Queenstown helicopter crew at centre of dramatic high altitude rescue

by Peter Newport - Sep 05, 2023

A Queenstown medical helicopter crew managed to rescue two climbers from near the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook yesterday evening in one of the highest helicopter rescues ever undertaken in New Zealand.

Queenstown rescue helicopter winch operator Jodie Burton

Queenstown rescue helicopter winch operator Jodie Burton told Crux today that the two stranded climbers had done all of the right things in terms of equipment, but most importantly they decided to call for help before it got too dark for a relatively quick rescue.

"They would have survived the night - but it would have been hard for them" Jodi said. 

Jodie and pilot Marcus Evers-Swindell flew from Queenstown to Mount Cook yesterday late afternoon where they landed and removed any non-essential equipment from the BK-117 helicopter in order to make the high altitude rescue safe in the thinner air and allow them to carry two members of the Alpine Cliff rescue team.

Crux understands the two rescued climbers were Kiwis with not only appropriate equipment but strong climbing skills as well.

The rescue happened at an altitude of 3,700 metres, over 600 metres above the technical limit for the Queenstown BK 117 helicopter to hover which is 10,000 feet or 3,048 metres. The summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook is 3,724 m.

A statement from the Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington (RCCNZ) praised the performance of the Queensotwn rescue crew.

"Quick thinking and collaboration between coordinating and response agencies helped ensure two climbers were safely rescued off Aoraki/Mt Cook yesterday (4 September).

"RCCNZ was notified at 3.45 PM, 4 September of a climbing party of two becoming exhausted and needing to be taken off the mountain. The pair of climbers were near the top of the mountain on Summit Ridge.

The rescue location taken from the rescue chopper. Image: Jodie Burton.

"Based on several factors, including the weather, and the equipment requirements; the Mount Cook Alpine Cliff Rescue Team advised an emergency medical services helicopter, based out of Queenstown was best suited for the rescue.

"Due to the altitude of where the climbers were located, the crew of the helicopter needed to make it lighter, they did this by reconfiguring the machine with less equipment than they would normally carry, to ensure it could safely operate at the altitude required.

"The Helicopter Otago machine then flew from Queenstown to Mount Cook village to pick up an Alpine Cliff Rescue team member. The helicopter then proceeded up Aoraki/Mt Cook and the two climbers were winched into the helicopter at 6.45 PM before being dropped at Mount Cook Village at about 7 PM.

"At an altitude of over 3300m, this was one of the highest altitude rescues coordinated by RCCNZ for some time. While there have previously been rescues at the summit, this rescue was just as complex as a summit rescue.

"RCCNZ wants to thank all the responding agencies involved for their skills and professionalism during this response. This rescue was performed flawlessly, and a great example of a RCCNZ coordinated incident response which was deliberately planned and executed, and ensured the people in need were able to be safely taken off the mountain."

Main Image: The rescue of two climbers under way high on Aoraki/Mount Cook. Image: Jodie Burton.

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