Lost: how tramp turned to tragedy
Winter 2009. The frozen bodies of Te Papa boss Seddon Bennington and his friend Rosie Jackson are found on an exposed ridge.
Within cellphone coverage and close to a hut, they died on a day when less prepared trampers lived.
Nikki Macdonald reopens the case and retraces their journey to find a mixture of bad luck and bad judgment led to death in Wellington's treacherous outdoor playground.
DO I need to take my tent, Te Papa boss Seddon Bennington asked, as he emptied the gear stored in his tramping pack, before repacking it for a weekend trip into the Tararuas.
It was a rhetorical question, but his partner of seven months, Stephannie Tims, answered all the same.
''Are you going to stay in a hut?'' It was Friday, July 10, 2009, and Bennington, 61, was planning to tramp to Kime Hut the next day with old Canterbury University friend and medical laboratory scientist Marcella Jackson, 54, known as Rosie.
Bennington had been a tramper since university days, when he would traverse river beds and tackle less-travelled routes in the often-inhospitable Arthur's Pass region.
Jackson had just got back into tramping, walking the Heaphy Track about two months earlier.
She'd had a rough few years with the death of her husband and nursing her dying mother. Bennington had taken it upon himself to look out for her.
They'd been planning the trip for three to four weeks and it was Bennington's only available weekend, squeezed in between planning for Te Papa's Formula One exhibition and leaving for Finland for a holiday a week later.
Back into the pack went a sleeping bag, cooking gear, 1997 Tararua Park map, warm clothes and waterproofs, chocolate afghans, four apples, half a pineapple, streaky bacon, four eggs coddled in newspaper, rice, the remains of that night's freshly baked bread and the new camping coffee plunger he was keen to try out. The tent stayed out.
It was the logical decision - why take four extra kilograms when you're heading to a hut in a range only 90 minutes' drive from central Wellington, where the highest peaks are a piffling 1500 metres?
But it was a decision that might have cost two lives.
Across the city in the Mt Victoria villa she'd restored with her husband, Jackson was also packing, and discussing with sister-in-law Jan Morgans whether to take her cellphone.
In the end she left it at home, believing there was no coverage on the tops.
The next morning, about 9.10am, Bennington fired up his 2002 silver Audi TT roadster convertible, picked up Jackson and headed north.
Just before Otaki, he took a right off State Highway 1 and followed the Otaki River to the picnic area and Tararua Range entry point at the confluence of the Otaki and Waiotauru Rivers, known as Otaki Forks.
The pair parked, pulled on tramping boots and walked to the caretaker's house to write their plans in the intentions book.
With no TV, internet or landline at home, Bennington used his cellphone to stay connected.
But he left it in the car, believing there was no reception in the range.
It was a beautiful day, with a mid-winter chill, a crackle of ice on the ground, and scant clues of the snowstorm brewing to the south.
The Tararua Range has been Wellington's playground for more than a century. Its familiar peaks and valleys were first mapped in 1875, and it spawned the country's first gathering of pioneering bushwhacking types, the Tararua Tramping Club, in 1919.
Today the forest park attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, though most are picnickers and day-trippers.
The trip from Otaki Forks to Kime Hut forms part of the classic Tararua traverse, known as the Southern Crossing.
On a clear day, its jagged snow-tipped crown beckons across Wellington Harbour. On a clear day, it's a well-marked route accessible to most Kiwis of reasonable fitness.
The problem with the Tararua Range is that clear days are rare and the tops are regularly slammed by conditions far more extreme than their altitude would suggest.
Surveys have found the shelterless tops have storm conditions for about 200 days a year and are clear for just 80 days.
Last century, more than 40 people died in the range comparable with the higher and technically treacherous Mt Taranaki. Most drowned.
Canterbury mountain man John Pascoe summed it up: ''For sheer monotony of contour, rigour of weather, and bleakness of outlook, it is hard to beat the Tararuas.''
Vastly improved gear, mountain safety education, better understanding of hypothermia and the advent of cellphones and personal locator beacons have reduced the number of large-scale Tararua tramping search and rescue operations, says Wellington land search and rescue (LSAR) adviser Laurie Gallagher, a LSAR veteran of 42 years.
