Episode 26 – Chris Barker Snow Cave Survival written account
Chris Barker has kindly shared permission to provide the written account he put together regarding the 5 days of snow cave survival which he endured during a harrowing experience on the Tasman Glacier, Southern Alps NZ in 1998. The words below were all written by Chris himself and go into detail about the ordeal.
Chilled out on Elie
by Chris Barker
‘C’mon. bro! Get the belay set up, quick! The weather is going to beat us!’ he shouted. My brother Rod was anxious.
Angrily I said, ‘Don’t rush me damn it! I’ll make a mistake.’
In a place like this and in these conditions, short cuts could be fatal. Steep icy slopes, crevasses, icefall, visibility reducing by the minute. Tensions were rising. Shallow footsteps from our ascent, gone. Filled completely with snow. The peaks we marvelled at this morning were disappearing fast. Rod wanted to keep going. I agreed, telling him he’s on belay. As the rope fed through my gloves and belay device, I watched as he cautiously descended into whiteout.
Suddenly, he yelled ‘Shit!’ He had narrowly escaped stepping into an open crevasse! With nil visibility, descending was out of the question. It was too dangerous.
For six months Rod and I had planned a climbing trip to our homeland, New Zealand. Our goals would be to climb Mount Hochstetter (2,827m), Elie de Beaumont (3,109m), Mount Green (2,837m), and Aoraki/Mount Cook (3,745m).
With guides, my father’s dad climbed in the Southern Alps in the 1920s. He also climbed with his brother-in-law, notable English climber, Harold Porter. Mount Elie de Beaumont was one of his bagged peaks, and he was fortunate to have several first and second ascents to his credit. It felt special for me to tramp some of his paths, over seventy- five years later.
In December 1997, Rod and I completed a mountaineering course with Alpine Guides Mount Cook. Trevor Streets was our guide and teacher, and we learned from him the essential skills. We climbed two mountains in the Tasman Saddle area: Mt Aylmer (2699m) and Mt Abel (2688m).
We finished the course by walking the twenty-three kilometres of knee jarring snow, ice and moraine of the Tasman Glacier. It took seven and a half hours, one of the quicker trips down. Back home, I embarked on a programme to build up my fitness, which included running, cycling swimming, waterpolo, rock and hill climbing. For ice climbing practice, I used a dead gum tree. Lastly, but just as importantly for me, I decided to abstain from alcohol and caffeine.
We were itching to get to the Southern Alps. After emotional farewells to Angela and the children, I flew from Tassie to Melbourne, where I met Rod. Rod and I flew to Mount Cook, then booked a plane flight into the mountains for the next day, leaving at 9:30am. Thursday 3 December. We were off. Scenic aircraft were mere specks against the vast backdrop of blue sky rock and ice. The east face of Aoraki/ Mount Cook and Zurbriggens Ridge were spectacular! The pilot unloaded our gear, wished us all the best and a safe trip, then left to pick up sightseers.
‘We’re here! Yee-ha!’ Six months of waiting was finally over. We stored seven days’ food in the snow. After a week or so at the Tasman Saddle Hut, we planned to fly to the Grand Plateau Hut and have a go at climbing Aoraki/Mount Cook. We roped up and plodded up to our abode. It would take two trips of around eighteen kilogram loads to get our gear to the hut. We zigzagged up the slope passing the area where we did our crevasse rescue one year ago. Snow bridges were negotiated safely. Firm crunchy snow made the going easy. Later that night we switched on the hut radio to get the latest weather forecast. It was all go for tomorrow. Alright!
All fired up, Rod and I got our climbing gear together. We were satisfied with the day’s effort and stoked to be able to start climbing within three days of leaving Australia. Last year it was a week before we were able to fly to the mountains let alone climb! Mount Hochstetter was our first choice, being the closest of the mountains to our hut and the easiest on our planned list. 9:30pm we hit the sack. The skies were clear, the moon in its second night after full. Sleep was difficult. I rose to look at the captivating mountains in the moonlight. Hochstetter, Elie de Beaumont and all the other mountains were as clear as day, a perfect opportunity for a night climb, I thought.
