Miracle on Mt Cook
Two mountain climbers survived an almost vertical 200-metre fall on Aoraki-Mt Cook in the middle of the night.
The two men, Australians Neal Davis, 35, and Adam Glen, 34, were making a night-time ascent of New Zealand's highest mountain on Friday when they were struck by a falling chunk of ice.
"The fall wasn't vertical, but it was pretty close to it," said rescue co-ordinator Senior Constable Brent Swanson.
"The fact that the piece of ice hasn't done any serious damage to them and they haven't fallen any further is very lucky. It was a very lucky escape."
The two men were sent sliding into the night air in the same area that claimed the life of another Aussie mountaineer in 2008.
Davis and Glen managed to stop their slide and, badly injured, made their way back down to a guide hut around 1am and called for help.
Swanson said the pair had used the Department of Conservation radio in Plateau Hut to call for help. All huts on the mountain had radios in case of emergency.
They were helicoptered to Twizel at dawn yesterday morning and were driven in their own rental car by a police constable to Timaru Hospital for treatment, Swanson said.
Constable Les Andrew, who operated the radio from the Twizel base as the pair called for help, said: "The guys had been clearly running on adrenaline for about 3 hours to get where they were in the hut, but by the time they called us it had sunk in what happened. They were clearly distressed."
He spoke to them again before they were discharged from hospital yesterday and said they had realised how lucky they were.
"I understand they were going to be holidaying here till January 11. I imagine their trip will be cut short now."
Glen suffered chest injuries which made it difficult to breath while Davis suffered a broken nose and facial injuries.
The men, both limping and sporting grazes and cuts, were reluctant to talk about the ordeal themselves, dismissing it as "just an accident" but they issued a joint statement thanking those who plucked them to safety.
"The response to ensure our safety and wellbeing was exceptional," they said.
"We would particularly like to thank the search and rescue team, Twizel medical centre, and the policemen who drove us to Twizel and to Timaru hospital."
Mountaineer Pat Deavoll, who knows the area well, said the Zurbriggen Ridge, where the fall happened, had an ice cliff about two-thirds of the way up which created a key hazard.
"What makes it unsafe is that it steepens and then bits of ice can fall off it," she said.
"It differs from season to season but obviously this year it's in a condition to spit stuff out."
Deavoll said from what she'd heard, the climbers had done everything right. It was important to leave very early in order to make the summit before the snow melted - hence the midnight start to the climb.
"There's always going to be accidents on the mountain. It seems that what's happened to them is just bad luck. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Aoraki Mt Cook, at 3754 metres, may be small by overseas standards, but is likened to climbing far higher peaks because of its technical difficulties.
Speed is also seen as critical when attempting Mt Cook because weather conditions change so rapidly.
The Zurbriggen Ridge is infamous as one of the hardest parts of the Mt Cook ascent and is reported to have claimed nine lives.
The most recent was in 2008 when Perth doctor Mark Vinar, 43, fell from high on the ridge as he and his brother Miles tried to retreat from the mountain in the face of bad weather.
Vinar fell 500m down the same ice cliff that yesterday's climbers tumbled down and landed in an area scarred by crevasses.
Miles Vinar, 42, then spent another two nights waiting for rescue and said later he thought he, too, would die, having to dig himself out of snow drifts threatening to entomb him. His brother's body has never been found.
In 2003, Japanese climber Hiroshi Kai, 53, died after he fell in an attempt up the Zurbriggen Ridge.
Later that year the bones, boots and an ice axe, the only remains of another climber, were found.
They were believed to have lain at the base of Mt Cook for up to 20 years. In 1998, Ivo Kuban, 20, from the Czech Republic, fell 700m to his death from the ridge.
Five others are also recorded as dying on the ridge. The ridge is named after Mattias Zurbriggen (1856-1917), an acclaimed pioneer mountain guide who, in 1895, was the first to climb it as part of the first successful solo ascent of Mt Cook.
- © Fairfax NZ News