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

Relief Expeditions in the Mountains — Alpine Rescue Parties In New Zealand

page 39

Relief Expeditions in the Mountains
Alpine Rescue Parties In New Zealand

Evening light and shade on the Shelf Glacier—from the Southern Cornice of Mt. Evans, South Island, New Zealand

Evening light and shade on the Shelf Glacier—from the Southern Cornice of Mt. Evans, South Island, New Zealand

In 1932, Sir William Ellis, of the Alpine Club, London, addressed a gathering of mountaineers in Canterbury. In the course of his address, he said: “You have before you a magnificent opportunity of developing climbing in New Zealand, but you should approach the task with respect and care. The Alpine Club has always stood out for climbing with safety and basing progress on experience. I hope you will not let your vigour over-reach your discretion and so bring discredit on climbing. I wish you good fortune in your pioneer work.” These remarks were made by one who realised the great difference that exists between mountaineering in the European Alps and the Southern Alps of New Zealand. In Europe, all the mountains have been ascended many times, and some of the peaks are dominated by hotels on summits and cols, and alpine railways traverse their ridges.

In the Southern Alps of New Zealand there are no summit hotels, no mountain railways, and many peaks are still unclimbed. New routes exist in a distracting profusion, and, weather permitting, young climbers and old, can blunt their ice-claws on untouched ice falls, and test their agility on virgin rock. Some remote valleys are, as yet, even untrodden—especially in parts of Westland, difficult of access—but these are fast being explored.

In fact, access to the New Zealand mountain valleys is often difficult. It is only in the Arthur's Pass, Hermitage, Fox, Franz Josef and Milford regions, that hotels exist. In other valleys a primitive musterer's hut, or a sturdy alpine hut provides the only accommodation; but the majority of ravines nestle in solitude, only to be disturbed by visiting, parties in search of deer, gold, or mountain climbing.

These difficulties of access entail the perfection of a technique that has to deal with a wider range of subjects than the mere mastery of rope, snow, ice, and rock, with which the European mountaineer is mainly concerned. It is necessary for the New Zealander to acquire merit in the crafts of cooking, river-fording, track finding in untrodden jungle, compass-reading, map-making, and organisation.

Serious accidents in the Southern
A great flood in the Wllberforce River, Canterbury, New Zealand.

A great flood in the Wllberforce River, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Alps have been few and far between. This is fortunate, because the difficulties of rescue work are proportionate to the inaccessibility of the country to be traversed. On the European peaks the hordes of inexperienced tourists tend to make mountain accidents frequent and inevitable. In New Zealand the majority of the parties in the ranges possess a self-reliant leader, who, in anticipating trouble, is fitted to meet it with the precision born of foresight. In the latter ranges it is customary for a party making a three weeks' trip not to see any other men after they leave the back-country homestead. There is no one in the valley to observe through a telescope their struggles to gain the summit. If they meet trouble, it behaves them to find their own way out. Therefore, the Southern mountaineers seldom climb “solo.” Climbing in pairs in new country is discouraged by the elders. Three, or four, is a safer number—if less mobile in transit and more unwieldy on difficult climbs.

When any accident occurs one man must set out for the nearest habitation, there to send a message for help. Quick organisation will bring a relief page 40 party to the nearest valley and the rescue follows naturally.

When a whole party is overdue, the problem of relief assumes more serious proportions. Mountaineering expeditions are usually combined with a transalpine crossing of the Southern Alps from Canterbury or Otago to Westland. The intricate system of high passes on the Main Divide, and saddles on the sub-ranges, make it possible for a party to be bewildered with the variety of routes which it may traverse “over the range.” Would-be rescuers may be more bewildered. Parties overdue in bad weather may be assumed to be held up by flooded rivers. Many a party has turned up safe, with no record of accident or disaster, and yet has been a week late for work. The New Zealand rivers run deep, but belie the proverb, and are never still.

