Survivor tells guide's partner of last words

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
IN FOCUS: Anton Wopereis just hours before he fell to his death. His partner, Barbara, has described his final photo as: ``Brilliant, just Anton to a T. He's at the bottom of the Summit Rocks and he's smiling. It's a beautiful photo.''

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The Scottish tourist who watched her mountain guide plummet to his death has visited his bereaved partner to describe his final moments.

Anton Francis Wopereis, of Wanaka, who died after falling 60m to his death on Mount Cook on Tuesday, was an experienced and respected guide attempting his 31st summit.

His name was only released late yesterday after police were able to contact two of his brothers, who were tramping.

The Scottish woman he was guiding on his New Year's Day climb remained attached to the anchor point they shared when an ice slab slipped, sending him to his death.

Barbara, who asked for her surname not to be published, said she was grateful the tourist had shared her story.

"It really was brilliant to know how he went and what his last words were," Barbara said.

"He told her, `I can't stop'. He said it in a very calm manner -- and he just disappeared over the rock bluff.

"He was killed instantly."

Barbara said Wopereis was a conservative guide, who took no risks.

"I would trust my life with him," she said.

The pair met almost four years ago through the Upper Clutha Tramping Club, of which Wopereis was president.

"He was a gem, a real gentleman. Our time together was very happy, and he was a wonderful stepfather to my four children. He knew it (climbing) was a risky business, but I would never have stopped him.

"He was a different man in the mountains.

"He died doing what he loved and he did it in style -- the anchor held and the woman he was guiding is still alive."

The Scottish woman declined to speak to the media yesterday, but had been interviewed by Guy Cotter, of the Mountain Guide Association, who said the woman was distressed.

The funeral for Wopereis, the eldest of four brothers, will be held early next week.

Wopereis, who has climbed internationally, guided for several companies and was active in the Upper Clutha Tramping Club, a member of New Zealand Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) Wanaka and the Wanaka Mountain Safety Council. He helped train SAS forces in mountaineering skills.

Aspiring Guides director and chief guide Marty Beare said Wopereis was a stalwart of Wanaka's outdoor community.

"He was an open, honest and genuine character," he said.

"He could appear unassuming, but in the mountain world he was definitely a leader who was well-respected and looked up to by all other guides."

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Colleagues and friends told stories of a man who would generously share his time and knowledge of the outdoors to help others achieve their goals.

LandSAR Wanaka chairman Peter Taylor said his death was "a huge loss" for Search and Rescue and the tramping club.

"He was a quiet and humble person. He was regarded as cautious -- to the point of overly cautious -- in his profession. He just wasn't a guy to make mistakes."

Heather Thorne, who has known Wopereis for about 10 years through the Upper Clutha Tramping Club, and their work together on the safety council, said the experienced guide was "a great volunteer, very community-orientated and always helping newcomers".

"If someone ever got into difficulty on a tramp, he would always stay behind and help them," she said.

"We (the tramping club members) just feel shocked and saddened and we're trying to support his partner, Barbara, through this."

Veteran mountain guide Geoff Wayatt knew Wopereis for 20 years.

"He's one of those people who you could just ring in a jam and he would look for ways to fit you in -- he'd never be too busy to help.

"It's certainly a shock when an older mountaineer of his experience dies, but it sounds like this was a genuine accident."

Guides and climbers attempting Mount Cook are being made aware of the tragedy by climbing companies and have been left to assess whether to continue climbing.

The Department of Conservation area manager for Aoraki, Ross Campbell, said although the outcome was tragic, he was impressed by the rescue team's efficient response on Tuesday. The rescue helicopter took a team of six -- four Search and Rescue experts and two alpine guides. The alpine guides were left at Plateau Hut, the nearest hut to the incident, while the Search and Rescue team made a staging area about 400m from Wopereis and his client.

The team was able to reach the guide by dangling a rope from the belly of the helicopter and retrieving him on a stretcher.

Four other guides and five clients were evacuated from the Summit Rocks after the incident because the traumatic news could affect their climbing.


- The Press

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