Dramatic 12-hour rescue after ice climbers caught in Remarkables blizzard

by Kim Bowden - Jul 04, 2023

Police are detailing the dramatic 12-hour rescue of two experienced climbers caught out by rapidly deteriorating weather this weekend on The Remarkables as a cautionary tale for other backcountry adventurers.

The men became lost on Saturday evening after a day of ice-climbing near the mountain's ski area and had limited gear to help keep themselves stay safe.

"A storm had blown in and the pair became lost while attempting to walk back to the ski field," Constable Pepper Ruston of Otago Lakes District Police Search and Rescue said in a statement this afternoon. 

"They’d triggered a small avalanche and had made the sensible decision to take shelter in a rock bivvy and call police for help." 

The climbers, both in their mid-20s, had mobile phones with a navigation app that meant that they were able to advise rescue coordinators of their location.

They were dressed appropriately for climbing, but were wet and cold.

They had a single silver rescue blanket between them and a small quantity of food, and were not well-placed to spend the night on the mountain - conditions were deteriorating, with a severe south-west gale wind and poor visibility.

Police Search and Rescue personnel and members of the Alpine Cliff Rescue team mobilised and prepared for a rescue operation.

Initially, there were two failed attempts to drop members of the ACR team in by helicopter, with high winds and whiteout conditions posing too much of a danger and the air missions being aborted before the climbers were sighted.

The decision was then made for a four-person ACR team to go into the area on foot.

A police four-wheel-drive transported them to the ski field before ski field staff took over, providing transport to the top of the field on a groomer.

The climbers remained in phone contact with rescuers and shortly after midnight the ACR team was en route from the top of the ski lift towards their location. 

"Conditions were treacherous, with blizzard conditions and a temperature of minus 8 degrees Celsius. The avalanche risk in the area was significant but the ACR team included a member who was qualified to assess avalanche risk and was therefore able to minimise the risk," Constable Ruston says.

It was slow, careful going, with the final few hundred metres to reach the climbers taking more than two hours to navigate.

The men were located a little after 4.30am and were assisted by their rescuers to walk out to the ski field.

"The climbers were assessed and found to be medically fit – albeit cold, tired and embarrassed.

"They’d researched the weather conditions prior to setting out and they were dressed appropriately for the mountains, but they’d been caught-out by the rapid change in the weather.

"They hadn’t checked avalanche risk and weren’t carrying avalanche gear or a first aid kit. While they had two mobile phones, they didn’t have a locator beacon or navigation equipment aside from the phone app."

Russ Tilsley, the team co-ordinator for Queenstown's Alpine Cliff Rescue Team, has tips for anyone planning a winter trip into alpine areas: “We recommend doing thorough research before heading into the backcountry. Taking the time to check and plan for the worst could save your life – and prevent others from having to risk theirs to come to your aid."

He says the NZ Avalanche Advisory gives a regional avalanche forecast for present conditions and is recommended to all backcountry and climbing parties to get up-to-date and current conditions in the back country.

He suggests anyone heading in via a ski field should check in with the local ski patrol, letting them know where they're headed and when they plan to return.

"Just because an area is accessible doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated with respect – conditions can change rapidly.”

Main image (Supplied/Police): Members of the Alpine Cliff Rescue team during a rescue mission in backcountry near The Remarkables Ski Area this weekend.

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