Area: Homer Saddle, Fiordland National Park
Activity: Alpine rock climbing, descending non-technical ridge
Deceased: 50-year-old male New Zealand mountaineer
Date of Accident: 23 February 2012
The deceased, widely considered New Zealand’s finest mountaineer of the modern era, was in a party of three experienced climbers who had successfully ascended the alpine rock route on the north face of Mt Moir. After the climb, they made camp on the ridge leading down to Homer Saddle. During the night, it rained heavily. The next morning, in extremely wet conditions with the slab rock running with water, they descended towards Homer Saddle. The steep and exposed terrain consists of rock, gravel, snowgrass and dirt or mud, but was well within the capability of the party’s abilities to descend unroped. The deceased stepped onto the mud, fell back onto his pack and to the left, and his left foot slipped out from under him. He appeared immediately unconscious, making no sounds or movement to recover the fall, and fell a considerable distance.
Cause of Death
Multiple traumatic injuries as a result of a fall of several hundred metres.
Safety first: no more accidents In extremely difficult circumstances the other two party members alerted rescue services, then attempted to use a rope to get down to the body. After safely making their way to Milford Sound, they returned with the rescue crew in the helicopter to locate the deceased.
The terrain from Mt Moir to Homer Saddle has variously been described as ‘non-technical, straight-forward’, ‘very exposed and difficult’, ‘inappropriate for inexperienced climbers’, ‘been pitched by other groups’, ‘moderately difficult scrambling … known to reduce climbers to crawling on all fours in places’. The ridge was considered well within the group’s ability to move through unroped and ‘no problem except that it was exposed’.
Wet conditions contribute considerable difficulty to routes. Many steep sub-alpine routes such as Rabbit Pass become practically impassable in wet conditions. Descent routes that are relatively quick and straightforward in dry conditions often become treacherous and time-consuming when wet or snow covered. For this reason, alpine rock climbers often only set out in fine conditions, particularly in Fiordland.
Descents are generally more dangerous than ascents, due to: the physical awkwardness of down climbing; the visible exposure while down climbing; fatigue can be a factor after a climber has expended significant physical and mental energy on the ascent or camped in adverse conditions; climbers may not be as vigilant or focussed due to familiarity, easier terrain and thoughts of returning to the hut, camp, road-end or home.
Rock, snowgrass, dirt and mud transition zones can be extremely awkward and have been a factor in many fall fatalities, especially when snow or wet conditions are present. Various ways to reduce risk in transition zones include:
- Wearing firm footwear with a rigid sole providing edging capability in dirt, and mud or alpine vegetation such as snowgrass and carpet grass. The deceased
was wearing suitable boots.
- If stepping onto snowgrass, edge into the foot of the clump nearest the ground on the uphill side; standing on snowgrass fronds near their middle or ends increases the chance of your foot slipping off. Some people have worn crampons in the transition zone but this can cause other issues such as balling- up with mud or dirt.
- Consider the use of walking poles for stability and traction, or an ice axe to maintain three-point contact.
- Fixed belaying or pitching may be required, but this is trade-off against the extra time it takes. The less time you are exposed to objective dangers such as rock or ice fall and extreme weather conditions, the safer you are. Belaying also introduces more complexity and the possibility of anchor failure. Judgement is required to balance the safety that belaying provides, versus the increased risks and time taken.
The deceased was not wearing a helmet and the coroner speculated that the result might have been different if he had worn one. A helmet would not have prevented the fall, but may have protected him from post-impact unconsciousness, such that he could have recovered himself and prevented the final, fatal fall.
First Time in an Area
It was the deceased’s first visit to Fiordland National Park, and the particular Darran Mountains conditions he encountered may have been a factor. The coroner noted, however, that conditions would not have been dissimilar to that overcome by the deceased in other parts of the world.
The Coroner Made the Following Recommendations
- Mountain information services should continue to provide information on the hazardous nature of our many mountain access routes, particularly in wet conditions.
- Climbers, when wearing heavy packs on exposed access routes, must pay particular attention to their personal safety and specifically ensure that their chosen footwear is the most appropriate for the terrain.
- Climbing or tramping in wet conditions on steep access routes in Fiordland can be particularly hazardous. Individuals should consider their security by always using two- or three-point contact when soloing or scrambling. The use of a belay rope should always be considered when the exposure is great, conditions are adverse and the risk of a fall, and death, is high.
- Helmets provide limited but useful protection against an inadvertent head bump.
Unusually, the coroner quoted poet William Blake in his report: ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.’ Climbing and mountaineering will never be totally safe. That is part of the challenge.
This article was re-published from the June 2015 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.