Area: Mt Whitcombe, central Southern Alps
Activity: Trans-alpine mountaineering
Survivors: Four experienced New Zealanders
Date of Incident: February 2002
A fit, experienced, well-equipped party of four began a trans-alpine trip of the Lord Range commencing with a summit climb of Mt Whitcombe from the Evans Valley.
They followed an intricate rock and glacial route to a high alpine camp on Mt Whitcombe’s northwestern slopes, in preparation for a summit attempt. However, over the next four days a weather bomb hit. Extreme conditions dumped over one metre of snow and caused significant, near irretrievable damage to the alpine tents. At sea level on the West Coast, the same conditions also caused significant havoc including reports of a dog that was picked up by a twister in Hokitika and deposited several hundred metres away.
On day four, with no let-up in the conditions, the party retreated in white out conditions back down their ascent route to the Evans Valley.
Alpine retreat in extreme and un-seasonal conditions.
Weather The mountains of New Zealand are subject to weather extremes which are not always accurately predicted. Significant amounts of precipitation can fall in short periods causing
snow at any time of year, rapidly rising rivers, avalanches and accelerated snow melt. Near winter conditions can prevail in any season as a result.
Heuristic Traps (FMC Bulletin 172) can contribute to experienced parties pushing the limits more than they would normally do as individuals:
- The parties perceive their experience is greater than the sum of each of the individuals.
- Experienced groups can be more lackadaisical in the trip planning, resulting in gear being left behind or duplication of equipment.
- Consensual leadership can result in casual decisions with no single person taking ultimate responsibility.
- These factors have no bearing whatsoever on the objective danger a party faces.
Alpine Camps should be set up with due care, taking into consideration objective dangers such as exposure to rock or ice fall, flood routes, lightning strikes and escape routes. Tents need to be secured for the worst conditions even if pitched during calm weather. This includes building rock walls (take these down when you depart to leave no trace). Securing a camp in calm conditions is much easier than doing so in a storm and a poorly secured tent faces greater risk of damage. Always consider a back-up shelter, whether this is a nearby rock biv or schrund. Have a snow cave started and shovels at the ready in preparation for the worst.
Storms can destroy tents so be prepared for escape. All in this party were fully clothed and packed, ready for imminent evacuation.
Escape Routes need to form part of your trip planning, enabling at least one option in the event of an incident. In this case, because of the intricate route, the party escaped by retracing their steps. Strong navigation skills and use of the ‘track-back’ function of a GPS unit facilitated their retreat.
Teamwork is vital in extreme conditions where delay results in increased risk of hypothermia. Each party member worked to their strength in the different areas such as navigation and rigging ropes. Teamwork resulted in minimal delays.
Escape from Mt Whitcombe
Jonathan Kennett recalls his narrow getaway off Mt Whitcombe with Johnny Mulheron, Geoff Spearpoint and Eric Duggan.
“Are we ready?” Geoff shouted. “Yes.” “Right. Let’s go!” And in unison the four of us sprang into the worst storm of my life.
It was either: jump into the bergschrund next to our precarious campsite ledge, and freeze; or escape to more sheltered ground, lower down. The second option involved retracing our steps through shitty rock bluffs and around deep crevasses – difficult enough in fine weather. I’d spent hours lying in the pit anxiously tossing the two options back and forth, trying to ascertain which gave the better chance of survival. The team consensus was for escape. Definitely escape.
Packing the tents took about one minute. Thick rods of ice coated the guy ropes. We snapped the ropes, hastily pushed out the poles and stuffed the tents into our packs. Leaving the guy ropes sticking out of the ground our campsite looked like the scene of an alien abduction.
At the edge of the ledge, we furiously dug through fresh snow to find good abseil anchors. “Just like old times,” yelled Johnny. And I smiled, because it reminded me, just when I needed reminding, that we knew the drill, and that gave me enough confidence to relax and enjoy the buzz of climbing – despite the awesome maelstrom around us.
Geoff went first: to go down and set up a fixed rope around a narrow ledge. Beyond that we negotiated a crevasse maze, in whiteout. Bowed heads and swirling snow. That’s when the GPS helped, but only once we set the right function! Then came the bluffs, where my main worry was laid to rest – the sequence of northerly rain closely followed by a southerly blast had frozen all the loose rocks solidly together. Solid rock in the Southern Alps – what a rare treat.
The final abseil was huge. We tied two ropes together, tossed them down into the mist, and wondered if they would reach the bottom. At the top, the main anchor was hardly bomb-proof. I tried to guess who was the heaviest – the ‘load tester’ in the group. Hard to say: could be Eric; could be Johnny. Then down we went, one carefully after the other. And it held.
The joy and relief upon regrouping at the bottom was like a drug. We’d dropped into a sheltered valley that afforded safe(ish) travel all the way down to Smyth Hut four or five hours away. Later that afternoon, as we passed one of our earlier campsites, I wondered what would have happened had we taken a mountain radio, rather than just an EPIRB to save weight. Perhaps, with daily weather forecasts we would not have climbed up into that storm on the third day of our eight-day trip. Travelling light poses a risk. The longer the trip, the bigger the risk. Sure, it was a buzz, but I hope to never push it that far again.
This article was re-published from the November 2010 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/