which affects decision making and judgement, as well as reducing physical resilience.

Monitoring time and progress Leaders should monitor time and progress, ensuring they leave a sufficient window to safely descend when bad weather or darkness approaches. The lure of a summit often entices climbers to exceed or ignore their turnaround time. In this case, a turnaround time of 12 noon was discussed several times among the trip organisers, based on the consistently accurate weather reports. Subsequently, however, the turnaround time was not monitored. The second team did eventually turn back at about 4.30 p.m. However, the third group pushed on to the summit, anticipating that this would provide an easier descent route than down-climbing the East Ridge. Unfortunately, the climbers were slowed by a technical descent into the crater, exposing them to the terrible weather for even longer.

Leadership This large group of 16 people loosely evolved into two groups, with the East Ridge group of 10 further dividing into three teams. While the group contained experienced people, there were no formal group leaders, no well communicated climbing plan, and inadequate monitoring of time and progress. This led to ad- hoc group make-up, equipment shortfalls, failure to monitor time and incorrect assumptions about people’s abilities. Consequently, two teams found themselves out of their depth on the icy, steep East Ridge in seriously deteriorating weather.

Strong leadership from the outset of the trip would have identified many of these shortfalls. In isolation, many of these factors would probably not have affected the outcome of the trip. The tragedy resulted from the cumulative effects of the difficult climbing conditions, horrific (but by no means exceptional) weather conditions, fatigue, lack of experience and equipment, and a failure to monitor progress and time. The Coroner noted that a decision to have a formal trained leader of each team may have resulted in a different outcome: the East Ridge team may have turned back at their agreed turn-around time. A review of the New Zealand Alpine Club, commissioned by the club after this tragedy, recommended that trips should have appropriately trained section leaders.

Key recommendations made by reviewers of the NZAC post-accident

  • The club should establish safety goals for all its programmes including section trips
  • Leadership on section trips is vital
  • The club should promote strong governance
  • Hazard analysis and management must become part of planning processes for section trips
  • The club should develop a training programme for section trip leaders
  • A standard pre-trip gear checklist should be used
  • Section trips should have a ‘pause point’ when they involve tight time frames
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