Trapped climbers die on Mt Taranaki

By Anna Leask, Matthew Theunissen, Matthew Backhouse, Robin Martin, Jim Tucker

Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton climbing on Mt Ruapehu in August.
Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton climbing on Mt Ruapehu in August.

One of two climbers who died after being trapped on Mt Taranaki this weekend had texted her father saying she didn't expect to survive.

Nicole Sutton, 29, and Hiroki Ogawa, 31, died after sheltering from bad weather in a snow cave for two nights.

Rescuers reached the pair about 7.30am today, finding Dr Ogawa dead and Ms Sutton alive, but she lost consciousness and died later.

Speaking at a media conference in New Plymouth this afternoon, Ms Sutton's father Keith Sutton said he had received a text message from his daughter on Saturday night saying she didn't think she would survive.

When he woke this morning and heard one of the climbers had been found dead, he thought the report was referring to his daughter.

However rescuers had found Ms Sutton still alive and talking this morning. She deteriorated over the next few hours and died.

Mr Sutton said his daughter and Dr Ogawa died doing what they loved.

They were both very independent people who loved the outdoors, he said.

The couple met two years ago, and Mr Sutton and his wife Anna had found Hiroki Ogawa to be a very special man. They always knew he would take very good care of their daughter, and the last 48 hours had proved that, Mr Sutton said.

He said he and Anna were saddened by events but had been amazed by the response and support from the people of Taranaki and beyond.

The Auckland couple were part of the New Zealand Alpine Club's annual Labour weekend trip to Mt Taranaki.

They had been huddled in a snow cave they had dug for themselves to shelter from the weather which has engulfed the mountain since Saturday night.

The couple were stuck on an outcrop called the Lizard on the north-western side of the mountain, near its 2500m summit, and had been communicating with police via text message.

Two other climbers who were also stranded on the mountain, John Salisbury, 65, and a 38-year-old woman, managed to walk down by themselves yesterday morning. They were taken to hospital with mild hypothermia and minor cuts and bruises.

Police said search teams spent the night on the mountain trying to locate Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa, but their efforts were "significantly hampered" by the conditions.

They were forced to return to the forward staging area at Tahurangi Lodge about 4am today.

Taranaki area commander Inspector Blair Telford said a fresh search team was deployed and reached the stranded climbers at 7.30am.

Alpine rescuers had heard Ms Sutton calling out, he said.

The weather worsened, so after Ms Sutton died rescuers left both bodies on the mountain and returned to their base to avoid putting more lives at risk.

An Air Force helicopter takes off in the attempts to rescue two climbers stuck on Mt Taranaki for two nights. Photo / Jim Tucker
An Air Force helicopter takes off in the attempts to rescue two climbers stuck on Mt Taranaki for two nights. Photo / Jim Tucker

Mr Telford said the focus was now on recovery, which would be done when weather improved.

"We still have a number of resources on standby including alpine cliff rescue and the Air Force, who are waiting for a break in the weather."

New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton said Ms Sutton was relatively new to mountaineering, but had a lot of experience as a skier.

"She was already developing a reputation as someone who had a real passion and enthusiasm for the sport," he said.

He said Dr Ogawa had voluntarily taught basic snowcraft to novice climbers.

"Apart for his own personal achievements in climbing, which were considerable, he will be remembered by the climbing community as someone who gave back to the grassroots."

Mr Newton said Mount Taranaki was known for sudden deteriorations in weather and conditions.

"This is a tragic reminder that Mt Taranaki is New Zealand's deadliest mountain ... achievable for day-trippers one minute and fatal to experienced mountaineers the next.

"Our thoughts are with the friends and family of Hiroki and Nicole. A double tragedy of this nature is deeply saddening for the club and its members who know and climbed with them."

***

Dr Ogawa was a qualified geoscientist who specialised in coastal processes, geomorphology and sedimentology.

He studied geosciences and geology at The University of Wollongong in New South Wales, before completing a PhD at the University of Auckland.

He was currently working at the University of Auckland as a research fellow and tutor.

Originally from Kanagawa in Japan, Dr Ogawa was an avid rock and mountain climber who also loved tramping, trekking and martial arts.

He had been a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club's Auckland branch for a number of years and ran classes on rock climbing.

Ms Sutton grew up near Marton and attended Chilton St James School in Lower Hutt before studying accounting and commercial law at Victoria University in Wellington. According to her Old Friends profile page she had worked for the Ministry for the Environment. She was a keen traveller and enjoyed the outdoors, especially mountain climbing.

- additional reporting: Morgan Tait and Patrice Dougan

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 19 Apr 2014 00:44:12 Processing Time: 547ms