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Southern Alps rescue operation awarded at NZSAR

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Captain Jason Laing, Jim Young, Mark Evans, Jonathan Gillan and Jodie. Photo: Supplied

A night-time high-altitude rescue mission in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park to retrieve two trapped climbers has seen local rescue crews awarded a Certificate of Achievement at the New Zealand Search and Rescue (NZSAR) Awards that was held on 18 May.

The annual awards acknowledge the efforts of agencies and individuals who play a vital role in rescuing people in New Zealand, while also raising community awareness about the efforts of volunteers and paid personnel in the New Zealand’s Search and Rescue Region, which covers 30 million square kilometres.

Maritime NZ’s Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ), the Department of Conservation Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Rescue Team and Incident Management Team, and the Otago Rescue Helicopter were jointly recognised for their efforts in rescuing two climbers trapped near Copland Pass on 10 January 2020.

When the two climbers, who were stuck on a small ledge and unprepared for a night in the open, activated their distress beacon at 11pm, RCCNZ tasked the Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Rescue Team and the Otago Rescue Helicopter to respond.

A significant weather front was imminent with gale force winds, and rain and snow expected at high elevation. The climbers were situated between Fitzgerald Pass and Copland Pass at an altitude of 2060m.

The Otago Rescue Helicopter located the climbers at 1am with the aid of night-vision goggles. With severe turbulence making a winch rescue impossible, two members of the rescue team were flown to the same snow ledge where they could be safely offloaded.

The helicopter then returned to Aoraki Mount Cook to collect more members of the team, who were flown to the nearby snow ledge to attempt a ground-based rescue.

From there, the rescue team began climbing in the dark across the steep 30-degree snow slopes, establishing anchors and fixed ropes as they went. After climbing the final slope, which was at more than a 40-degree angle, one of the team put the two climbers into harnesses. They were then moved using the fixed ropes back to Copland Shelter.

Shortly after 6am, the rescue helicopter made two return trips to retrieve the climbers.

RCCNZ search and rescue officer Samantha Mildon said the teams did a great job in some extremely tricky conditions.

“The Department of Conservation Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Rescue Team and the Otago Rescue Helicopter crew were dealing with some tough conditions, including deteriorating weather, increasing winds, and very steep terrain, with much of the operation completed in darkness.

“This incident was a great example of organisations working together under challenging circumstances to save lives.”

Department of Conservation Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Rescue team member Jim Young said it was likely the two climbers would not have survived another night at such high altitudes, especially with the incoming storm expected to last several days.

“They were unprepared for the steep terrain and the challenging conditions and were suffering from mild hypothermia; they definitely made the right call to activate their beacon when they did.”

The awards night also saw two Gold Awards and seven Certificates of Achievement presented by Michael Wood, minister of transport.

RCCNZ was also jointly awarded another Certificate of Achievement for their role in the recovery of the Ocean Gem yacht in the Marlborough Sounds in 2020.

2020 New Zealand Search and Rescue Awards winners

Gold Award – Operational

Bernie Pepper, Mike Beausoleil, and Hannah Latta (Life Flight) for the rescue of an adult and child swept out to sea near Wainuiomata on 15 November 2020.

Gold Award – Support

Tim Hogan for his commitment to search and rescue through the creation and ongoing maintenance of the Mobile Locate software service

Certificates of Achievement – Operational Activity

Aoraki Mt Cook Alpine Cliff Rescue Team
Aoraki Mt Cook Incident Management Team
Otago Rescue Helicopter
Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand

For the rescue of two climbers near Copland Pass on 10 January 2020

Coastguard Nelson
Nelson Police SAR Squad
Tasman District Harbourmaster Team
Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand

For the rescue of six people from SV Ocean Gem near Rangitoto ki te Tonga/D’Urville Island on 18 and 19 March 2020

LandSAR Turangi
Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation
Taupō Police SAR Squad
National Park Police SAR Squad
Tukino Ski Patrol

For the rescue of nine climbers from the Whangaehu Glacier on Mt Ruapehu on 26 and 27 September 2020

Certificates of Achievement – Support Activity

Max Corboy for his service and commitment to Surf Life Saving New Zealand and the Otago Emergency Call Out Squad

Sergeant Vincent Ranger for his service and commitment to search and rescue

Dr Charmaine Tate for her service and commitment to search and rescue

Sam Milligan for his service and commitment to LandSAR and WanderSearch in the Wairarapa

For more information, visit the NZSAR website.

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