By Heather Rhodes & Simon Bell, with afterword by Joni & Colin Bell
This is just one of the stories in Simon’s Trips, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.
After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in January 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.
Simon’s Trips was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual’) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.
We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.
The Jagged-Upham couloir attempt took place in November 2013.
First is an extract from Heather’s account in Women’s Day magazine (July 2014), followed by Simon’s report which formed part of Paul Maxim’s article on personal locator beacons (PLBs) published in The Tararua Annual (2013-14). Simon’s parents, Joni and Colin Bell, add their reflections and an update on Heather’s recovery.
For three years, Heather, 36, worked training soldiers for the army. Before her fall last November, however, she left her job and took some time out to explore the mountains of the South Island while contemplating a career change. Through a mutual friend, she met mountaineers Vaughan Snowdon, of Christchurch, and Simon Bell, from Wellington, and joined them on a climbing trip. “I met them in Christchurch the night before the trip, but I knew straightaway we were going to get on,” recalls Heather.
On the first day, the trio hiked into the Arrowsmith Range for about eight hours.
Vaughan and Heather on the tramp up the Cameron River
They camped on the Cameron Glacier that night, intending to climb the treacherous passage between Mt Jagged and Mt Upham the next day.
Vaughan and Heather at the campsite on the Cameron Glacier, directly in front of the Jagged – Upham couloir.
But after setting out the following morning, they found they were met with falling rock and ice as they climbed. “We decided we should turn around, but we had to wait because there was too much stuff coming down,” says Heather. “We found a relatively sheltered place and hung around, all of us tied to an anchor for eight hours.”
Anchored to the mountain, Vaughan, Heather and Simon wait for conditions to improve.
At about 6.30pm, the temperature had plummeted and because less rock was falling, they decided it was safe to descend the mountain. Heather tells, “I banged in the anchor, and Vaughan and Simon abseiled first. I came to abseil to meet them, but either the ice broke or my anchor pulled out and I flew past them.”
Despite the damage, Heather is happy it was she who’d last touched the anchor before she fell. She explains, “We don’t know if I made a mistake or whether the anchor failed, but I’m glad it’s not someone else who banged it in and is feeling guilty about it, given that I got so broken. Because the two guys had abseiled with the anchor just fine, we suspect something unusual may have happened. Maybe all the ice ripped out from under it, but we’ll never know.”
On 3 November 2013, our party of three was descending the Jagged-Upham Couloir in the Arrowsmith Range after an aborted summit attempt. While Heather Rhodes was abseiling, her anchor failed and she fell 300 metres down a steep ice slope. The ropes went with her. We initially assumed she had died in the fall. We were able to reach her after 1 hour of challenging downclimbing. We immediately set off my PLB (she was wearing my pack at the time of the fall).
Vaughan tends Heather after the accident. Taken from campsite as Simon retrieves tent.
Her injuries were severe. Both legs were badly broken (one had an open fracture). She had lost her helmet in the fall and she was unconscious when we found her (she remained in a coma for the following week). Heather’s immediate risk was hypothermia. We were able to erect a tent beside her and move her in. We then used body heat and hot water bottles to keep her warm.
The Westpac helicopter arrived about 11.30pm, 3 hours after we set off the beacon. We were fortunate that the helicopter was equipped with a spotlight and able to fly at night. The helicopter could not land beside us, so we had to put Heather on a stretcher and drag her 600m across snow. The paramedics told us her injuries were extensive and they were not sure if she would survive. If we had not brought a PLB, her chances of survival would have been very low. It could have taken eight hours for one person to walk out to raise the alarm. The walk-out involved crossing glaciated terrain, which would be risky for one person to do without a rope, particularly at night.
Rescue helicopter on the Cameron Glacier
Six months later Heather is recovering but it is a slow process. Her speech and memory were affected, but mostly right now I believe. Six months after the accident she was still having ankle surgery and skin grafts. She is now swimming, but walking is challenging without a crutch. In one year this may be OK – we will have to wait and see.
REFLECTIONS BY JONI AND COLIN BELL
After walking up the Cameron River, the party set up camp on the Cameron Glacier. Next morning they crossed the glacier and started climbing. After encountering falling debris in the couloir, they abandoned the climb, sheltering for eight hours under a ledge until the ice and rockfall reduced with cooler evening temperatures.
Heather crosses the schrund below the couloir
When they judged it safe, they commenced their descent anchoring the first abseil pitch with a snow bollard. For the second pitch, a snow stake was needed. After they had agreed on the technicalities, Heather drove in the stake at the correct angle with about 20 strong blows. They all agreed it provided a safe anchor. Vaughan abseiled the pitch, followed by Simon. Heather followed last. They didn’t see what happened next except to see Heather flash past them down the slope.
Although Simon was very shaken by the accident, he had promised Lorraine months ago that he would accompany her up Mt Cook about ten days later and she had been eagerly preparing. At first they considered calling the trip off. But after much thought and soul searching, Simon concluded the accident was not a result of poor safety decisions. He could see no obvious technical reason for the failure of the anchor and said that the true cause would never be known. He and Lorraine decided to continue with their planned trip (described in Chapter 20).
Heather has continued to make an impressive recovery. At Simon’s memorial gathering in February 2015, she told us she had recently climbed to Mueller Hut – on crutches! It was somewhat odd she said to be at a memorial service for someone who (together with Vaughan) had saved her life.