By Robert Thompson
Peer Reviewed by Tania Seward
Area: Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park
Deceased: 32-year-old male, moderately experienced climber
Date of Accident: September 2018
The group of five climbers met at Iwikau Village at Whakapapa skifield on Mount Ruapehu, with the aim of camping on the summit plateau. Climbing expertise and experience varied between the group members, but all of them were or had previously been members of university tramping and alpine clubs. The deceased was regarded as moderately experienced and was a member of several clubs as well as LandSAR.
The weather forecast was for 15 knot southeast to easterly wind, with a temperature of about five degrees rising to 15 degrees. The actual weather was clear skies and light breezes. The group climbed up through the Whakapapa skifield and onto Dome. There is a wide col between Paretetaitonga and Dome. The col presents a gently sloped area between the two peaks, which rolls off to the south and gets steeper until it terminates in cliffs down into Crater Lake.
The group descended from Dome ridge to the more gently sloped area near Crater Lake. Conditions here were later reported as being icy underfoot. The group stopped for food and a rest. As they began packing up after lunch, one of their packs slid down the slope towards the cliffs above Crater Lake, spilling its contents as it slid. Two of the climbers immediately gave chase. One of the climbers was able to secure a small bag and to avoid sliding further. However, the other climber lost control and was unable to stop his slide before he fell over the cliff and into Crater Lake.
Cause of death: Subject to an ongoing coronial inquest.
There is no indication that the accident was due to bad weather, or excessively demanding climbing conditions. The climber who died was adequately experienced and had suitable equipment available to him. So, how did an experienced and suitably equipped climber have such a disastrous accident in what appear to have been nonchallenging circumstances? It seems likely the accident happened because standard safe climbing methods and techniques were not consistently used, possibly because of a feeling of relative safety at the group’s rest location. Two critical events that contributed to the accident have been identified: a backpack sliding away down the slope; and the inability of the deceased to arrest his slide down the slope to Crater Lake.
False sense of security Immediately before their rest stop the group had been climbing on a relatively exposed ridge, with steep slopes dropping away from them. Their attention would likely have been focused by the immediate and obvious danger, and the climbers would probably have acted defensively. Once the group had moved from the dangerous situation on the ridge to a seemingly safer location on the wide and more gentle slope it is a natural human response to relax somewhat.
Safety defences Human error is inevitable regardless of expertise or experience, and the aim of safety management is to catch and rectify errors before they lead to a catastrophic outcome. Basically, safety management works by putting defences in place to prevent minor errors or deviations from cascading into more significant problems.
For example, one safety defence for climbers is to ensure that all loose items are secured to an anchor in some way, so that if they are inadvertently dislodged from their location or the climber’s grip, then they will not be lost down the mountain or blown away. Given the experience of climbers in this group, it was likely they appreciated the need to secure loose items. But at the time of the accident, and possibly due to a false sense of security, they didn’t ‘clip-in’ the backpack effectively, or they decided it was not necessary. In any case, the backpack was not secured, it was dislodged, and it slid away down the slope.
Another example of a safety defence is to maintain three secure points of contact between the climber and the ice, such that if one point of contact fails there are two remaining. On more moderate slopes this defence can be modified to two points of contact; usually shared between both feet and an ice axe. In either case the philosophy is for the climber to ensure they are secure with every footstep as they move about.
The group was thinking about where to camp, and enjoying the day as they began repacking after their rest. The backpack sliding away from them would have taken them by surprise, and the first reaction from two of the climbers was to give chase. The relatively gentle terrain they had been sitting on for a while would have probably felt familiar and safe. Hence, it was understandable that the first reaction was to give chase to the backpack. If they didn’t, it would have been lost.
However, the instant reaction to chase the backpack overlooked the primary safety defence of ensuring multiple secure points of contact and secure footing. Once the climber lost control on the ice, he was not able to successfully arrest his slide.
Key Learning Point
This accident is a tragic reminder that safety in the mountains is never trivial, and what may seem to be a safe situation is only one mis-step away from catastrophe. It is important to always follow best practice with respect to safety, regardless of the conditions or perceived risk, because one never knows when a safety defence will be tested.
An Additional Comment
The location of this accident is spectacular and very accessible from either Turoa or Whakapapa skifields, so during ski season on a nice-enough day there is a constant stream of people walking off the ski field and into the backcountry. Although this accident was related to a climbing party, the same lethal risks are present for everyone.
Some people making the trek to the top are not prepared for a backcountry alpine trip. This seems evident as they are not carrying backpacks (with say, ice axe, avalanche gear, food and water, spare clothing, etc); they’ll ask for directions, or state they’ll just follow other people; and they can be seen skiing dangerous lines with respect to terrain traps, etc. Very few people seem to consider avalanche risk.
Last season on a couple of occasions people were heading up while everyone else was heading down in deteriorating conditions, and every year one or two skiers need to be rescued. Although to be fair, for the probably hundreds of people going to the top, there are very few incidents. It raises the question: How many people are going into the backcountry? Everyone has the freedom to do as they please, and possibly all the people described above are actually experts with knowledge and gear I don’t know about; it’s possible. It’s certainly not my place to tell others what to do, and my expertise is limited anyway.
However, with increasing numbers of ill-prepared adventurers going into the backcountry, it seems only a matter of time before there is some ‘black-swan’ mass casualty event – perhaps an earthquake with avalanches, or weather-bomb. As an expert community, what initiatives can we take to reduce the risks?
This article was re-published from the August 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.