BY MATTEO SCOZ
Area: Aoraki/Mt Cook, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
Activity: Ski mountaineering
Deceased: 32-year-old male tourist, experienced ski mountaineer
Date: November 2013
The male ski mountaineer and his climbing partner, both accomplished skiers from Europe, had spent several weeks in New Zealand achieving a range of steep ski descents, including several first descents. In the week preceding the fatal incident, the pair had successfully skied the entire east face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. This notable first descent, considered a ski mountaineering classic, is extreme with an average gradient between 40 and 45 degrees, over 1,500 vertical metres.
On the day of the accident the pair climbed the difficult East Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook with the ambitious goal of skiing the Caroline Face – a feat that, at the time, had not yet been accomplished.
The ascent was uneventful, with the deceased and his climbing partner finding the summit ridge very flat and easy to ski. Conditions at the time were described as uneven and ‘rimy’ hard snow, but still within the limits of the pair’s experience. The weather was calm and settled.
The pair began their descent down the summit ridge to the start of the Caroline Face, with the deceased’s climbing partner going first. His blog describes what happened next:
“[The deceased] slowly skied back down to the southeast face. When I arrived at our pre-made platform I looked back and saw him coming, slowly and easily on the ridge, side slipping about 40 metres behind me. I looked away again and instantly heard a noise and I could not make out what it was.
I turned around as to see what he was up to. I was expecting him [to be] looking at the view; or sorting out something in his backpack, but I couldn’t see him. There was a small notch above me and I expected him to be on the other side. [The deceased] didn’t come, and I quickly changed back to crampons and started walking up the ridge.
Then I saw it. His ice axe sat deep in to the snow, just a metre or two below where I had seen him last. His axe seemed to have been [swung] in to the snow, but he must have lost his grip around it.”
The deceased’s climbing partner then saw the deceased’s ski pole further down, towards the Hooker Glacier. Shortly afterwards he spotted the deceased’s body, approximately 600 metres below the summit ridge on the north-western aspect of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Cause of Death
High energy impact injuries, as the result of a long fall on steep terrain.
The coronial inquiry considered that one of two scenarios had occurred: either an error of judgement causing the deceased to lose control, or an equipment failure. The exact cause of the fall could not be determined from the available evidence, however given the experience of the deceased and the relatively benign terrain on the summit ridge, equipment failure was deemed the more likely of the two.
The deceased’s skis were never recovered; however his ski boots were found to be in ‘walk’ mode (rather than ‘ski’ mode, as expected) which may have contributed to his fall. The position of his ice axe when found was consistent with an attempt at self-arrest. It was noted during the coronial inquiry that a self arrest is extremely hard to perform on hard ice, and even harder still with the forward momentum associated with skiing.
Key learning points
Reliability of equipment is paramount in activities where a simple lack of adjustment or failure can have disastrous consequences. This is not just limited to ski mountaineering, but applies to all outdoor pursuits.
Gear should be checked regularly for ‘wear and tear’ in between trips, ideally as part of the cleaning and drying process. This is especially critical for ski bindings which have a tolerance of only a few millimetres.
Gear should also be checked for integrity issues. For climbers, this can be brushing away dust from climbing ropes that could lead to grit making its way inside the core. For trampers, this includes checking the condition of pack straps and webbing.
While on a trip, gear checks should be undertaken at regular intervals, especially at critical junctions such as the beginning of a steep descent, or a transition into a different mode of travel (e.g. from mountaineering to skiing). These should be the shared responsibility of the group including a ‘buddy check’.
If transitioning from one mode of travel to another, consider the following:
- Choose transition spots carefully – ideally on an even and flat surface, or by digging out an appropriate platform.
- Check that boots or shoes are locked or laced appropriately.
- Watch for snow/ice build-up between boots and bindings or boots and crampons, as this can affect the integrity of the system. In the case of tramping boots or trail running shoes, clear mud and rocks out from between the lugs.
- Ensure ski poles, ice axes or hiking poles are attached to the wearer by a leash system.
- Repack or rebalance packs appropriately.
This article was re-published from the June 2019 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.