Stuck in no-man's land

On Saturday reporter Megan Miller wrote of a search and rescue team working to save lives in our mountains. Today she concentrates on one of those missions, from the view of the rescuers and the rescued.

When mountaineers Gareth and Terry set out to climb Mt Tasman on January 12, they expected to make their ascent and return in one long day.

The men had previously climbed peaks in the Southern Alps and European Alps - Terry had summited Aoraki/Mt Cook the previous year - and neither imagined that their weekend adventure would stretch into a three-day ordeal and see them relying on the help of strangers for survival.

TRAPPED: Mountaineer Terry in the narrow crevasse where he and climbing partner Gareth sheltered for 38 hours, high on Mt Tasman.
TRAPPED: Mountaineer Terry in the narrow crevasse where he and climbing partner Gareth sheltered for 38 hours, high on Mt Tasman.

This is their story.

12am, day 1

Mountaineers Gareth and Terry left the shelter of Plateau Hut in the dead of night and climbed by torchlight into the dawn.

FOUND: Gareth waves to an approaching rescue helicopter from the narrow crevasse where he and his climbing partner sheltered after becoming trapped in bad weather on Mt Tasman.
FOUND: Gareth waves to an approaching rescue helicopter from the narrow crevasse where he and his climbing partner sheltered after becoming trapped in bad weather on Mt Tasman.

The pair had scouted their route for the first portion of the Mt Tasman ascent the previous afternoon, and they easily retraced their path through the darkness.

"As expected there were some quite strong winds coming in from the Tasman Sea that made life interesting," Gareth said.

"But it wasn't impossible. It was a beautiful day."

ICY HOME: Gareth, pictured, and his climbing partner Terry, spent hours in a crevasse that the pair widened just enough to allow both men to lie down.
ICY HOME: Gareth, pictured, and his climbing partner Terry, spent hours in a crevasse that the pair widened just enough to allow both men to lie down.

By 10am they rested on the summit of Mt Tasman, 3500 metres up, munching on chocolate and gazing over the jagged, snowcapped spine of the South Island.

The last portion of their ascent, the summit ridge, had been slow going. The terrain demanded very technical climbing, and they knew it would be even slower on the descent.

Instead, they agreed to try what looked like an easier route down, one they'd seen in a guidebook. It followed a different ridge to form a loop on the return journey to Plateau Hut.

They set out into unfamiliar territory at about 12pm.

"And then," Gareth said, "the clouds started to roll in."

5pm, day 1

By the time the two men realised they'd strayed dangerously off course, they could see only about five metres in front of them.

"We'd been leading from one blind alley into another, trying to negotiate a route down through a crevasse and serac maze," Gareth said. "We'd find drops of several hundred metres when we thought we were getting somewhere, and big overhanging ice cliffs, and all manner of unspeakable horribleness.

"It started to dawn on us that we weren't going to be able to get safely down to the hut without a lot of unnecessary risk, and possibly not making it back."

The forecast had predicted that bad weather would settle over the area for about two days. They had little choice but to find shelter and wait it out.

About 6pm they dug into a narrow crevasse that opened at the base of a towering 20-metre ice cliff. Gareth chiselled away icicles and widened the space just enough to allow both men to lie down. It would be their home for the next 38 hours.

4am, day 3

Helicopter pilot Chris Brough passed a restless night and left his bed before his alarm sounded.

He'd received a phone call at 10pm with the news that someone in Plateau Hut had spotted a flashing light, a headlamp set to flicker, in a spot high on the face of Mt Tasman. Department of Conservation staff believed it marked the location of two climbers who were overdue.

The forecast showed a break in the weather that would allow a SAR team to go in for a closer look. But the location was more than 3000 metres up, and to reach it, an alpine rescuer - it would be DOC search and rescue ranger Marcus Reid - would have to fly in dangling below the helicopter on a 30-metre line, land on the mountain face, and climb several metres up to the base of the ice cliff while Chris hovered the aircraft overhead.

"That's flying someone to 10,000 feet on the end of a 100 foot line," Chris said. "Marcus has got a family too, and he needs to come home as much as me. So there's all that sort of stuff going through your mind."

6am, day 3

The SAR team's first close-up look at the climbers' location revealed a no-man's land of alpine hazards.

"They were in the middle of a face surrounded by ice cliffs and crevasses and ice falls that were falling down and avalanching," explained team leader Karen Jackson. The temperature at that altitude was -12C.

With Marcus hooked onto the line, Chris flew from Plateau Hut to a point near the climbers' crevasse. He lost sight of Marcus below the ice cliff a moment before Marcus' boots touched the ground.

As Marcus began the climb up to the crevasse where Gareth stood waiting, Chris fought to hold the helicopter perfectly still, its blades whirling just metres from the mountainside. They worked with only radio communication to co-ordinate their efforts.

"The pilot had to keep incredibly still while being guided by (Marcus') directions," Gareth said. "That was incredible to watch."

Marcus helped Gareth into a harness and the pair climbed down to a point where Chris could lift them off the face.

The whole process took about 10 minutes.

For Chris, it was an eternity.

"The whole time there's the risk of avalanche from above," Chris said. "At the end of that 10 minutes I felt as if I'd gone for a 5K run. I was puffing."

Afterwards

The SAR team plucked the climbers off Mt Tasman suffering only from fatigue and the very early stages of frostbite.

Both men experienced tingling in their extremities that went away after a few weeks, Gareth said.

"We were fortunate that they were still OK," Karen said. "I think if they'd have been there much longer they wouldn't have been OK."

The two men later returned to the DOC SAR team base at Mt Cook Village to thank the men and women who had likely saved their lives.

"I don't think we quite realised how cold we were until we got down," Gareth said.

"If we'd have been left to our own devices on that third day, it would have been extremely challenging to get out safely in time.

"I'd like to think we'd have had a good shot at it, but the fact that they'd come to sort us out was the right decision and I'm eternally grateful for that."

The climbers requested their surnames not be used.

The Timaru Herald