Area: Mt Hopeless, Nelson Lakes National Park
Survivors: Male (NZ) and female resident (USA), late 20s, experienced
Date of Incident: 4 August 2011
In stable weather, an experienced couple set off from Hopeless Hut to climb Mt Hopeless and continue along the ridge crest to Lake Angelus.
Although well equipped, they decided not to take a rope to reduce weight. Soft snow pack slowed their progress and they did not reach the summit until mid-afternoon. Consequently they changed their plans and decided to descend the western side of Mt Hopeless towards Cupola Hut.
Unable to see an obvious route down to Cupola Hut, they ventured on to the west face seeking a route to the Sabine valley. The terrain became steep and exposed with loose snow and constant rock and ice falls, resulting from afternoon warming. With approaching darkness they bivouacked on a small, precarious ledge, which offered some protection from objective danger. Being above 2,000 metres they had cell phone coverage and contacted police SAR. Within two hours the Nelson Summit rescue helicopter successfully winched the pair to safety under night vision.
Forced bivouac on Mt Hopeless face and mild hypothermia.
Safety first, no accidents Once the pair had attempted self-rescue they elected to secure themselves safely, rather than risk an accident through becoming more fatigued while pushing on through steep technical terrain in approaching darkness.
Being caught out is always on the cards in the New Zealand Alps The Southern Alps offer challenging mountaineering, where the access to the climbs is often more difficult than the climbs themselves. Difficult terrain and conditions can lengthen approach time. All mountaineers should carry enough gear for an unexpected bivouac.
Alpine bivouacs are exposed to objective dangers such as rock and ice fall, weather and lightning strikes. Parties should always be aware of potential emergency bivouac sites before they need them. In this case the pair had spotted the ledge and returned to it, improving it by digging more space and securing their gear as best they could. The overhanging rock provided some protection but dripping water created wet conditions. In an exposed bivouac, parties need to be prepared for evacuation by being fully clothed and packed ready for imminent escape.
Guidebooks have Limitations Most guidebooks don’t offer blow-by-blow accounts of a climb but usually indicate where the route is, the usual descent route and the difficulty grade (based on the best possible conditions). However, descriptions can be difficult to interpret, things change, and the current conditions (especially winter ice) can affect climbs dramatically. The only grade that counts is your party’s ability to deal with the current terrain and conditions, regardless of the climb’s guidebook grade.
Escape routes need to part of the trip planning process to give options in the event of an incident. In this case, because the party changed route they
were not so familiar with their escape options.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops. This causes symptoms such as apathy, reduced co-ordination mimicking intoxication, and irrational decisions. It is exacerbated by altitude, fatigue and reduced food or fluid intake. Treatment includes protection from the elements – particularly wind chill – dry clothes (replace wet ones), rest and warmth through atmosphere, and fluids (not alcohol). Once hypothermic, it can be an uphill battle to stabilise a person in an extreme environment. Don’t push on!
Descending a mountain is often more dangerous than the ascent On the descent, climbers are mentally and physically tired; the snow or ice has been exposed to the sun throughout the day, increasing avalanche risk and difficult conditions, and climbing down steep terrain is generally more awkward than going up.
A rope would have allowed the pair more options and would have enabled self-rescue. Many parties save weight, particularly for alpine tramping, by carrying a half rope or glacier rope. Mt Hopeless has seven recognised routes and numerous variations, all of which are relatively committing. The mountains of Nelson Lakes are often treated as training climbs because they are significantly lower than the bigger peaks to the south. However, they offer similar challenges: difficult remote access, avalanches, steep sustained mixed terrain and extreme winter conditions. A regular avalanche forecast for Nelson Lakes is now available on www. avalanche.net.nz.
