it’s not always good news
“the sad reality of being a mountaineer means that, climb for long enough and you too will likely receive a phone call like the one i got.”
The first message came through on social media – a friend in the mountains near Queenstown posting that he was safe. It was a few days before an annual festival, when climbers from around the country congregated at the resort town to test themselves on the ice and rock of the Remarkables Mountain Range. I sent a text to one of my mates, Jamie, who I knew was also over there, getting in some warm-up climbs before the festival started. 'You ok bro? Accident I hear?' Jamie was one of this country's top all round climbers, so I wasn't too concerned about him personally. More, i wondered if he had any news on what might have happened to someone else. a few minutes later came the phone call no one wants to receive. 'Hi Paul, it's Al.... There's no easy way to say this. I'm sorry, but Jamie's taken a fall. He's dead.' Mountain climbing is a dangerous, wonderful and, to some, provocative outdoor activity. Non climbers often presume it is pursued by adrenaline fuelled risk takers. Mainstream media has a tendency to reinforce this perception, only reporting on it when another tragedy occurs. But, the sad reality of being a mountaineer means that, climb for long enough and you too will likely receive a phone call like the one I got. Every year climbers die in our mountains, and this summer has been no different. Since 1980, there have been over 220 climbing fatalities in New Zealand (according to records kept by New Zealand Mountain Safety Council). Of those, approximately 40 have been on aoraki mount cook, slightly less on each of mountains’ ruapehu, aspiring, and Taranaki and around 15 on Tasman. Taranaki, though, holds the overall record at more than 100 fatalities since its first ascent in 1839, while Aoraki mount cook has around 80 (the reason these statistics aren’t exact is due to MSC, the Department Of Conservation and Police having discrepancies in their records, as well as varying definitions as to where a ' mountain' actually begins). And every year, the same questions arise: Why do these tragedies occur and what, if anything, can be done to prevent them? These are not questions easily solved. Climbers understand better than most how little is needed to survive, but also how fragile that survival can be. No one has a death wish – certainly not any of the climbers I know – and they would be foolhardy not to heed relevant advice or learn from the misfortune of others. Inexperience and a lack of understanding of alpine conditions are not the only factors in mountaineering accidents, but they are certainly two of the major ones. The first five years is considered a particularly risky time for a budding climber, and can be reflected in the accident statistics of 'popular' climbs they attempt. in understanding why certain mountains appear, statistically, to be more dangerous than others, it is worth noting that our mountains with the highest death rates – taranaki, aoraki, aspiring, tasman and ruapehu – are also among the most popular. ruapehu and taranaki, along with tongariro and ngaruahoe, are the only chance for scaling a 'real' mountain in the North Island. These mountains are usually considered by climbers as stepping stones' to more challenging peaks in the South Island, but they can also be dangerous. While the casualty rates can be attributed as much to the accessibility of the mountains as to any technical or dangerous aspects on them, ruapehu and taranaki in particular are exposed to sudden and violent changes in the weather. There is also another factor to consider. our highest mountains lie within the boundaries of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. These mountains are steeped in a history that is also the history of alpinism in this country. Classic climbing routes abound, routes that have set New Zealand mountaineers among the world’s best in times past. Routes like Jack Carke, Tom Fyfe and George Grahams’ 1894 first ascent of Aoraki via its North Ridge, the caroline face route on aoraki, and some of the harder routes on Hicks, proved that Kiwi climbers could foot it with the best of our northern hemisphere, and later American, counterparts. Indeed aoraki’s north ridge is still considered rather daunting even by today’s alpine standards.
Despite approaching deadlines for his latest work, Dunedin writer Paul Hersey frequently succumbs to the the lure of the nearby Southern Alps and Pacific Ocean. ‘It’s way more fun having an adventure, climbing or surfing or just exploring, then it is...