Search and rescue teams receive national award for perilous high-altitude rescue

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 last night (Tuesday, May 18).

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 (8000ft).

With the aid of night vision goggles, the Otago Rescue Helicopter located the climbers at 1am. 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.

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