Friday, 4 December.
The plan was to head directly for the south face of Hochstetter, veer left, up on to the south-west slopes, weave through crevasses, then on to the west ridge, to the top. After the summit, descend the north ridge to Aylmer Col, up the west ridge to the summit of Mount Aylmer.
After roping up and checking each other’s gear, I led off. Our steps were soon in sync with each other, keeping the eight metres of rope between us loosely tensioned in crevassed areas. Our crampons crunched the frosted snow. We passed large blocks of ice that came off a hanging glacier on Hochstetter’s southern flank. We made sure not to linger about there too long. We zigzagged as the slope gradually steepened. Three pitches were belayed in order to cross suspect snow bridges and steeper ice on our way to the top.
Arriving at the summit, we snacked briefly, taking in the sights. But we could not enjoy the panoramic views for long, as cloud was closing in on the peaks around us. We descended the north ridge to Aylmer Col, unroped and skipped the idea of ascending Mount Aylmer due to the weather and also having been up it last year. We were back at the hut at 12:00pm. Rod and I were pleased with the climb.
Later that afternoon we noticed a party of four climbers coming off Hochstetter, going in the opposite direction that Rod and I had taken. They eventually headed our way. We recognized Trevor Streets, our guide from last year. We greeted him and his party of three Australians. It was a surprise to catch up with him again, and picked his brains on the best route up Elie. We thanked Trevor for his help.
At the 7:00pm radio schedule, I jotted down the weather info. Rod relayed that all was well with the Barker party. The forecast for the next twenty-four hours was for a shallow cold front to pass over, snow above 3000 metres clearing from the west tomorrow afternoon. Good news! The bad weather will be short lived, although it looked like we might be hut bound the next day. Rod and I played a game of chess. I wasn’t up to finishing it just yet, so I wrote a memo for whose move was next and placed it on the chessboard. I made an entry into the hut diary.
Saturday 5 December.
We rose at 5:30am. Outside, it was clear with a gentle breeze from the west. The high altitude cloud was moving slowly in a south-westerly direction. We discussed the weather at length and thought it would hold for the day. It looked settled enough to climb. We agreed. Let’s do it! Elie de Beaumont, wow! A 10,000 footer. Excellent! The thought was a great incentive to get out there.
We wolfed down a hearty breakfast. As it was going to be a twelve to fourteen hour climb, a good lunch was needed. Two litres of water, a packet of dried apricots, a can of sardines, 200 grams of chocolate, half a packet barley sugars, two muesli bars and half a packet of mixed grain crackers was my fuel for the day. We set off at 6:45am. We would have much preferred to leave two hours earlier, but our lousy night’s sleep and the forecast of bad weather didn’t help. I casually asked Rod if we should take our bivvy bags. He didn’t think we would need them. Rod and I checked and double- checked each other’s equipment and pack contents. We’re not here,’ I said, setting off.
In two hours and fifteen minutes, we were at the base of Elie. Snow conditions were perfect for climbing. Firm to hard snow enabled us to cover the ground quickly. At 9:00am we had a break. I had a few apricots, water and a barley sugar. I put two barley sugars in my pocket; something to suck on during the next stretch. By staying close to Mount Walter, taking a straight-ish line towards the hanging glacier below the col of Walter and Elie, we avoided most of the icefall section and the heavily crevassed areas, much as Trevor had described.
While ascending close to Mount Walter’s east face, ice and stones hurtled down, the sun melting them from the mountain’s icy grip. Fortunately, we were out far enough to avoid the missiles. Having cleared the dangers on the lower face of the mountain, climbing was easier, more upward plodding.
