Death rate 'alarmingly high' in NZ mountains

By Martin Johnston

The rock and ice of New Zealand's mountains have lured climbers from all over the world for more than a century, but they also hold high danger.

That danger has now been quantified in a study of the death rate among the country's mountain climbers published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Christchurch forensic psychiatrist Dr Erik Monasterio, an experienced mountaineer, calculates an "alarming" death rate of 8.2 per cent.

The figure is based on four climbing deaths, including two guides, among the 49 participants in the four-year study. The participants were mostly experienced climbers tackling difficult routes.

But Dr Monasterio and New Zealand Alpine Club president Dave Bamford think 8.2 per cent is probably higher than the real death rate.

"You do get statistical aberrations, and 8.2 per cent is probably higher than what you would expect," Dr Monasterio said yesterday.

However, none of the four deaths occurred in the 2003/04 climbing season, a bad one for fatalities. Thirteen people died in the Mt Aspiring area and in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, including three guides and a client in an avalanche on Mt Tasman.

"New Zealand is a highly dangerous country to climb in," said Dr Monasterio, who climbs in the Southern Alps as well as the mountains of Peru and elsewhere. "The weather and objective conditions like the snow-pack are quite changeable.

"I'm a guide and I'm very conservative in New Zealand. I feel more comfortable in other places where you are more able to make objective judgments about conditions."

Mr Bamford doubted the findings would put people off climbing. They would be of greater concern to the families and friends of climbers.

"Once you get involved you get probably a more balanced view. Over Christmas we had several fatalities out of literally hundreds of people climbing mountains and enjoying the back country."

In 2001, another study published in the journal calculated the fatality rate in the Aoraki/Mt Cook park was 1.87 deaths for every 1000 days spent climbing.

A 1988 study estimated a death rate of 4.3 per cent for British climbers on peaks over 7000m - more than 3000m higher than Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Dr Monasterio said his study started out investigating what kinds of people were attracted to climbing.

He found that, compared with the general population, climbers were high on scores of novelty-seeking and self-direction, and low on harm avoidance and spirituality.

He also noted that those with low measures of co-operation were more likely to have had a climbing accident.

Mountain deaths

* 49 experienced climbers were in a four-year study.

* Nearly half had been in climbing accidents before the study.

* Four participants died climbing during the study.

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