Helicopter night winching Most dedicated rescue helicopters have very sensitive night vision capabilities, so keep your lights shining downwards when a helicopter approaches at night. Rotor downwash is very powerful. Secure loose articles of clothing or equipment before approaching the helicopter. If an item blows away, don’t chase it. If rotor wash or dust impairs your vision, crouch down until you can see again. Take your time. The noise, wind and stress of the incident create a sense of urgency that can cause undue haste. Think first, then act. Don’t be surprised if the helicopter does not elect to use your well prepared landing site. The pilot may have seen something better.
My partner and I left from the Mt Robert carpark and hiked to Hopeless Hut on the first day, with a sunny forecast, and very little avalanche danger. The plan was to climb Mt Hopeless the next day, then walk the ridgeline through Sunset Saddle and drop in to the Angelus Hut. Long days are pretty normal for both of us, but given the gear and food we were carrying, and the projected conditions, we decided to leave behind our rope and harnesses. We did carry emergency bivvies, ice axes, crampons, tents, and plenty of food, water and warm clothing.
However, after leaving Hopeless Hut, we found much softer snow than we expected. We sank in above our gaiters and our pace slowed. Our route took many hours longer than we anticipated, and it was already mid-afternoon by the time we reached the summit of Hopeless. We decided to drop in to the other side of Hopeless and head to Cupola Hut instead.
Since we hadn’t planned that route, however, we hadn’t read up on the descent routes on that aspect of Mt Hopeless. From the top, my partner saw the typical route, but it appeared from the top to bluff out without a safe exit, so he decided instead to explore the west face, which seemed like it dropped to a lower ridgeline that we would be able to descend.
However, the terrain became difficult almost immediately. The snow remained very soft, and I started to feel cold and wet. But with darkness approaching, we decided to keep moving rather than change clothes.
Small avalanches of wet snow constantly poured down around us. I started to feel nervous and uncomfortable. The wet rock, poor ice axe placements and steep pitches further slowed us, and route finding proved difficult. At about 5 p.m., I considered more travel was too difficult to risk without a rope. Although technically within my abilities, the poor conditions and fall-out meant unacceptable risk.
My partner wanted to reach the lower ridgeline and build a snow cave, but I wanted to consider other options. With a rope, we could have abseilled down several pitches and got off the mountain quickly. But without one, risks were much higher. We had full cell phone reception, and with light fading we opted to
call for rescue. After back-tracking about ten metres, we reached a small snow ledge. In the remaining light we organised ourselves to wait for the rescue. My partner used our shovels to flatten the ledge enough for sitting underneath an ice overhang that protected us from the falling snow. We pulled out one sleeping bag and some of our warm clothing. We kept the other sleeping bag dry in case the rescue didn’t eventuate. We drank hot liquid and ate some food.
The ledge was precarious and without a rope or harnesses we could not anchor ourselves in any way. My legs and feet started to get colder, but I had enough warm layers on my core until rescue. The rescuers came quickly, in less than two hours, circled around while assessing the situation, and dropped in to winch us out one at a time. They did an excellent job, and soon we were safely flying back to the carpark. My body temperature was lower than I thought though, so I was taken all the way back to Nelson. With a warm shower, hot Milo and dry clothes, I soon warmed up.
Many thanks to the crew of Summit Rescue, pilot Tim Douglas-Clifford, winch operator Hamish Pirie, intensive care paramedic Johnny Mulheron and the police for organizing a quick and efficient rescue.
In retrospect, some route checking beforehand of all the areas we were planning on being in would have left us with safer options and more knowledge. Carrying a lighter, thinner rope would have quickly helped us bail out of the situation. In future I would also keep my dry shell pants on to avoid getting wet in soft, deep snow.
The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust operates the Summit Rescue Helicopter service across the Nelson, Tasman, Marlborough and Buller region and is on track to complete approximately 400 missions in 2011.
This article was re-published from the November 2011 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry. The Backcountry Accidents Column, in one form or another, has been a feature of FMC publications since 1938. Read Shaun Barnett’s article on the history of the column to understand the thinking behind this highly regarded series of articles.