We made it to the upper midsection of the mountain, on to a large snow slope by 10:30am. It was time for another break. The sun was an inferno. We stripped off our clothing and smeared sunscreen over any exposed skin. Heading off again, we found climbing the higher slopes quite straightforward.
The wind near the top swirled, whipping up spindrift snow. It cooled quickly, so we stopped to put more clothes on. We were at the final dome below the summit. Rod’s altimeter registered 3020 metres above sea level. It was 11:30am. Two belayed pitches of climbing on bulletproof ice would get Rod and I to the summit. It was a comfortable formality, or so we thought.
The weather changed rapidly, spindrift blasted our faces. Raising his voice to be heard over the howling wind, Rod suggested we put our goggles on. I readily agreed. It meant having to stop briefly to do this.
Looking down on the Tasman Glacier the sun still shone. We could see sightseers playing close to landed aircraft. Up here, the weather was breaking up! In under an hour I thought, we could be on top, then get out as quickly as possible. Rod and I discussed and agreed on that matter and continued. It did not take too long to realize that we should retreat. Elie’s mood was transforming.
To be so close to the summit and then forced to descend was a huge disappointment. It was the only safe option to us. She will be here next year.
We had to concentrate on what we were doing now. A sense of urgency crept into our movements. Our tracks from the ascent were barely visible, slowing our progress. We moved as quickly as the terrain would allow. Crevasses often checked and slowed our downward progress when placing belay anchors. As the whiteout thickened, our re-collection of which part of which crevasse we had crossed became more difficult. Our chances of getting off the mountain safely were remote in these conditions. We discussed our options. Build a snow cave? Shelter in a crevasse? How long was this weather going to last? Not having spent any nights in a snow cave before I had reservations.
Rod was anxious; his preference was to descend. We decided to build a snow cave. It was our best chance of seeing through this weather. The site we chose was five metres on the downside of a gaping crevasse. The position of the cave would be safe. If it were to avalanche above, the snow would either go into the crevasse or spill safely over the snow cave. Nevertheless I still felt uncertain about the security of the cave’s location.
Our only tools to dig with were ice axes, snowstakes, cramponed boots and helmets. It was extremely slow. Rod’s mood changed as we got stuck into digging our shelter. He apologized for rushing me on the belay earlier and became quiet and calm, a contrast to his earlier mood.
Firm layers of snow and ice gave me confidence in the site as we burrowed. Four hours later we had made enough room for the two of us to fit inside. We carved a small bench to sit on. The cave was one metre wide, one metre long and one and a half metres high. It was a rudimentary construction but importantly it got us out of the savage weather.
It was around 6:30pm when we entered our shelter, away from the tempest being unleashed on the mountain. It was a relief to be out of the wind and snow. The silence was great. I could hear myself think again. We had got wet during the physical effort in making the snow cave but eventually dried out.
Our initial thoughts were to wait for the weather to settle, then perhaps this evening attempt to descend. At the worst we’d wait till tomorrow. One proposal I had was to head for the summit the next day to complete the climb, then return to the hut.
The conditions inside the cave, although cramped, were adequate. We sat side by side at right angles to the crevasse. It remained reasonably light inside, even as day became night. Periodic checks outside revealed that conditions were not about to improve. We were extremely fortunate to have had excellent clothing, as the night would be a task to see through in that frigid environment.
Rod and I felt a degree of confidence that DoC would be aware that we had not returned from the day’s climb after not getting us on the hut radio at 7:00pm. We also thought that Trevor’s party might have noticed us on the mountain today. All in all, we felt sure someone would be aware.
We were not overly keen with the situation we were in. Pessimistic thoughts were kept at bay by talking about our families. The night was uncomfortable. Our backsides were wet and we could not rest our heads. We had to avoid leaning our bodies against the snow otherwise we would get wet, and that would lead to cold and hypo- thermia. Padding for our butts was my new climbing rope. It soaked up the melted snow and embedded itself into the bench. In other words, it was totally ineffective.
Sunday 6 December.