Of the 10 times LSAR volunteers get called into the field a year on average, only about two are usually bush searches. The most common causes are silly decisions and accidents.
Compounding the range's legendary weather is the difficulty of getting reliable forecasts. As the range is rarely mentioned in MetService's mountain forecasts, trampers must cobble together a guesstimate from the Kapiti and Wairarapa predictions.
Had Bennington and Jackson checked the Wairarapa forecast in Friday's Dominion Post (and there's no evidence they did) they would have been warned of afternoon showers, falling as snow in the ranges.
Sunday looked bleak, with cold southerlies and snow down to 700m.
But Kapiti sounded less ominous: fine and cloudy periods with strengthening southeasterlies for the Saturday, followed by showers and cold southeasterlies on the Sunday.
When we leave Wellington to retrace Bennington and Jackson's route, the forecast is for a mainly fine day, with a few morning showers. But by the time we reach the overnight car park at Otaki Forks, the surrounding hills are obscured by lace-edged fog.
From the carpark, the trail to Field Hut crosses Waiotauru River and snakes up the hill through manuka, tree ferns and spiky lancewood towers.
At the base of the climb, a sign says Field Hut 3-4 hours, 5.7km.
For the first few hundred metres there's a view back down Otaki River. Fingers of mist stroke the bush-clad hills; occasional chinks open in the cloud, spilling light on to the water. That's the last light we see for two days.
As the canopy closes over us, the wheelchair-wide path narrows and becomes cross-hatched with tree roots.
Toes tuck into rock clefts worn marble-smooth by thousands of tramping boots. It's not steep, but the climb is sustained a rise of 800m from Otaki Forks to Field Hut.
I set off in shorts and long-sleeved polypropylene top and still sweat trickles down my chest.
But, as we climb, the damp air chills and I put on my Gore-Tex jacket. For every 150m you climb, the temperature drops about one degree.
The bush is dark and close and other worldly, hung with a white haze. It's like walking with a mosquito net veil.
As we climb, the trees become progressively weather-stunted, dripping apple-green spanish moss. Just short of the three-hour mark, including a snack and photo stops, Field Hut emerges abruptly from the mist.
Bennington and Jackson made reasonable time, hitting Field Hut a bit before 2pm.
Even in the bush, it must have been cold Bennington was wearing long pants, a red and black Swanndri, fleece top and hat and Jackson had on her ski jacket, long pants and a beanie over her wavy, salt-and-pepper grey hair.
Bennington was first out of the bush and obviously feeling good. He was hefting a half-metre-long log, which he added to the hut woodpile.
Jackson followed about 4m behind. She seemed relieved to reach the hut, but was in good spirits. Jackson fished around in her pack for a thermos of chicken and thyme soup an unusual choice for an experienced tramper, given its weight.
Energy can be so precious that many trampers opt for expensive and less-than-delicious freeze-dried meals to save a few grams.
Bennington, too, was heavily laden. At 61, he was still fit and reasonably lean - 78kg on a 183cm (6ft) frame.
e must have been confident of his ability to handle the extra weight. So far, so good he was relaxed and smiling after half a day's walk.
At 54, Jackson was the younger of the pair by several years, but she was less fit and experienced.
Her stocky, 166cm (5ft 4in) frame was more accustomed to pottering in the garden and West Coast whitebaiting than climbing with a heavy pack.
But she was in good health. She'd just completed a physical check-up.
While Jackson sorted lunch, Bennington filled his water bottle with Field's bitter, wood-smoked rainwater and chatted with Wellington trainee patent attorney Simon Tuohy.
Tuohy recognised the Allan Wilson Centre logo on Bennington's fleece vest from his biotechnology studies, and asked about it. Bennington used to be on the research centre's board.
Tuohy and his partner, PhD student Jessie Wilson, were on a day trip from Wellington and Bennington jokingly chided them for not staying overnight.
The couple explained they had chores to do, and that they were worried about the forecast storm.
Bennington appeared unfazed, but Jackson made a funny face and said light-heartedly, ''Ew, don't talk to me about storms.''