Would-be rescuers must use their initiative in cases of doubt, and their common-sense at all times. It is the unwritten law for the leader of a party that, before he sets forth for the high country, he must leave with his friends in the town a detailed list of the routes, and alternatives, to be followed. Notes as to progress are left in tobacco tins in huts or under bivouac rocks, where ashes will tell the tale of a camp fire. Yet sudden storm or unexpected floods can change the plans of a party on the crest of the Main Divideitself. Early in 1934 a Canterbury Mountaineering Club party had made the first ascent of oft-beleagured Mt. Evans, in Westland. They had traversed the three peaks of the mountain to an arctic benightment on the Red Lion Col and returned to their camp by way of the County and McKenzie Glaciers. It was decided to reach Westland habitation by a first crossing of the Full Moon Saddle of the Bracken Snowfield. A note to that effect was left in a cave camp. The party set out in a snowstorm. The blizzard on the high-level route became worse. The compass had been lost in a previous snow bivouac. Visibility was nil. The Full Moon Saddle could not be found, still less crossed. A forced camp was splayed on the Erewhon Col, and a retreat subsequently made to the Rakaia Valley in Canterbury. Through circumstances beyond their control the climbers had changed their plans. If accident had delayed them, and a relief party ultimately found the note in the cave camp, the latter would have crossed the Full Moon Saddle and sought in vain for their friends. As it happened the party was lucky, and retreated from the trap, having lost only a tent. But it all goes to show the problems that confront rescuers in New Zealand.

So much for theory. It is time to leaven the subject of alpine rescue-work with the spice of fact. Narratives of four relief expeditions are recounted to illustrate the nature of searches, when accidents do occur.

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.

The East Matukituki Accident.

While doing valuable climbing work in new territory at the head of the East Matukituki River, Aspiring region, Otago, a party of New Zealand Alpine Club members met unexpected trouble. S. W. Studholme fell from a glazed snow slope, and descended over a bluff to injure his back on a rock 35 feet below. All this was in the still evening, in country far more inaccessible than the Harman Pass, previously described.

Fortunately the Otago men numbered five, and were strong in their resource. Slowly the injured man was moved to a camp at the head of the valley, while two men dashed down the river and gorge to the Aspinall's homestead where a short-wave wireless set enabled communication to be made with Roland Ellis, of Dunedin, who organised a fully-equipped relief expedition.

Brief extracts from the New Zealand Alpine Journal will explain the difficulties attending the rescue: “The stretcher party moved on shortly after nine o'clock to the hardest work of the relief. After following the boulder-strewn riverbed for about half a mile, the party was compelled to take to the bush, where two men with axes cleared page 41 a track ahead of the stretcher. Assistance was necessary in lifting the stretcher over the enormous boulders and in receiving it when lowered on the other side. All were in the water nearly as often as on the banks.” The river crossings were formidable. “Six men, with the stretcher on their shoulders, then entered the lines (rope) and, although the icy raging torrent approached the armpits, they successfully reached the other bank without wetting the patient.” “On one occasion when rounding a bluff, one of the bearers, in an endeavour to stand on air, found himself suspended at full arm's length below the stretcher, but fortunately the others were able to hold both him and the stretcher.”

It is satisfactory to relate that Stud-holme recovered, and owes his life to the efficiency and endurance of those men of the Otago mountains.

Winter on the Whitehorn Pass.

In May, 1934, J. Lysaght and B. Mason experienced winter ice conditions on the Whitehorn Pass, Wilberforce-Taipo watershed. While descending the steep Cronin slopes, Lysaght slipped and fell some 500 feet, suffering severe injuries to his arm. Mason had no ice-axe, but hacked his way down to his companion with a hunting knife. Thus began a period critical to the safety of both men.

Lysaght was unable to move, and Mason bound him up in two sleeping-bags and left for the Wilberforce Valley, where no help was available at that time. Mason returned the next day and helped the other down the Cronin Valley, both men lying out in the rain that winter's night. They reached the welcome haven of the Park-Morpeth Hut on the following morning, there to shelter for several days. Mason journeyed down the Wilberforce Valley where he met some Mt. Algidus mus-terers who lent him a pack-horse to enable him to take Lysaght to the nearest homestead, Glenthorne.

