Tragedy  Stay aware – A tragedy near Liverpool Biv

A 2008 tramping fatality near Liverpool Biv was a tragic reminder of some important lessons for backcountry travel.

Area: Liverpool Hut track, Mt Aspiring NP
Activity: Mountaineering approach
Deceased: NZ male university student
Date of Death: 26 July 2008

Summary

The deceased was in a party of four attempting an ascent of Mt Barff. They were considered to have sufficient ability, experience and fitness to complete the climb safely. On the approach from the Matukituki Valley to Liverpool Hut, the deceased and one other made the decision to ascend in running shoes rather than their climbing boots.

At the bushline, within sight of the hut, they encountered patches of hard snow in amongst the alpine scrub. Ice-axes were used and consideration was given to changing into boots, but this was not done.

The deceased continued to traverse steep, slippery terrain, consisting of snow-covered schist made harder by recent avalanche action sweeping the slopes. A belay was offered from above but the deceased did not attach to it and continued to traverse the slope using his ice axe, kicking occasional steps whilst holding onto alpine scrub. He slipped and fell while unsuccessfully attempting to self-arrest. A personal locator beacon (PLB) was deployed while one of the party returned to the road end to raise the alarm. Resuscitation proved unsuccessful.

Cause of Death

Severe traumatic head injuries and brain contusions due to severe impacts as the result of a significant fall (80–100 metres).

Comments

Safety First – no more accidents: Once the accident occurred the others searched and raised help in difficult terrain without any more accidents.

Underestimating Terrain: Southern Alps approaches are often as challenging as the climbs themselves; involving river crossings, bush bashing and negotiating steep terrain while
carrying heavy packs. Snow cover and wetness can make things even more difficult and often climbers are less vigilant because ‘it’s just the approach’.

Alpine Vegetation: There have been numerous fatalities from slips and falls on slippery alpine tussock or carpet-grass, especially when these are wet or snow-covered. Appropriate, correctly fitted boots with some rigidity are essential to enable edging into slopes. If possible, kick your foot into the uphill side of the tussock clumps. Ice-axe and crampons are often necessary too.

Running Shoes: The deceased was wearing running shoes, which were a significant contributing factor to the accident. Even though running shoes, rubber gummies and the like are lighter and more comfortable to wear, they offer less support or stability and little ability to edge in difficult conditions.

Heuristic Traps: These occur when we are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. Being aware of these traps may help avoid this. In this case the sight of Liverpool Hut may have influenced the deceased’s reasoning, even though the visibility of the hut had no bearing whatsoever on the objective danger.

PLBs: There were some concerns raised about the efficacy of the PLB as the beacon signal was only obtained at the same time as the phone message from the party member who had tramped out to the nearest farmhouse. PLBs rely on stationary or circulating satellites. When in steep terrain in remote locations the direct signal relies on a passing satellite. Depending at which stage of the orbit it is, this can sometimes take several hours, as it did in this case. However, a quicker emergency response would not have changed the outcome.

Belaying: Roping-up while in a precarious position is potentially more hazardous than not roping up at all. If you intend to belay, make the decision early and set up in a position of relative safety.

Wilderlife