We slept very little through the night. I woke up at around 4:30am. It was slowly getting lighter inside the cave. Our morale was good. At around 5:30am we checked the conditions outside. It was still full whiteout. We decided to ration our food for the next three days. Surely, we’ll be out well before then, we thought.
Having no contact with anyone gave us a sense of total detachment from the outside world. Time dragged on. We told jokes and shared experiences. It was our sister’s birthday that day. Rod got a little depressed with our situation. We had to keep talking about anything we could think of to prevent depression or negativity creeping in. The only reading material we had was my New Zealand Mountaineering technical manual. We had nothing to write with. If only I had that novel from the hut…
By 9:00pm it had stopped snowing. The sky was grey and a westerly wind was blowing strong. The conditions still looked menacing. There was little chance of making it to the hut tonight.
The sight of the hut was tormenting. It was about five kilometres in direct line of sight from our cave. It might as well have been on the moon, considering the time of day and the dangers between it and us. It reminded us of our wicked stash of food and warm down sleeping bags. Rod and I still felt optimistic that tomorrow we would get off the mountain. The prospect helped us through the second night.
The night was long and cold. We kept active to try and stay warm. Kicking our lower legs out in rhythm, to keep the blood pumping to toes and feet. Rubbing our thighs with our hands helped keep hands and legs warm also. It was difficult to sleep. The temperature inside the cave was zero degrees Celsius.
Monday 7 December.
It was a relief to see daylight. The experience was changing from being a challenge to becoming a concerted effort, trying to cope with the conditions adequately until we could make a break. Conditions outside the cave were an anti-climax. The weather had deteriorated again and there was little chance of getting off the mountain that day.
Our butts were wet, again. This time, the backpacks soaked up water from radiated body heat. It was becoming a major effort just to keep dry. I had an idea. It was to arrange our climbing tools to sit on. The snow-stake and ice axe were placed at butt width, at right angles to the seat. At right angles to the stake and axe was the ice hammer, at the rear of the seat. In the middle of this sat the helmet.
Between the helmet and ice hammer lay our drink bottles; mine was a 1.25 litre plastic Coke bottle. It provided an excellent means to elevate our butts from the cold snow but was an excruciatingly, comfortless experience, relieved only momentarily by changing to another unbearable seating position. We had no choice but to put up with it. Slowly, our butts dried out. It was an enormous relief to be rid of the cold, stinging sensation.
At around 10:30am we could make out Mount Walter through the falling snow. We mutually agreed, ‘Let’s get the f* &# out of here! ’ The getting off the mountain was exciting, but fraught with danger. Heavy snow had fallen in the last thirty hours, and the avalanche risk was high. On several occasions we heard the intimidating sound of one nearby.
Rod was determined not to spend another night here. I felt similar, although it reminded me of something dad would say in relation to being in a dangerous situation: ‘You’re a long time dead.’ It was his way of reminding me to be very careful. We may get off safely, or descend into an avalanche prone section or be trapped in whiteout again and have to build another cave, this time with lower body reserves. Was it worth the risk? I was a little reluctant.
We roped up and attempted a retreat. Unfortunately, the weather was too savage, with deep snow, whiteout and strong winds. We were forced to return to our cave. It almost felt homely, in a bizarre kind of way to crawl back in. The only consolation to come from that attempt was more time had been occupied.
The main task of the day was to hand massage our feet to keep them warm and to dry them out as best as possible. We attempted drying socks in our armpits while working on our feet then putting our socks back on.
No food was wasted. My full grain crackers had gone to crumbs and mush after being crushed and spread throughout the top pocket of my pack. I would search for any seeds or fragments of cereal, hoping no unwelcome bacteria had made their way onto the tiny morsels before eating it.
The topic of food was often on the conversational agenda. We each had our fantasy menus worked out; all we needed was the food! It was a constant illusion while in the cave. It seemed that outside the weather was fine, yet when checking it for real it was foul. The filtered sunlight gave the interior a cold bluish appearance. A large amount of mental stamina was needed to see our third night through.