Wilson and Tuohy headed back down toward the car park about 2.15pm, while Bennington and Jackson geared up for the two- to three-hour trek to Kime.
Field Hut is tucked in a seemingly impossibly sheltered position on the bushline. But about 15 minutes up the track the bush breaks and reality whistles over the tops.
For the first 30 minutes to the Penn Creek track turnoff, across the open tussocklands known as Table Top, the track is well formed and graded, with sections of boardwalk, wooden steps and imported gravel.
But beyond the Penn Creek sign the track narrows and becomes less distinct. That Saturday afternoon the sky was still blue, though shot through with thin wisps of high cloud, indicating high winds.
The view was clear back toward Field, but in the distance Mt Hector was lost in mist and the sky was beginning to darken.
A cold southerly wind whipped across the ridge, necessitating layering up with thermals and windproof jackets.
The vegetation is a clue to the often violent weather it's all tawny tussock and flaxes that flex in the wind, and indestructible leatherwood. And nothing stands taller than 1m, affording no shelter.
The track beyond Penn Creek was firm, with occasional crusted puddles. In sheltered spots, the snow was about one third of a metre deep on the track, and compacted, making the going sometimes slippery.
About 3.30pm, shortly beyond the Penn Creek turnoff, Bennington and Jackson met two trampers who had dropped packs at Field and walked to the ridge for a nosy.
They exchanged greetings and Wellington City Council worker Paul Johnson advised them to be careful on the icy track.
Jackson seemed a little tired, with a sweat-beaded forehead. But both seemed happy and comfortable.
There's usually a brief reprieve from the constant wind as the track sidles behind Dennan spur. But, as the weather was coming in from the southeast, Dennan remained exposed.
The only way to keep warm was to keep moving.
Just after 4pm, where the track pops out on to a narrow ridge beyond Dennan, Bennington and Jackson met Massey University industrial design student Lans Hansen and girlfriend Shjaan Versey.
They were taking advantage of the clear skies to take photographs.
They had also planned to overnight at Kime, but, Hansen explained to Bennington, they were spooked by the track ice and the thick, dark cloud pouring over Bridge Peak ahead.
They'd decided instead to drop back down to Field Hut. A keen rock climber, Hansen reckoned the track needed crampons, which they didn't have.
It's about that point that calf and quad muscles begin to pinch after four hours of climbing.
But Jackson and Bennington were still in good shape and Bennington was relaxed about pushing on to Kime.
Between Dennan and Bridge Peak the track was covered with a slippery ice veneer, which thickened and lengthened as the track continued to climb.
The combination of the wind blasting up over the ridge, and the slick track, made balance difficult and travel slow. Dark cloud swept in over Bridge Peak from both sides.
From where they met Hansen, it should have been a bit over an hour to the safety of Kime Hut, nestled in a basin at the head of the Hector River.
It's a slow trudge up the ridge to Bridge Peak, past the Main Range track turnoff, and a final push up Hut Mound, where a signpost gives the welcome news it's only 15 minutes down to Kime.
But Bennington and Jackson never made it to Kime.
About 5pm, as the darkness closed in, it started to snow.
With the force of the wind, the flakes stung like sandblasting.
Barely half an hour from safety and relative warmth, the pair left the north-south Field-Kime track and headed east down the Main Range toward distant Maungahuka Hut.
About 800m down that waratah-flagged ridge, they stopped in a snatch of relative shelter and hunkered down for the night.
Bennington virtually emptied his pack of clothes, pulling on three thermal tops, a woollen jersey, Polartec jacket, Swanndri woollen bushshirt, fleece pants, waterproof jacket and overtrousers and snuggled into his lightweight sleeping bag.
He'd forgotten his gloves, so had to use spare socks to protect his hands. Jackson was less well clad, with thermal longjohns, nylon wet weather pants, long sleeve thermal top, thermal sweatshirt, jersey and snowboarding-style jacket. Plus beanie, gloves and thermal neck warmer.
But her sleeping bag was heavier weight and new.
Perhaps surprisingly, she left another two pairs of longjohns, a woollen skivvy and a thermal top in her pack.
