Climber's best mate defends him

JOHN EDENS
Last updated 05:00 21/08/2014
Vinton-Boot
SKILLED CLIMBER: Jamie Vinton-Boot was killed in an avalanche at The Remarkables last August.

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The best mate of a climber killed in an avalanche has defended him, saying it was a tragedy that could have happened to anyone.

Coroner David Crerar this week said climbers needed to better appreciate terrain risk after releasing a report into the death of Jamie Vinton-Boot, 30, of Christchurch, who was swept off his feet and fell about 500 metres below the Queens Drive traverse on the west face of The Remarkables range at 8.45am on August 12 last year.

A small 4m-wide slab avalanche dislodged about two tonnes of snow as Vinton-Boot and another climber, Steven Fortune, traversed without ropes.

Vinton-Boot's friend and fellow climber Paul Hersey, of Christchurch, yesterday said on that day other climbers were heading to the area but Vinton-Boot and Fortune were the first to cross.

"It could have been anyone of them," he said.

"I talked to Steve [Fortune] and it's not terrain you would rope into. Climbing is dangerous, not because you are looking for the thrill or to be dangerous. That's a consequence of where you are going as you are exposed to risk."

The Queen's Drive traverse would not have been foremost in Vinton-Boot's mind as a particularly difficult or risky route, he said.

"There's always something more that can be done in terms of safety.

"You always have to balance out the length of time that you're exposed, weather and terrain. You have to measure that and make active decisions, there's no magic equation for that."

If climbers engaged every safety consideration no-one would ascend any mountains, Hersey said.

"More awareness is always good, about weather, snow conditions, but it's not an exact science."

Hersey said Fortune remembered Vinton-Boot's tool being knocked from his wrist although he did not think having a tethered axe could have saved the climber. Fortune, who was also knocked from his feet, managed to jam his ice axe to the terrain and "self-arrest".

Hersey and his wife Shelley changed their technical climbing kit after their friend's death. They now use ice axes with wrist leashes while traversing approaches as opposed to new-style "hands-free" axes attached to a climber's harness.

"The thing we have taken from it, and she climbed with Jamie a lot, they were using new technical skills without leashes. With new tech-tools you have a bungy off your harness. On the approach you're not clipped to the axe."

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Wanaka-based mountaineer Geoff Wayatt, who was commissioned by the coroner to compile a report, said climbers, if objective-focused, could justifiably ignore basic parameters.

The avalanche danger rating condition "considerable" should only be attempted by experienced climbers, he said.

"If it's cold early season conditions the hazard may stay in the snowpack for some time. As humans we have to be analytical. They were not necessarily experienced with avalanches," Wayatt says in his report.

The coroner's report said the climbers were not reckless but a more prudent approach, including talking to ski patrol, observing avalanche control work and considering an updated advisory, may have led to them reconsidering.

Fortune told the coroner the pair discussed potential avalanche hazards but they "switched off" on the ski field access route.

A back country advisory for the day before was "low to moderate" avalanche danger. It was upgraded to "moderate to considerable". The climbers were unaware of the updated advice.

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- The Southland Times

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