I began to have strange dreams. In one, I was visited by a satanic creature, with ice cold purple skin, horns on its head, completely naked and with a jagged, arrow-pointed tail. He was holding a gas heater. And with a glaring scowl on its face. It tormented me, knowing how desperately I needed warmth. Its vividness was burnt into my memory. In another more hopeful dream, there was a log cabin belonging to a homely couple, at the bottom of the Anna Glacier. They were welcoming Rod and I into their home. The only trouble was, we could not reach it. And in yet another, there was a car park and sealed road to the side of the glacier.All we had to do was walk to it and drive home.
In my worst nightmare, I had hours to live. It required many people to co-ordinate a safe rescue for me, but because of the circumstances, I couldn’t help them. I was going to die. I woke distressed, panting for air. In the dark, after realizing where I was, I groped for an ice axe to clear the air passages. Heavy snow had fallen through the night, blocking the exit from the cave and the breather holes in the roof. After getting air into the cave, my head cleared and senses returned to normal. Heck! I’m nowhere near death. Yet only moments earlier, it was so real. I later found that this effect is called hypoxia, brought about by a lack of oxygen. It scared me to the core.
Tuesday 8 December.
I was thrilled when morning arrived. Our concerted effort was now feeling like a hardcore situation. A fifty gram portion of muesli bar was to be my last and only meal for the day. I ground every piece into a salivary liquid before swallowing it. Rod was concerned about running out of food. I assured him we could survive without food for a short time, provided we had water. We could replenish our water by adding snow very slowly to it.
All thoughts of a descent were dashed after heavy snowfalls during the night. The weather was still foul and the avalanche risk would now be extreme. Snowflakes that fell were perfect crystals. Lack of visual stimulation over the last three days brought the tiny crystals into sharp clarity as they poured into the entrance of the cave. It was a constant job keeping all air passages from the cave open. Often it would block completely. Although good for insulating us from the harsh weather outside, we still needed some form of ventilation. We had a general tidy up in our cave, to help the morale more than anything.
We despised the snow and battled to keep it from coming in contact with us unless it was necessary. Due to the restrictions of the cave, most things were done in virtual slow motion to avoid bumping each other or loosening snow. To utilize our body warmth, we curled into a small, crouched, sitting position. The only way we could attempt to sleep or rather, nod off, was by burying our heads in between our thighs, keeping our knees warm by wrapping our arms around them. We wore snow goggles inside the cave to keep our eyes warm.
My morale hit a low. Feeling certain that my wife Angela and the children would be informed by now that we have been missing for three days tore at my emotions. I kept thinking what they might be going through. Angela’s mum had passed away in July that year, and to have this happen would be very difficult for her. I told Rod how I was feeling.
One of our pet interests from inside our forced dwelling was to see what Rod’s barometer, thermometer and chronometer was reading. Every time the barometric pressure rose slightly we would think, perhaps the change is finally here, only to be disappointed by it dropping again. My watch was another source of short term entertainment, as each hour passed I would verbally tick it off. We each took a few photos occasionally to help pass time.
I cut up my small drink bottle to use it like a funnel to channel water. After driving it into the snow and placing my large bottle under it to catch any drips of water, it worked, although it would not have been enough on its own to keep me hydrated. In the evening as I was tucking in my clothing to get every piece working for my preservation, I discovered the two barley sugars I had placed in my pocket on Saturday. Fantastic! I could not believe our good fortune in finding an energy source. Rod and I rejoiced and savoured the wonderful sweets.
Halitosis, caused by our bodies metabolizing fat and muscle tissue, and low food intake, gave our breath a foul stench. Our urine gave off a fetid but sweet smell and was a concentrated yellow in colour. We were dehydrating by that stage.
