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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

The Harman Pass Tragedy

The Harman Pass Tragedy.

In January, 1932, three school masters on holiday were making what is known as the “Three Pass Trip” from Hokitika to the Bealey, involving crossings of Browning, Whitehorn, and Harman Passes, which under good conditions is a simple trip not requiring any long alpine apprenticeship.

Browning's Pass was crossed without incident. At the Park - Morpet Memorial Hut, in the Wilberforce Valley the three, B. Robbins, H. D. Smith and R. K. Loney, met two experienced men, J. P. Wilson and H. M. Sweney, and received directions as to the remainder of the route over the Whitehorn and Harman Passes. Wilson and Sweney were, at that time, prospecting for gold, although their usual occupation in the back-country is that of climbing mountains and crossing difficult passes.

Mt. Evans, Westland Forest, and the Whitcombe River.

Mt. Evans, Westland Forest, and the Whitcombe River.

Robbins and his party duly set out for the Whitehorn Pass and crossed it in drizzling rain and dense fog. Had they been familiar with the route over Harman Pass their way would then have been straight forward. As it was they had no compass and no first-hand knowledge. At dusk they had become lost and had climbed the slopes of Mt. Isobel by mistake. Thinking to retrieve the position, Robbins took a short cut to the Taipo-iti Gorge below which developed into a severe rock climb down waterfalls. He may have avoided the main waterfall, and met disaster when an avalanche snow-bridge gave under his weight and hurtled him into the swollen Taipo-iti Stream. His body was later found near the snowy edge of the stream. Smith died of exhaustion and exposure on the Isobel ridge. Loney sought help, and, on the following day, staggered into the Park-Mor-peth Hut with the news that Smith was dead. Wilson crossed the Whitehorn and Harman Passes that night. His solo trip in the dark was memorable. Descending the Waimakariri River he telephoned from the Bealey for help and searchers immediately left Christ-church for the Carrington Hut.

By noon on the following day the search parties had located the missing men and brought their bodies back to civilisation, Chester and others bringing the survivor Loney back to the Bealey.

Immediate co-operation of mountaineers had resulted in an expeditious recovery of the dead men, but it had been too late to avert tragedy.