The brother of a Kiwi mountaineer who fell 150 metres to his death in Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park has spoken of his disbelief the experienced climber could be killed by a "rookie" mistake.
Cameron Rait, 39, was walking 10m behind his Melbourne-based brother, Duncan Rait, 36, on a ridge high up in the Tasman Glacier area on Friday, when his brother slipped on ice.
"[For Duncan] to have conquered so many other dangerous peaks, then die like this is unimaginable. I am devastated," Cameron Rait told The Press.
The fall sparked a dramatic rescue in deteriorating weather and the start of a tragic weekend in the mountains.
On Saturday, Englishman Robert Buckley, 31, died after falling 700m near the Mt Sefton Bivvy, above the Mueller Glacier.
Writing from his parents Evan and Carolyn Rait's Wellington home last night, Cameron Rait said he knew his brother survived the fall initially, but, as he was stuck in a hut in blizzard conditions, it was not until later that he learned his brother had died.
Recounting their last moments together, he said they had been dropped off by helicopter with two others, including a professional mountain guide, above the Tasman Saddle Hut. The brothers had spent a week together skiing at Treble Cone and in the back country behind Cardrona.
Duncan Rait started walking the 60m down to the hut, leading the way carrying groceries.
"The snow was soft for the first 30m then suddenly turned to solid ice. Duncan had a vast amount of experience in the mountains and should have spotted this immediately," Cameron Rait said.
"Somehow he didn't, possibly because he was carrying two boxes with food in front of him. On the first step he slipped. He threw the boxes down trying to regain his balance but could not. He went over the edge."
The mountain guide raised the alarm and tried to climb down to spot Duncan but he was out of sight.
Down in the gully, Duncan Rait was still alive. It took about two hours for a rescue crew to be flown to the hut and get down to him in what were, by that time, blizzard conditions. He was still conscious when they got to him but had very severe injuries.
"We got the message that he was conscious and communicative when they found him, and I believed that he would be OK," Cameron Rait said.
Duncan Rait , who lived in Victoria, had travelled the world skiing and climbing, and had "never been harmed in any previous trips, many of which had been in extremely challenging terrain".
Because of the weather, Cameron Rait spent the night stuck in the hut along with the helicopter pilot. Another helicopter managed to get to the rescue crew with Duncan Rait. However, Duncan Rait died on the helicopter trip back to Mt Cook Village.
"Duncan had just spent three months climbing some very high grade, high altitude climbs in Huaraz, Peru," Cameron Rait said.
"I am absolutely gutted that Duncan could make such a rookie mistake having been such an experienced mountaineer. I will never know what he was thinking when he stepped on to the ice without looking properly first."
Evan Rait, still in shock over the death of a son who lived for outdoor adventure, wondered last night if the groceries were his son's "undoing".
"He might not have been able to see where he was putting his feet. We'll never know now," he said.
Evan Rait said they had been updated by police throughout Friday, so news their son had not survived was "pretty hard to take". The family appreciated the "colossal" efforts of rescuers.
"It's just a freak accident. He knew what he was doing," Evan Rait said.
A funeral for Duncan is being planned for Friday in Wellington.
Buckley who fell near the Mt Sefton Bivvy on Saturday, was on a working holiday based in Christchurch.
He and three others had been attempting to climb to the Mt Sefton Bivvy from Mt Cook village and had hired some climbing equipment early on Saturday.
They had managed to get within 80m of the bivvy when Buckley slipped on ice.
Police said the fall was unsurvivable.
"It appears as if the [Buckley] party were insufficiently equipped and inexperienced for the climb they had undertaken," Mid South Canterbury area police commander Inspector Dave Gaskin said.
Gaskin said the two deaths were not related to weather conditions, which only hampered the rescues.
Both accidents had been referred to the coroner.
The two deaths take the total of lives lost at Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park to 219.
- Five people died on January 19, 1930, when they were caught in a blizzard.
- Renowned New Zealand mountain guide Erica Beuzenberg, of Fairlie, and clients John Lowndes, 59, of England, and Kazuhiro Kotani, 29, of Japan, were killed on March 10, 2005.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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