The family of climbers Nicole Sutton and Hiroki Ogawa saw marriage in their future. Instead, today, the couple's bodies have been airlifted off Mt Taranaki.
After two days stranded on the mountain, Sutton, 29, was still alive and huddling next to her dead companion when rescuers reached her in horrendous conditions near the summit yesterday. She had earlier texted police to say she didn't expect to survive the last night.
Although rescuers had reached her alive, she died in their arms early yesterday morning.
Ogawa, 31, had died during the night as the atrocious conditions thwarted rescue attempts.
A break in the weather allowed a recovery operation to begin at 6.50am today.
Air Force personnel dropped Alpine Cliff Rescue team members on the mountain this morning. They winched Ogawa and Sutton off the mountain and returned to New Plymouth. The recovery took just over an hour.
Miss Sutton knew her life was ebbing away as she huddled next to her dead companion in horrendous conditions near the summit of Mt Taranaki yesterday.
As a blizzard raged around their snow cave for a second night on Sunday, Ms Sutton texted police to tell them she didn't expect to survive till morning.
Miraculously, rescuers reached her alive early yesterday morning, but she died in their arms.
Her partner and climbing companion, Japanese man Hiroki Ogawa, 31, had died during the night as the atrocious conditions thwarted rescue attempts.
Miss Sutton, 29, from Auckland, was texting police and rescue teams during the ordeal giving them directions.
During a press conference at New Plymouth police station yesterday, Miss Sutton's father Keith, a prominent businessman and chairman of the investment fund TIML, revealed how he didn't think his daughter would survive Sunday night.
"I faced the morning with the reality that our daughter wasn't with us, only to find that she was. And then she wasn't,"he said.
Rescuers reached the couple about 7.30am yesterday to find Dr Ogawa had died.
Miss Sutton was conscious and spoke with the team, who provided medical assistance for several hours, but she became unconscious and later died.
Bad weather halted the recovery effort and the two bodies remain on the mountain. Attempts to recover them will be made today.
Mr Sutton said rescuers did the best job they could.
"We respect the people who gave us information about the brief moments they had with Nicole," he said.
Neither he nor his wife Anna had received a text from their daughter, he said.
"She was told to conserve her battery and just talk to the police."
But he had sent one to her, he revealed.
Miss Sutton and Dr Ogawa had known each other two years.
"He was a very special man," Mr Sutton said.
"I knew he would look after my daughter and the events of the last 48 hours have proved our view about that is correct."
The couple probably would have got married, Mr Sutton said.
Dr Ogawa was a postdoctoral research fellow at Auckland University and had come to New Zealand to pursue his postgraduate thesis on marine studies.
He had a keen interest in the outdoors, as did Miss Sutton.
"We knew the sports that he did. When Nicole joined him, there were these risks and obviously we thought about these sorts of things happening and unfortunately it's come to bear. But they were doing what they loved. "It's a sad outcome but not one we think is inappropriate for what they loved and wanted to do."
Dr Ogawa was a very experienced mountaineer and had been up Mt Taranaki on many occasions, Mr Sutton said.
"My daughter is not so experienced, but has learnt rapidly. And I think if you ask the police how well in terms of helping them in these last 48 hours, the texts she has provided them, have been absolutely exemplary. We are very proud of her ability."
The details she provided to the police and others involved in this search and rescue operation allowed them to get on with the job and minimise the risk to others involved, Mr Sutton said.
The couple had built several snow caves recently.
"Hiroki has done training with other people. He goes off to mountains to be in snow caves for the weekend. That's what he does. So I'd say he's probably done hundreds."
Mr Sutton said he and his wife had been amazed how many people from Taranaki and Ruapehu had come to the help the couple and their two companions.
"We know mountains are nasty place when things go wrong," he said.
They have felt the great support of the people who have helped them, he said.
Taranaki area commander Inspector Blair Telford said more than 30 people had been involved in the rescue effort.
But, while recovery attempts were being made weather conditions became extreme and the teams descended to ensure there was no further loss of life.
"Our focus is now on recovery. This will be done when there is improvement in the weather. We still have a number of resources on standby, these include the alpine rescue and also the air force. We are waiting for a break in the weather."
Miss Sutton and Mr Ogawa were members of the Auckland section of the New Zealand Alpine Club.
Club general manager Sam Newton said the club's annual trip to Mt Taranaki was a popular Labour Weekend tradition.
"In past seasons, Hiroki had volunteered his time to teach basic snowcraft to novice climbers. Apart for his own personal achievements in climbing, which were considerable, he will be remembered by the climbing community as someone who gave back to the grassroots.
"Nicole was relatively new to mountaineering after gaining a lot of experience as a skier. She was already developing a reputation as someone who had a real passion and enthusiasm for the sport."
TIMELINE TO TRAGEDY
Two groups of four climbers set out to climb the mountain, with the first group descending safely later that afternoon. The second party, including Hiroki Ogawa and his partner Nicole Sutton, begin their descent down the northern slopes at 7pm.
The first group raises the alarm at 10pm when the second group has still not returned. About half an hour later, rescuers began receiving text messages from the stranded four, but search parties are unable to find them as the weather worsens. All four climbers spend the night on the mountain.
By noon two of the four climbers manage to reach North Egmont Visitor Centre and are taken to hospital with mild hypothermia and some cuts and bruises to their hands.
Miss Sutton updates police with directions to their snow cave on the mountain but tells them she doesn't expect to survive the night.
Weather continued to hamper rescue efforts. Monday Rescuers get as high as 2200m, a few hundred metres from the stranded couple, before the weather forces them back at 4am.
A second team manages to reach the pair at about 7.30am, finding Dr Ogawa dead and Miss Sutton very weak. The weather remains too wild for a helicopter rescue and after several hours with rescuers, Miss Sutton slips into unconsciousness and dies.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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