Survivor Story

Area: Thompson Pass, Nelson Lakes

Activity: Tramping

Survivor: Mr A, 60+ year old male

Date of Incident: 3 February 2011

Survived: Bad fall down alpine scree and rock slope resulting in limb injuries and potential spinal damage.


On day four of an eight-day Lewis Pass to Nelson Lakes tramp, an experienced, well-prepared party of four was traversing steep scree and rock at the 1,700 metre contour on Thompson Pass. Mr A lost his balance and tumbled for 25 metres.

The group assessed, treated and stabilised him and activated their PLB. A rescue helicopter and intensive care paramedic arrived 95 minutes after PLB activation, just as the weather and light deteriorated. The patient was treated and winched out to Ella Hut in the D’Urville Valley for further treatment and stabilisation. After the rest of the party were flown to the hut, the patient and one other party member were evacuated to Nelson Hospital.

Survivor Reflection

Weather became the biggest issue on this trip. We allowed insufficient time for rest days or flexibility in the route choice to accommodate bad weather. Had the accident not happened, we would have made the pass before the low cloud and rain arrived.

After the accident, the party member closest to Mr A told him to lie still and then quickly assessed him. Moderate injuries necessitated an urgent rescue. The party worked as a group and found extra clothes for the patient while the PLB was activated. The steep nature of the slope required great care, and it took 70–80 minutes before we considered Mr A was comfortable.

Assisting Mr A

We spread out a red fly-sheet to ensure visibility from the air. The cloud slowly dropped, rain began about 4.15pm and the temperature fell. With daylight elapsing, we began to re-assess what action was needed for the night. Fortunately the ‘chop, chop, chop’ sound of the helicopter ended that discussion!

The Summit Rescue helicopter circled several times in and out of cloud and a few minutes later we saw the paramedic walking towards us on the scree. The sense of relief was huge. His words ‘fairly dire without the beacon’ perfectly summed up the situation.

Injured patient – note protection from ground

What We Learnt

Keep your first aid certificate up to date; one person in our party had a current first aid certificate. Experienced trampers should have outdoor first aid knowledge.

Every party doing a back-country trip should carry a PLB. We had a second one in case our party divided, and have since bought a third one.

Keep the beacon (and first aid kit) accessible, especially if you are tramping solo or in marginal or risky conditions. Ours were in the bottom of the pack, and the steep slope made it awkward to access them. Fortunately we retrieved them before the rain began, but later while sitting in steady rain I realised how hard it would be to keep gear dry if you have to empty your whole pack. Wet equates to cold.

Understand the PLB instructions and mentally dry-run through an emergency release. Despite carefully reading the instructions before the trip, I was apprehensive about damaging the PLB – it took quite a force to pull the red tag back to activate it. Under the stress and urgency of an accident, it would be easy to misread the instructions or activate the PLB incorrectly. Keep the lid – it’s needed to turn the device off. I threw ours away. Check battery power on the beacon before every big trip.

Trust one beacon. One member of the party looked after the beacon and checked its flashing lights. We had much discussion about releasing our second beacon, to doubly ensure rescue, but we agreed to wait for 90 minutes before releasing it. Help came first. The Rescue Co-ordination Centre has since told me to wait 24 hours before letting a second PLB off. If you move location, keep the beacon turned on – never turn it off.

Understand PLB protocol. Prior to the trip we believed that beacons were exclusively for life threatening situations. On another trip, two of us ran out from Cannibal Gorge Hut to Lewis Pass to ring 111 after we discovered a solo tramper with an ankle injury. Later we were told we should have used the beacon. The rule of thumb is to activate the beacon in ‘situations which render an individual immobile and unable to get themselves out’.

Your beacon contact person must understand the nature of your activity, the name of the person who has the trip details (if it is not them), and that you may use the beacon for another person not in your party. Rescue can occur at night, in the right conditions. I had believed that light was needed. The beacon needs to pick up satellites. If you are in bush, you need to think about where you will release the signal. In the heat of the moment you want to activate it immediately, but this may not be the best place.

Write notes very clearly. Once we found a bag with an ambiguous note and came up with four different interpretations. Emergencies must be clearly spelled out. Don’t underestimate your injury, especially if tramping solo (a hard call sometimes). Everyone should carry a card with all their contact details and any medication they use, which can be passed on to the rescue team in the event of unconsciousness. Carry a credit card or money in your pack. Two of us required clean clothes in Nelson after being flown out, and the remaining two had an unplanned boat trip across Lake Rotoroa.

A high percentage of trampers are baby boomers (older trampers), meaning the consequence of injury or wrong decisions can be more serious. All the more reason to ensure everyone is fit enough and loads aren’t too heavy, without compromising safety. I believe that the use of PLBs will increase, both by New Zealand trampers and overseas tourists. If we had had some insurance I think we would have felt more comfortable regarding the potential cost of the rescue.

Lastly we can’t thank Johnny Mulheron, Hamish Pirie and Jarrod Colbourne enough for the rescue. Conditions weren’t that great and they were an impressive team. The outcome was positive and our patient is on the road to a full recovery.

About to start winching; Photos: Back-country Accidents

BCA Comments

Safety first – no more accidents The party successfully found, treated and stabilised Mr A, and raised help despite difficult terrain, without any more accidents. The rest of the party were also looked after physically and emotionally.

Scree often provides routes through difficult terrain, but poses hazards. While moving across the scree, it may be impossible to avoid underlying bluffs if you get caught in the moving river of stones. Hard and frozen scree adds difficulty. Large, sharp boulders among scree (as in this case) create more instability and risk from rock fall. Lessen the risk of rock fall by keeping together or choosing different descent paths.

Screeing, an exhilarating bounding run – similar to steep zigzag ski descents – is often the safest way down scree, but a tumble risks injury or can badly wear clothing and boots. Use the same self-arresting technique as for snow. Avoid screeing on regenerating slopes as you will destroy the fragile scree vegetation. Skilful screeing, like skiing, requires experience and practice.

Helmets protect climbers and trans-alpine trampers from falling rocks and ice, and also provide protection in case of a fall.

Alerting SAR (in Preference Order)

1. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) should be used in situations of ‘grave and imminent danger’ or ‘threats to life and limb’ – any situation where you cannot safely self- rescue. Rescue can occur within hours, weather permitting, even in very remote mountains. In this accident, only 95 minutes elapsed between PLB activation and rescue. Modern PLBs transmit data such as GPS location.

2. Satellite phones may allow you to contact rescuers directly, depending on coverage. Superior to cell phones but expensive.

3. Mountain radios give fairly good coverage and are monitored by radio hams, but require an aerial.

4. Cell phones can be useful, but work in only 10% of the back-country.

5. Send for help leaving a person with the patient, while two people go for help with a written description of the incident. This takes the longest time and can add risk. If you contact a helicopter company directly, they may not send the appropriate personnel and you may be billed for the cost.

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust operates the Summit Rescue Helicopter service across the Nelson, Tasman, Marlborough and Buller region.

This article was re-published from the June 2011 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit

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. To submit a story, please contact