A Canterbury Mountaineering Club Relief Party en route to the Whitehorn Pass, in winter. (Left to right): Messrs. J. D. Pascoe. A. A. Treloar, H. D. Ingle, B. Stinear, and A. A. Anderson.

A Canterbury Mountaineering Club Relief Party en route to the Whitehorn Pass, in winter. (Left to right): Messrs. J. D. Pascoe. A. A. Treloar, H. D. Ingle, B. Stinear, and A. A. Anderson.

The Red Lion Peak from Full Moon Saddle.

The Red Lion Peak from Full Moon Saddle.

When it was known that these two men were overdue, a party left Christ-church and made a speedy trip up the Waimakariri in the dark. The river had to be crossed six times. Five men crossed the Harman and Whitehorn Passes under very bad conditions. No crampons (ice-claws) were available and the leaders had constant step-cutting. The utmost care was taken, the party being roped, and the treacherous ice slope into the Cronin was descended safely. At the Park-Morpeth Hut the relief men learnt of the safety of their friends and made swift travelling down the river to Glenthorne. They had accomplished a winter journey from the Bealey Hotel to Glenthorne Homestead via Harman and Whitehorn Passes in two days, entailing much travel over rough country in the dark, and dangerous ice work. This had been made possible by the topographical knowledge of the searchers who could pick the shortest routes in any conditions.

From this experience it will appear the search parties will face some of the ardours of travel which affect the lost men. The possibilities of accident, the maze of rugged country to be traversed and the heavy packs, all combine to render the search a matter for caution, yet speed which, under winter conditions, are not easy to combine.

Rescue in the Franz Josef Alps.

On January 23, 1933, Guide Mark Lysons and Miss Ida Corry, a member of the Ladies' Alpine Club, England, made the first ascent of Mt. Goldsmith, 9,532 feet. On the descent Lysons broke his leg in jumping a crevasse. This accident would have been disastrous had not Miss Corry and her guide kept their heads in the most difficult of circumstances. They were far from outside help, and had to rely entirely on their own resources. Miss Corry assisted Lysons by cutting steps, the length of the rope, and belayed (anchored) while he lowered himself, using his ice-axe as a brake. With two ice-axes as crutches Lysons could force a trail over the snow at the foot of the slope. Night set in and made progress even more difficult. After twenty hours the Almer Hut was reached—a ten-mile journey, with a descent of 5,000 feet.

Mt. Marion and the Cronin Icefield from the Whitehorn Pass.

Mt. Marion and the Cronin Icefield from the Whitehorn Pass.

Guide Joe Fluerty happened to be at the Almer Hut. He fixed up Lysons's leg with ski-splints and raced down the Franz Josef Icefall. A doctor was on the glacier and with Guide Jack Pope he hastened up to the Almer Hut. A party of men, led by the famous guides, Alec and Peter page 42 page 43 Graham, arrived later at the Hut. Lysons was transported to Waiho, thence to Hokitika, without delay.

It is fitting to quote the comment of the Editor of the New Zealand Alpine Journal: “Miss Corry's coolness, resource, careful climbing, and endurance, combined with Lysons's pluck are so entirely in accordance with the highest climbing traditions that this episode will always stand out in the annals of New Zealand mountaineering.”

The Southern Alps have their days of calm and delight as well as storm and danger. Those who have travelled in the glaciated fastnesses feel that they will want to return to the mountains, where the charm of new climbing is so securely blended with the spice of adventure. New Zealanders are indeed fortunate to have access to such a variety of mountain travel.

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Mt. Whitcombe, from the Kinkel Ridge, Southern Alps, New Zealand.

Mt. Whitcombe, from the Kinkel Ridge, Southern Alps, New Zealand.

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