With no compass to navigate through the whiteout, and no cellphones to call for help (there was coverage on both networks), the pair sat tight, cooked a meal of rice, meat and veges, and hoped for the storm to ease. Instead it raged and raged.
Palmerston North coroner Tim Scott concluded that Bennington and Jackson must have become disoriented on Bridge Peak and mistakenly taken the Main Range track.
It would have been Bennington making the decisions. He was in the lead, a more experienced tramper, and a more dominant personality.
The police lost-person profiles reveal almost polar opposite characters. Bennington: confident, outgoing, cheerful, gregarious and a leader.
Jackson: quiet, cautious, apprehensive.
Jackson was afraid of flying and would drive around Wellington's south coast before catching the Cook Strait ferry, to check the sea was calm.
Since the death of her husband, Rob Ogilvie, in November 2003, she had remained close to his sister Jan Morgans. They would talk or text every day.
Jackson had tramped several tracks with Ogilvie over the years, in both the North and South Islands. That petered out after his death, but over the previous year her interest had been rekindled.
Jackson had done some smaller walks in Tongariro National Park, around the Chateau, and had jus Leg 2t walked the Heaphy Track.
In university days, Bennington and wife Frances, Jackson and Ogilvie and Lyttelton biologist Paul Ensor were a tight five. Bennington, Jackson and Ensor were studying zoology.
Ensor and Bennington would explore the Arthur's Pass, Lewis Pass and Lake Sumner areas together, bush-bashing around boulders and crossing subalpine passes.
The trips often included Frances, with whom Bennington later had sons Marcel and Emile, now based in Australia.
Bennington continued to tramp with his wife and sons in New Zealand and overseas, until the pair separated about six years ago.
Bennington had a history of ignoring warnings and seldom gave up. He never carried a compass, but relied on instinct and memory to find huts.
On one of those Arthur's Pass trips, Bennington and his wife struggled through deep snow and didn't find the hut until nearly midnight.
But he wasn't completely reckless. When he took non-tramper Tims, her 12-year-old and twin 9-year-olds into the Tararuas that Easter, he decided not to continue to Kime because the snow cover made it too risky for the youngsters.
And he hadn't planned to press on in any weather.
''Off to the Tararuas this weekend up to Kime Hut if weather fine,'' he emailed old university friend Ray Goldring on the Friday.
At Bridge Peak, the tussocklands flatten and open out and the track becomes a braid of rocky patches bare of vegetation.
To aid navigation, a mix of shiny blue snow poles and old waratahs stud the route. They're unpredictably spaced, some barely 10m apart, others an easy 30m-40m adrift.
When we cross Bridge Peak, in both directions, it's lost in mist. The wet wisps file past like an endless army of white, marshalled from behind by General Wind.
But even in 20m-30m visibility, it's hard to fathom mistakenly taking the Main Range track, which drops away quickly, whereas the Kime track continues to climb.
The junction is marked with three bright blue poles, each topped with 30cm orange triangles.
Kime Hut is written in black on the triangle, marking the southward track branch.
Where you can barely make out the next waratah or snow pole through the fog, the track itself provides a clue. Though sometimes indistinct, to venture far off route requires stepping out of a depression at times a third of a metre deep to walk instead over clumpy grasses and flax.
Snow would have complicated matters, blurring the difference between track and surrounds.
When searchers traversed Bridge Peak two days later, the snowdrifts were so deep in places the 1m-high poles were obscured.
But another party had already made it to Kime and back that Saturday afternoon.
Fatigue and cold would have been gnawing at energy levels. Hypothermia might already have been creeping in, fogging the brain.
The pair might have headed downward, thinking they were returning to Field. Maybe they realised their mistake, but were too weary to climb back up to the Kime track.
Once on the Main Range route, it's easy to lose all bearings. We had planned to find the exact spots where Bennington and Jackson were found, to better understand how they got there. But 10 minutes down the Main Range track the visibility became so marginal we decided to turn back.
The waratahs petered out and in every direction was mind-muddling, featureless white.
However they got there, Bennington and Jackson spent a freezing night on exposed ground in a southerly storm.
