Soldier killed in crevasse fall on Aoraki/Mt Cook

SAHIBAN KANWAL AND ABBIE NAPIER
Last updated 21:22 16/07/2014
Westpac rescue team on Mt Cook retrieving dead Australian soldier
Westpac Rescue Helicopter

RETRIEVAL: The rescue helicopter removed the body of the Australian soldier from Mt Cook.

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A 44-year-old Australian commando has died during a training activity on Aoraki Mount Cook’s Grand Plateau.

It is understood the soldier went into the park on Sunday with nine other soldiers and had planned to be there for a two-week mountain and cold weather training exercise.

The 10 soldiers had been flown into Plateau Hut at 2200m. The group was self-contained and had no local guides with them.

The Australian defence ministry said the Sydney-based man was highly qualified and experienced in alpine, mountain and altitude activities.

He was a member of the 2nd Commando Regiment.

‘‘The soldier was recovered by his colleagues who administered  first aid. Sadly they were unable to revive him,’’ Defence said in a  brief statement.

The soldier’s family have been notified but his name has not  been released.

The police confirmed the soldier fell 30-40 metres down a crevasse today.

Emergency services were notified of the incident about 1pm today and the Alpine Rescue Team from Mt Cook flew to the area.

His body was recovered by the rescue team and flown to the Mount Cook Emergency Service Centre.  

Alpine guide Trevor Streat, who helped recover the body, said that by the time he arrived at the scene the soldier had been lifted out of the crevasse by his companions.

"The army guys did a really good job of getting down to the guy. They had him back on the surface and were performing CPR on him when we arrived," Streat told Radio NZ.

"They'd got him out of the crevasse on their own, which would have been quite difficult, I think," he said.

"We were able to add our oxygen bottle and defibrillator into the mix but of course that wasn't successful. The Westpac helicopter arrived not too long after us with a couple of paramedics on board."

Streat said his information was second-hand but he understood the soldier had been probing for crevasses when a bridge collapsed underneath him and he fell.

"He was quite knocked around. He'd bounced off a few things on the way down," Streat said.

The area was reasonably dangerous, although plenty of people did pass through or around it.

"It wasn't unreasonable to be going in there," he said.

"Some of the crevasses were open. We have had a lot of snow and  wind up there recently so some of the crevasses are bridged."

The group had been travelling unroped on small skis. It was a judgment call whether to travel roped together, Streat said.

Had they been roped, as long as people on the other end were on their game, it would have been safer.

The Australian Defence Force said it was investigating the incident, and the man's death had been referred to the coroner. 

Conservation Minister Nick Smith said he had been in the area inspecting the "humungous" landslide on Mt Cook when he was made aware of the tragedy by Department of Conservation staff.

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"The brief I've received is that the soldier fell through a snowbridge into a deep crevasse and incurred injuries that were unsurvivable.

"He has been recovered by the efforts of the mountain search and rescue team."

It was a sad day for the Australian armed services and a tragedy for the family, he said.

"There will need to be proper inquires as to whether all potential safety measures were taken, but the alpine environment, particularly in the very high altitudes of Mt Cook, always carry a level of risk.’’

The conditions on Mt Cook were a little unusual for the season, in that there had been far less snowfall and the temperature was warmer than normal, he said. 

New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton said it was not common for people to climb in the area where the incident occurred during this time of year.

The risk of climbing during winter was higher than in summer, he added.

"In winter it is more likely that crevasses will be covered by snowfall.

"But there is a risk of falling into a crevasse in both summer and winter."

Alpine Guides manager Arthur McBride said the terrain in the area changed rapidly, was heavily glaciated and had a number of large crevasses. 

The fatal fall came after news of a large and "very rare" avalanche that engulfed a climber's hut on the mountain.

The rockfall happened on the South Ridge, or Hillary Ridge, of the mountain and swept down Noeline Glacier and over Pudding Rock, where the Gardiner Hut sits. It was reported by a pilot yesterday.

Photographs show the tin hut, which can sleep about eight people, engulfed in small rocks and moved off its foundations.

The rockfall is the third to strike the area in the last 18 months.

More than 230 people have died in the national park, with more than 70 of those deaths being on Aoraki Mt Cook.

The death is not the first to occur among military staff on mountatins.

Five New Zealand soldiers and a naval rating died on Mt Ruapehu in August 1990.

They were among a group of 11 trainees and two army instructors who became disoriented near the summit in gale-force winds, sub-zero temperatures and whiteout conditions.

They dug two snow caves for shelter and sang nursery rhymes for comfort while two men walked 11 hours to raise the alarm.

Three days later, rescuers found the group but by then six had died from exposure.

- Timaru Herald, The Press, AAP

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