Buried alive in snow

Paul Bishop, 40, left, and Christian Hanson, 36, are recovering after being swept down Mt Taranaki in an avalanche.
Paul Bishop, 40, left, and Christian Hanson, 36, are recovering after being swept down Mt Taranaki in an avalanche.

One of the two mountaineers swept away by an avalanche says he feared he would suffocate in a choking wall of snow.

Christian Hanson, 36, and Paul Bishop, 40, spoke yesterday of their ordeal as they recovered at Taranaki Base Hospital.

The pair, both experienced climbers, accidentally set off the avalanche while climbing to the 2500-metre summit of Mt Taranaki on Sunday and were swept about 500m down the mountain in a torrent of ice and snow.

They had been following a well- known route and were about to enter the crater when disaster struck.

"Maybe two to three metres above us a huge slab of snow gave way; it was maybe a couple of feet thick; we tried to run over the top of it but we got caught in it and it suddenly accelerated us down at a huge pace," Mr Bishop said.

"I got spun around a few times and I whacked my head a few times, it was pretty scary."

Mr Hanson said he initially couldn't believe it was happening.

"I knew that we had no chance of getting out of it."

They described the sensation as sliding down a waterfall.

"Your legs are going first and you were trying to steer yourself with your arms," Mr Hanson said.

He was consciously trying to avoid obstacles as he raced out-of- control down the mountain.

Mr Hanson has a pregnant wife and an 11-month-old son; Mr Bishop has a wife, an 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

Both men said thoughts of their families ran through their minds as they were being tossed about.

"Definitely, it certainly crossed my mind - my wife and my young son," Mr Hanson said.

After tumbling about 500m the men finally came to rest only a few metres apart but Mr Bishop was buried in snow and struggling to breathe.

"I had swallowed quite a bit of ice and fine snow spray on the way down," he said.

"I had my hand out, near my mouth, and I was struggling to try and get my mouth free and struggling for air, and luckily Christian was there to dig me out."

Mr Hanson had dislocated his right elbow and chipped a bone in his left leg in the fall, which made digging his friend out a slow process.

Mr Bishop suffered a broken right ankle and a badly strained left leg.

"I realised my foot didn't move, as my knee would turn and my foot would stay where it was."

Mr Bishop said his friend saved his life, but Mr Hanson said he only did what anyone else would have done in the same situation.

"When you climb with a partner, you expect that same sort of commitment," Mr Hanson said.

Fearing another avalanche could crash down on top of them at any moment, the men knew they needed to get to safer ground while they waited to be rescued.

"It was sunny and relatively warm, so if you're going to be stranded somewhere on a mountain in the snow it wasn't actually a bad spot," Mr Bishop said.

The men were well equipped, with a cellphone, GPS, which helped rescue teams find them quickly, and they were wearing helmets.

"I think that the big thing is we had helmets on," Mr Bishop said. "It, I think, certainly saved my life.

"I whacked my head two or three times hard on the way down and I didn't feel it, so it didn't hurt at all."

Mr Hanson said they both knew how fortunate they were to have escaped with only broken bones.

"Absolutely, the chances of surviving an avalanche are pretty slim."

Mr Bishop's wife, Mary, said police had called her once the men were safe.

"He was fantastic, in that the first thing he told me was that they were both safe with no life- threatening injuries, just broken bones," Mrs Bishop said.

The men were discharged from hospital yesterday.

They thanked all the emergency services involved in their rescue - the Alpine Cliff Rescue Squad, Taupo's Youth Town Rescue helicopter and Taranaki Community Rescue helicopter services, as well as police, who co-ordinated the rescue, and St John paramedics.

"Everybody's done a great job; it was first class service really," Mr Bishop said.

Taranaki Daily News