The fourth night was hideous. It dragged into eternity. Each hour passed in a painfully slow succession. At around 11:00pm we were aroused from our stupor by an electrical storm. Flashes of lightning would momentarily illuminate our surrounds, briefly distracting us from the endless night. Following in quick succession, indicating its proximity, was the booming of thunder. I thought about how they can set off avalanches.
Kicking our legs out, huffing and puffing, had little effect in keeping us warm. The only way to retain the feeling in our feet was to stomp our boots continually. Drying our socks over two days amounted to getting them from wet to damp. Rod and I were intensely cold and were constantly shivering. It was frightening how quick our morale was deteriorating now. We hugged each other for emotional support and to try and keep warm. Every so often we would both go into a frenzied rubbing session, to try and warm our knees and legs. I felt like I was becoming part of the glacier.
I had yet another dream. I had to choose between losing limbs and getting out alive. The value of life had never felt so important to me, it seemed like my subconscious was brokering a deal with the ice demons in order for me to survive. My conscious self took no part in the negotiations. Never before had I experienced my soul speaking so loud to me in dreams.
Rod woke me in the early hours of the morning. He sounded disturbed. He wanted to know why I was breathing so loudly. At first I was surprised by his manner then realized I was panting for breath. I felt acutely cold, but okay. It was hard to make rational decisions. We each took painkillers I had, hoping it would ease the pain of the unbearable cold. I felt like I was beyond shivering.
We tried to sleep again, only to have the same breathless effect wake us. We didn’t realize that we were suffocating and needed to clear the entrance. We struggled to find the strength to do it. It was the worst night I had endured. It was a gift, to sense the dark, cold interior change ever so slowly, into dawn. We had made it through another night.
Wednesday 9 December.
I was feeling like it was becoming a battle for survival. Last night took a lot of will and courage from us. I praised our strength, in coping so far, knowing full well that it wasn’t over yet. Tired, we badly wanted to lie down and sleep. To have to sit only for the past 96-odd hours had drained us, severely. We wanted out.
We were hearing things, after days of silence and sleep deprivation. I could hear birds —magpies — and voices. Much like the din produced when a crowd of people are in full conversation. It was a weird sensation.
At 6:00am we were encouraged by what we saw. The ceiling of cloud had risen above the mountain tops. Rod and I felt that if a search bid was carried out, we would be satisfied that we had done all we could possibly do to help ourselves. Although it would have been nice to walk out under our own steam, and given the right conditions we most certainly would have.
The wind was still blowing from the west. It did wonders for our morale, to stand outside and look around at the magical scenery and to stretch out without touching something wet and cold. Mountains to the east before the storm had had no snow, but they were now well blanketed. The weather still looked unsettled. It would have been foolhardy to attempt a descent now as the snow slopes would be loaded.
I put out a snow stake with red tape above the cave entrance, in case flights into the mountains resumed and it might be spotted. I suggested once every half hour we stand outside to look in case help is about. Rod agreed.
Morning ground on slowly. We napped. It was Rod’s turn to stand watch. He found it very hard to summon the energy to get outside. I suggested he skip his turn but he managed. My turn came and went. It was becoming increasingly difficult to want to do anything.The weather was still holding. We would wave our arms in the direction of Kelman Hut, hoping Trevor and co might spot us. It was a long shot.
At 10:30am Rod heard a noise while outside. I heard it soon after. It was a helicopter! Ou
adrenalin pumped! We did not see it for several minutes. Cloud obscured it from us, although we could still hear it. The weather was closing in. My hopes of being spotted were fading as the chopper swept Mount Hochstetter.
‘Please, please weather, clear.’ It came into view. We waved, frantically. It landed on the lower shoulder of Hochstetter, above the Anna Glacier, near the foot of Elie. Someone got out and walked away from the chopper. It was difficult to see what was happening but it looked like they might be waving back, we couldn’t be sure. The chopper lifted off and came within several hundred metres of us.
They had found us!
It was an exhilarating feeling. My relief was immense. The tension that had built up over the previous four days subsided. It was a critical moment for me. I let out a tearless sob. Another night in the cave with our limited protection would have had serious consequences to our health.