With no tent, they huddled under Bennington's survival blanket.
While those who had retreated to the bushline were cosied up by the pot belly stove at historic Field Hut, they endured a complete white-out, with 90kmh winds and about 30cm of snow.
Factoring in the wind chill, the temperature was -10 degrees Celsius to -20C. Even at Field, 500m below, there was a smattering of snow on the ground by morning.
At 10pm on Sunday, Tims notified police that Bennington had not shown up for his 7pm dinner date.
The two-day, $23,160 search was delayed by continuing stormy weather and the bodies were not found until about 11am on Wednesday. Jackson was found in the sheltered hollow, with the two packs.
Bennington was found about 300m up the hill, towards Kime, stretched out on the tussock, waterproof and fleece pants part pulled down around his thighs.
The conditions encountered by searchers give the best insight into how bone-chilling that night must have been. Hostile, is how search and rescue team leader Chris Maher described the conditions when he began searching on Tuesday.
The steep push up to Bridge Peak was icy. Not crampon icy, but slippery. Visibility was no more than 30m, and, with jacket hood pulled across the right cheek to protect against the wind-hurled sleet, it was almost impossible to look right.
The team once lost track of the waratahs and had to get out the GPS.
Despite their top-end gear, training and fitness, Maher and his team were cold, fatigued and miserable.
''I remember thinking I really should stop and have a snack and I really felt like stopping for a pee, but just didn't want to take my gloves off, let alone try to undo any clothing. Given that it was most likely way worse than when we were up there, it would have been pretty horrific.''
It's impossible to say how long they lasted. Hypothermia is anything but predictable.
Maher remembers finding a hypothermic tramper in the Tararua Range who had spent two nights out in atrocious weather.
He was lightly clad and didn't have a sleeping bag. Within two hours he was warmed enough to walk to the nearest hut.
Kime Hut was built in memory of an early victim of exposure, Esmond J Kime, who was caught in a southerly storm while attempting the Southern Crossing in 1922. It was before proper waterproofs, and he survived five days and nights dressed in shorts, huddled in a sheltered hollow.
When found by searchers he was frostbitten but lucid enough to ask after his tramping partner.
He died an hour after being carried to Alpha Hut, undone by vein-dilating brandy and too-fast warming by the fire. In the final stages of hypothermia, the body can shut down mid-action.
Gallagher recalls finding runners who had died in a storm in the Orongorongos about 20 years ago. One had died so quickly he was still climbing over a fence.
The coroner concluded that only Bennington made it through the night, and that he died attempting to return to Field Hut.
However, that does not explain the fact that searchers had to spend two hours picking ice from Kime Hut, having found the door open.
The last tramper through on Saturday was adamant he closed the heavy iron bolt.
It's possible Bennington rose on the Sunday morning, stuffed his wet sleeping bag into his pack, and set out for Kime in search of help, only to find it empty.
Even had he made the hut, there's no guarantee he would have survived. Kime provides relief from the wind, but little else.
There's no heating and it's as cold inside as out. When the search teams stayed it was -1C inside the hut, with ice on inside walls.
There are no miracle survivors in this story. Indeed, it was a miracle of timing that there were not more victims.
A party of one husky and four young men left Otaki Forks car park some time after 3pm. They were wearing jeans and sneakers and carrying shopping bags and did not put their plans in the intentions book.
They passed Tuohy and Wilson and asked how far it was to Kime Hut.
They reached Field Hut well after dark. Had they started earlier, and attempted to continue to Kime, the result could have been disastrous.
But there are heroes: the 32 SAR volunteers (including an alpine rescue team helicoptered in from Taranaki), 17 police, three helicopter crews, three SAR co-ordinators, Ruapehu SAR dog and dog handler, police dog and dog handler who invested a collective 809 hours searching in atrocious weather. A search that ended with the discovery of two lives lost.
Police inquest file, including witness statements, SAR communications log, debriefing notes, autopsy notes; SAR team leader Chris Maher; Wellington SAR adviser Laurie Gallagher and Tararua The Story of a Mountain Range, by Chris Maclean.
The Dominion Post