Award tinged with sadness

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 05:00 14/05/2014
Alpine rescuers

TEAM EFFORT: Alpine rescuers, from left, Michael Johns, Jonathan Crane, Grant Upson, Scotty Morgan and Scott Chamberlain were among 60 people recognised for their efforts to save two climbers who died on the summit of Mt Taranaki last October.

Hiroki and Nicole
GONE: Nicole Sutton and Hiroki Ogawa died tragically in a snow cave on Mt Taranaki.

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Rescuers who battled for nearly two days to save climbers trapped in atrocious weather on top of Mt Taranaki say an award presented to them last night was bittersweet.

Auckland trampers Nicole Sutton and her partner Hiroki Ogawa died on the mountain's summit when their climb last Labour Weekend went disastrously wrong.

Jonathan Crane from Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue, yesterday spoke of his fellow rescuers' despair at how things turned out.

"It's two-sided really. While I'm incredibly sad about the loss of the two climbers, I'm proud to be a part of a team that put that much effort in," he said.

A team of around 60 people worked tirelessly for 36 hours in the some of the worst conditions they had ever faced.

Last night in Wellington the team was awarded the prestigious New Zealand Search And Rescue 2013 Certificate of Achievement for Operational Activity.

The awards are presented annually in recognition of outstanding achievements in Search and Rescue nationwide.

The award was presented to the teams from Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue, Taranaki LandSAR, Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, and three squadron from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The Labour Weekend mission, dubbed Operation Labour, saw teams of search and rescuers crawl on their hands and knees to get within 150m of the pair, only to be pushed back by the horrific weather that encased the top of the 2518m mountain.

Crane, along with Michael Johns and Scott Chamberlain, were three of the five people in the first team of searchers.

On Saturday, October 26, Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue was called out to search for four overdue climbers on Mt Taranaki.

The weather that day had been fine but was forecast to deteriorate.

The volunteers set off at 1am, but as they gained altitude the conditions worsened to gale force winds and horizontal sleet, Crane said.

‘We hit the most severe weather I'd ever faced in any form of climbing," he said.

"That first night it was just horrific winds with horizontal sleet and freezing cold."

By 4am they got to within 150m below the missing people before they were pushed back. They made the heartbreaking, yet safe decision to return to base.

At first light, two of the four missing people made their own way off the mountain. Chamberlain said nearly every searcher went up the mountain multiple times to try to break through to the lost pair.

"It wasn't ‘oh we're just too tired, let's turn around', we kept trying and trying but it still didn't get any better," he said.

"When I went up on the Sunday it was freezing. There was ice thick across our jackets. There was one point where we were asked to give our reference on the GPS and we pulled it out and it was covered in ice. We couldn't actually get into it. That's the kind of conditions we were in."

Johns, who is the chairman of Taranaki LandSAR, said waking up the next morning and finding out the pair were still stuck on the mountain was a shock.

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"And then to find out the next [rescue] team didn't make it, well, it was the first time we've had to keep going back," he said.

Tragically, when rescuers finally reached the pair, huddling in a shallow snow cave, Ogawa, 31, was dead. Sutton, 29, died before she could be carried from the mountain.

Sergeant Jeff McGrath of New Plymouth, worked as an incident co-ordinator on the mission and said the fact that all the rescuers returned safe was testament to the hard, but sound, decisions being made on the mountain.

"They went into an extreme environment, in extreme conditions which a lot of people involved in the operation have described as some of the worst conditions they have ever been in," he said.

"And yet they continued to strive to their absolute best for the sake of others, and I think that needs to be celebrated."

The team of 60 clocked up 1100 volunteer hours during Operation Labour. "Search and Rescue is just not possible without volunteers and these people put their own personal lives on hold to save lives," McGrath said.

CREVASSE, COOK STRAIT RESCUES WIN AWARDS 

Search and Rescue's gold award was presented to a team that saved an injured woman trapped in a crevasse in the Southern Alps.

South Westland Alpine Cliff Rescue members Marius Bron, Jonathan Hattrell, Richard Bottomley and Sam Innes risked their lives to save German climber Sabine Hellenbrandt, who slipped down the western slope of Glacier Peak at the head of Fox Glacier in March last year.

She landed on a ledge deep in a crevasse, breaking her arm and ankle.

During the mission, the cloud thickened and visibility was down to a metre, which meant the team had to camp overnight with Hellenbrandt, protecting her from the cold until she could be safely flown out.

Recognised for a dramatic rescue in Cook Strait was a crew from the Wellington Westpac rescue helicopter's Life Flight Trust who plucked three men from a stricken yacht in 12-metre seas and winds up to 110kmh. 

- Taranaki Daily News

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