Area: The Pylon, Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park
Activity:  Tramping
Deceased:  23-year-old male tourist
Date of Accident: 17 June 2011


On 16 June 2011, the fit and healthy man set off alone from Raspberry Flat, and stayed at Aspiring Hut in the Matukituki Valley that night. He intended to cross Cascade Saddle to the Dart Valley, then move on to the Routeburn Track. Seven days later, his family overseas had not heard from him so alerted SAR. His hut book entry at Aspiring Hut indicated his intentions, and mentioned the fine and frosty conditions.

After his body was found, photographs recovered from his camera showed that he had successfully reached the Pylon, but then deviated from the track 300 metres north above Cascade bluffs, presumably in search of a better photographic opportunity before he fell. After the accident, 30 centimetres of snow fell, and when the SAR operation began on 23 June 2011, the searchers were hampered by snow conditions. Three days later sufficient snowmelt enabled the man’s body to be found 300 metres below the Cascade bluffs, north of the Pylon.

Cause of Death

Fall resulting in severe brain injury with spinal and femoral fractures.


Cascade Saddle Under snow cover, which can occur from late autumn to late spring, Cascade Saddle is a serious alpine crossing requiring suitable skills and equipment.  The greatest fall hazards are the Cascade bluffs on the Matukituki side of the Pylon where this accident and numerous others have occurred. For those travelling in the opposite direction, from the Dart, it is essential to locate the Pylon, which is an iron marker on the ridge. From the pylon, the poled route descends to the Matukituki Valley, avoiding the steepest terrain through the Cascade bluffs.

However, even this section of the route immediately below the Pylon (between 1400 and 1600 metres) is steep, avalanche prone and has poor run-out. A minor slip such as happened in this accident, can have fatal consequences. In snow conditions, or during spring when snow is poorly bonded to the rock and vegetation, the crossing will be treacherous and should only be attempted by experienced and well-equipped parties. Snow can persist on the upper section well into summer and parties should be prepared for this with ice axes and crampons.  Below 1400 metres, the terrain becomes somewhat easier, although there is no real respite from the steepness until the bush line.

Outdoor experience and the Great Walks The man had limited New Zealand tramping experience, having only completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Abel Tasman Coastal Track. The highly developed Great Walks require relatively few outdoor skills, knowledge or judgement. They have:

  • Numerous signposts and excellent track markers, requiring little real navigation or route-finding ability.
  • Very well graded profiles requiring less physical dexterity and fitness.
  • Bridges over all rivers or sizable side streams.
  • Numerous shelters and huts regularly spaced.
  • Other services such as hut wardens.

A person walking only the Great Walks does not acquire the necessary experience, skill, judgement and outdoor ability to tackle tracks such as Cascade Saddle. The tourist’s lack of experience of early sub-alpine winter conditions (frost, light snow) on steep terrain was a major contributing factor.

Sub-alpine terrain – frost and light snow Although the area north of the Pylon was mostly clear of snow at the time of the accident, the rocks and sub-alpine vegetation and snowgrass were likely covered in frost and ice. As described in a previous Backcountry Accidents article on travel in the sub-alpine zone, such conditions can be extremely treacherous.

Solo tramping Solo tramping involves more risks and in this case, a delay in notification about the accident. It is important to clearly state your plan in hut books and intention forms. SAR personnel generally check hut books and tracks first.

Footwear The man wore light flexible hiking boots not suitable for early winter subalpine conditions. This would have been a significant contributing factor to his presumed slip (see Backcountry August 2017 for details on footwear).

This article was re-published from the November 2017 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.