The chopper landed on a safe snowfield below our cave. Two figures got out and unloaded equipment. Rod wanted to climb down to them. They’re coming up, putting themselves at risk to rescue us, I thought. The chopper left, so I guessed it would be unable to lift us out straight away.
Whiteout conditions were closing in again. We remained at the cave entrance until the rescuers arrived forty minutes later, having climbed through deep snow to make it to us. A big-set man appeared, followed by a medium-built woman. They gave us a warm hello and introduced themselves. Bruce ‘Mess’ Janes and Erin Hawkes are part of the DoC mountain rescue team, and were our link back to reality and life. They assessed Rod and I and
thought us to be in very good health, considering the length of time spent in the cave. They had come to our rescue in the nick of time. The weather had completely closed in again.
Mess thought us to be extremely lucky in view of our endurance. They were not looking for survivors. Their mission was not to rescue survivors but to remove popsicles (in other words, dead bodies). Hence, they were not prepared for what they found. Mess has worked in Search and Rescue for many years and has witnessed the removal of dead climbers from the mountains. In his view, it is a sad sight to see the soul gone from them. In these conditions they do not expect to find people alive after three days. He could not express enough how fortunate we were.
Rod and I related the things we did to help ourselves. We said that we’d had no concerns as far as someone knowing we were in the mountains. DoC and the radio schedules gave us some peace of mind. We had thought that because of the vicious weather over the last four days, a rescue bid would not be launched until conditions improved. I was startled to learn that DoC had been having problems with radio communications into the mountain huts. Friday night was the last radio schedule. I found it hard to believe. No one knew we were missing until this morning!
They explained that a climbing guide and his client had arrived at the Tasman Saddle Hut that morning to climb. On checking the hut diary, and seeing our down sleeping bags, bivvy bags and cooking equipment, they realized we could be in grave danger. We owe it to this guide for setting our rescue in motion.
One of the Australians from Trevor’s group told DoC where he had seen us last. He thought he saw Rod and I on the north shoulder of Mount Hochstetter on Saturday. It was in fact Elie.
Mess and Erin enlarged the cave to accommodate the four of us. It was a first for Search and Rescue to spend a night with the rescued. They had food for themselves only. The rat packs contained chocolate biscuits, nuts and raisins, muesli bars and 400 mls only of sweet fruit drink.They happily offered the food to us. It gave us some much needed sustenance. Rod and I ate, unashamedly.
We were given dry socks, and amazing,chemically activated heatpacks. We put the heatpacks in our socks near our toes and several in next to our chests. It was heavenly to feel warmth again.
Mess and Erin gave their sleeping bags to us. Erin hopped in to warm us; we desperately needed it. I was exhausted and slept for four hours. The fifth night was colder than the previous four nights. The cave entrance was larger and spindrift landed on us and thawed, giving a cooler chill factor. If our cave was as cold as it was then before it was enlarged we might not have lasted four days.
Mess suffered through the night. He was a strong man, yet in his bivvy bag and full-bodied Gore-Tex suit he felt the cold. He humoured us by saying that if we could last five nights, surely he could endure one night! He told us about other rescues and the people involved.
Erin was on her first SAR (search and rescue). She had had her thirtieth birthday party last night. Both were pleased with the way we coped with our situation. They mutually agreed that we had done the right thing by staying put.
Thursday 10 December.
At 5:30am Mess checked the weather conditions. He then radioed headquarters to get the chopper on its way. His initial plan was to hoist each of us up in slings to safe ground, load the chopper, and return to base. Rod was the first to go. He was winched out in a sling. The weather turned bad within minutes of his leaving. The pilot was ready to abandon the mission until conditions improved. Mess came up with plan B and put it to the pilot, who said it could be tricky but he would give it a go.
