Far as we know, nobody ever died on a New Zealand molehill.
Our mountains, glaciers and alpine ranges, however, continue to exert a cruel toll.
We minimise the distinction at our great peril.
At times this has happened in circumstances that bespeak of chronic lack of respect for the inherent dangers of the terrain; the mistakes of novices who, in hindsight, should never have started their ascent.
Other times the misjudgments are just momentary, in environments where surefootedness, with each and every footfall, can be a life-or-death issue.
The death of the two climbers trapped on Mt Taranaki for two nights carry cautionary lessons of dismal familiarity. The pair, a man and woman, huddled in a snow cave they dug for themselves as the country suffered one of those familiar Labour Weekend blasts. By the time rescuers were able to reach them - harsh weather having confounded attempts at helicoptered assistance - the man had perished. The woman died soon after they arrived.
A telling phrase in the news reports, "without overnight equipment", immediately bespeaks of ill-preparedness. Given that this was during a trip organised by the New Zealand Alpine Club, questions must arise about whether the collective preparedness of participants was given sufficient oversight.
The latest deaths come so very soon since the double-barrelled tragedies of the death of experienced Kiwi mountaineer Duncan Rait on a ridge high up the Tasman Glacier and Englishman Robert Buckley above the Mueller Glacier in September.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of both those cases was that they happened when the climbers weren't undertaking any highly technical manoeuvres.
If anything, they were in circumstances where what might be called the inherent sense of scare may well have been absent.
Mr Buckley, who was in a party insufficiently equipped and experienced for the climb, slipped on ice within 80 metres of a bivvy. Nevertheless, the fall was described as unsurvivable.
By contrast, Mr Rait was such an experienced climber that the almost mundane circumstances in which he died have caused his family disbelief. He was walking just 60m to the Tasman Glacier hut, having been dropped off by helicopter. Hardly, it would seem, an intrepid undertaking.
But he was carrying two boxes of food in front of him. By his brother Cameron's account, this may have obscured his vision. Underfoot, the snow was soft for the first 30m but then turned to solid ice. Duncan slipped and fell down a gully.
It took the rescuers two hours to retrieve him, in what by then were blizzard conditions, and though he was alive when they reached him he succumbed to his injuries.
So what's overarching lesson here? That alpine New Zealand is just too dangerous to go near?
Of course not.
The mountains call out to nationals and visitors alike.
We cannot celebrate such spirit in the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary but seek to dampen it in others.
But underlining every single moment that our climbers, trampers, hunters and adventurers are out there, the thrills and satisfactions of their undertaking must be earned by thorough, painstaking and educated preparation beforehand, and an abiding sense of caution every moment they spend out there.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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