Rod and the winch men were flown to the Tasman Saddle Hut and dropped off. Mess’ instructions were, ‘When the chopper puts its nose in against the slope, place your pack in, step on to the skid gently to avoid unbalancing the chopper, get in, take our packs. Erin then I will get in; we fly out.’ It was a tense situation for me. I had thoughts racing through my mind on the safety of the coming rescue. Will the chopper rotors hit the mountain? Will the wind blow the chopper off balance? Will I be decapitated? I then told myself it’s karma, and let the thoughts go.
As the chopper moved in, things happened quickly. Mess’ plan was carried out without a hitch. The pilot mentioned later that nosing in to the snow cave was difficult with such poor visibility. The crevasse above the cave gave him a good reference point when manoeuvring in to hover while we boarded. I felt a sense of awe at the pilot’s skill in executing the difficult aerial manoeuvre. As we pulled away from Mount Elie de Beaumont, Mess and Erin gave me a quick hand shake. We were out!
The feeling of moving away from the mountain was one of incredible elation. Finally I was free from the mountain’s grip after 120 of the longest hours I have endured.
We arrived at DoC head quarters at 8:00am, 45 minutes before Rod and the winch guys.My first steps on level ground were unco-ordinated. I was feeling weak. The sights and sounds around me filled my starved senses; no longer did my imagination play tricks on me. The warmth of the DoC headquarters building was welcoming.
The staff gave me a medical check. I was okay. The only external physical damage was slight frost nip in the fingertips of my right hand, the toes of my right foot and the righthand side of my right foot. Rod and I were exceptionally fortunate to have come out of the ordeal virtually unscathed. Rod had slight frostnip to both hands and feet and on the tip of his nose.
I had five hot, sweet cups of tea, each as good as the first. I was given a fantastic, steaming breakfast of bacon, sausages, mushrooms and scrambled eggs. It was a feed to remember.
The police had been working with DoC on the SAR. An obliging young constable mentioned the phone calls he had made to inform our families. He had done a great job. Angela was first told on Wednesday morning, after we had been found. I was very relieved to hear she was spared any unnecessary worry. Angela and I had a tearful greeting over the phone, pleased to hear each other’s voices. My children were upset but grateful that I was safe. I spoke to my dad who had also been kept informed. He was happy to hear that we were both well and had not lost any limbs, fingers or toes.
Erin was the first to spot us outside the cave. She said later, ‘I looked up to the higher slopes on Elie and noticed what I thought was something that should not be there.’ She soon realized it was Rod and I standing waving our arms.
Soon after the ordeal Rod and I attempted discussing matters, not realizing the enormous stress we were under after living in such a confined space in the most testing conditions imaginable. Although Rod wanted to continue climbing, my need was to be with my family. I cut my trip short and returned home.
In summary there was a combination of circumstances which could have led to our chilling demise: faulty radio communications, the sudden change in weather conditions, an empty hut (no one to report our failure to return to the hut) and our lack of practical experience in preparing for adverse weather. I am annoyed at myself for asking Rod whether we needed our bivvy bags or not.
One thought I have is: having trained hard and being fit for alpine climbing, and after climbing Hochstetter in four hours in perfect ground conditions, we were confident to the point that we would complete Elie without the need to travel heavy.
I have learnt two valuable lessons: firstly, when climbing, it’s always on the mountain’s terms. Secondly, be prepared for the most unlikely scenario in any alpine situation.
My brother and I have fallen out with each other. Possibly from trying to blame one another for placing the other’s life in peril. Seven months later I have had considerable time to reflect on what happened. Writing this account has helped me to reconcile and to appreciate just how dangerous the situation was. When we got out of the mountains we acted as if, hey, it’s no big deal, the mountains are cold and hard and we should be the same. I can now accept that no one was to blame.
I’m not afraid to say it scared the shit out of me. After several sessions with a counsellor I have been able to deal with the trauma and to free my mind somewhat so that I can move on in my life. My fondness of the mountains is undiminished and they will draw me back.