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Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Brave heroes to the rescue

Awards recognise the men and women who risk their own lives to defy the odds and rescue others trapped on the mountain, in the ice or by the fury of the ocean.

Ten fishermen stranded on a rock in a rising tide near Port Waikato were saved in a daring rescue.
Ten fishermen stranded on a rock in a rising tide near Port Waikato were saved in a daring rescue.

Deep in a glacier crevasse with a broken arm and ankle, Sabine Hellenbrandt expected to take her last breath trapped in the ice.

Then she heard members of the South Westland Alpine Cliff Rescue call to her.

Marius Bron, Jonathan Hattrell and Richard Bottomley, with helicopter pilot Sam Innes, were last night honoured with a Search and Rescue Council Gold Award for their brave actions at the Explorer Glacier on March 7 last year - actions which saved the 34-year-old German climber's life.

Gold award winner Marius Bron with Sabine Hellenbrandt, who was rescued from Explorer Glacier in March last year after she slipped and fell into a crevasse.
Gold award winner Marius Bron with Sabine Hellenbrandt, who was rescued from Explorer Glacier in March last year after she slipped and fell into a crevasse.

That day, Ms Hellenbrandt and climbing partner Helmut Lachmann were flown to Pioneer Hut, with plans to scale the Glacier Peak above the Explorer Glacier.

The pair were not using ropes when Ms Hellenbrandt lost her footing on a gentle slope and tumbled 20m down into a crevasse.

Dr Lachmann, who was 10m ahead of his partner when she "disappeared", treated her and secured her as best he could before trekking 2.5km over steep ice terrain to raise the alarm.

For the South Westland ACR team, the steep, perilous terrain and poor visibility posed an enormous challenge.

After flying to a nearby point, the team had to decide whether to try to reach Ms Hellebrand despite the conditions, or leave her trapped overnight, with poor chances of survival.

Mr Innes said he could drop the team on a high, exposed razorback ridge above Glacier Peak, but they'd have to stay overnight.

"It was a risk we were willing to take, and once we'd made that decision, I suppose it made everything easier," he told the Herald.

What followed was several minutes of the most intense flying of his career.

In white-out conditions, he had to crawl the chopper under cloud on the eastern side of the ridge, before dropping down on to the ridgeline with one skid touching the ground.

"I had to hold the helicopter extremely still as they got out, as I didn't want to knock them off the hill - looking down between my legs, it was a long, long way down ... maybe 4000 or 5000 feet."

Mr Innes then had to rotate the helicopter so the rescue team could unload equipment from the other side.

In thickening cloud that reduced visibility to one metre, the team began searching the glacier, calling out for Ms Hellenbrandt.

Mr Innes was waiting with the Mt Cook LANDSAR team in a nearby hut when Mr Bron radioed that they'd established voice contact.

"That was quite an emotional moment," he said.

"To be honest, we all had a pretty negative outlook on how it was going to end up for her ... we were pretty sure, from what Helmut had described, that she would have been deceased by the time the guys arrived."

The team kept close to her overnight, managing her hypothermia and keeping her talking, until she was airlifted out the next morning.

Mr Innes still feels good when he thinks about the mission.

"The overall thing that made it very memorable was that under quite challenging circumstances, we had good outcome - and those, you don't always get."

NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operation Activity: Antarctica NZ, US Antarctic Programme

Of all the places to mount a rescue response, few could be as hostile as the Antarctic mountainside into which a plane carrying three Canadians crashed last January.

But despite the extreme conditions at Queen Alexandra Range - at nearly 4000m and 675km south of Scott Base - a search and rescue operation went ahead.

The challenging mission was planned and executed through the McMurdo Station Emergency Operations Centre with help from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre NZ.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft, a Kenn Borek DC-3 Basler, New York Air Guard personnel, as well as Kiwi and US helicopter support took part.

At the scene, rescuers worked in sub-zero conditions to reach the crash site, but could not retrieve the mens' bodies.

After an inquest last year, the Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, ruled that Bob Heath, 55, Perry Anderson, 36, and Mike Denton, 25, must have died in the crash.

Last night, Antarctica New Zealand general manager of operations Graeme Ayres said the response team's thoughts were with the men's families.

"This response demonstrates the benefits of the collaboration between our two programmes and our continued commitment to safety of personnel working in Antarctica."

NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operation Activity: Sunset Beach Surf Life Saving Club

With 10 Korean fishermen trapped on a rocky outcrop 60m from the shoreline, and building surf beginning to crash over the rocks, things were getting desperate at Port Waikato's Sunset Beach.

But all were saved in a remarkable effort led by the Sunset Beach Surf Life Saving Club.

It was 1pm on April 1 last year, Easter Monday, when lifeguards saw the stranded fishermen.

Because of the surf, lifeguards made their way 2km around the coast to a small beach close to the fishermen.

Some lifeguards swam 60m out to the rock, helping the men one by one back to the shore.

The fishermen, who were fully clothed, had limited English and were reluctant to enter the water.

By the time lifeguards had brought all to the beach half an hour later, many were affected by hypothermia.

A helicopter, winched the fishermen from the shore, which was hemmed in by a cliff.

Because the tide was in, the rescuers had to swim.

"They were pretty happy to get out of there," Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust intensive care flight paramedic Russell Clarke said at the time.

NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operation Activity: Peter Craig, Katherine Craig, Matthew Craig, Whakatane Surf Life Saving Club

The Craigs of Whakatane became a family of heroes on August 10 last year, when they saved two divers trapped by the rising tide.

The local men, aged 38 and 42, had been diving at Otarawairere Bay when they found waves had blocked their path back along the coast.

Rescue helicopters were unavailable to assist, so the Whakatane Surf Life Saving Club was called in.

Ohope lifeguard Peter Craig and his teenage son Matthew went to the spot in an inflatable rescue boat while Mr Craig's wife Katherine, also a lifeguard, co-ordinated the effort from the shore.

After finding the men sheltered beneath a point on the Ohope side of the coast, Matthew swam 50m through rough seas and in darkness to reach them.

One of the men was in a bad shape and unwilling to enter the water, but Matthew coaxed the man and towed him back to the boat before returning for his friend.

One diver had advanced hypothermia when taken by ambulance to hospital, and police Sergeant Denis Foster describing it as a "very lucky escape".

NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operation Activity: Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue, Taranaki LandSAR, 3 Squadron, RNZAF

Battling 100km/h wind gusts and negotiating icy rime with ice axes and on all fours, the rescue teams that ascended Mt Taranaki in late October last year faced nightmare conditions.

One of the men who took part in Operation Labour said he had never seen worse conditions on the mountain.

The weather was the bleak backdrop to a dogged rescue effort that could not save the lives of Nicole Sutton, 29, and her partner, Hiroki Ogawa, 31.

It was Saturday, October 26, when the Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue (ACR) team was called to search for four overdue climbers.

The weather that day had been fine, but was forecast to deteriorate.

The missing climbers were in text contact with the police, so the searchers knew where to find them, and five Taranaki ACR volunteers were transported to Tahurangi Lodge, ready to start searching at 1am.

But the the team was soon reduced to three and as they climbed, the weather worsened to gale-force winds and horizontal sleet.

At 4am, when they were 150m below the missing climbers, they were forced back by the severe conditions.

Two of the four lost climbers were able to make their way off the mountain at first light, but the other two remained trapped.

Later, on Sunday morning, another Taranaki ACR team made an attempt to reach the two missing climbers, only to be forced back by the conditions again.

By Sunday evening, members of the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation had arrived to help the Taranaki team, and began to run fixed ropes up the mountain to make it safer for the following teams.

The air force also tried to fly a team to the search area, but failed because of the weather.

When a ground team finally reached the pair, Dr Ogawa had died and Ms Sutton was severely hypothermic.

She died before she could be lowered off the mountain in a stretcher.

NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operation Activity: John Goldswain, Colin Larsen, Michael Hall, David Huntley - Life Flight Trust

It was a rescue mission that would put any veteran helicopter pilot to the test - a swamped yacht, 12m waves, heavy winds and three sailors trapped among it all.

When the call came in to the Wellington Westpac Rescue Helicopter at 6pm on January 6 last year, the report was that a 12m twin-masted sloop was battling extremely rough seas in the Cook Strait.

Life Flight Trust crew members Michael Hall, left, and Colin Larsen with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
Life Flight Trust crew members Michael Hall, left, and Colin Larsen with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.

The Sea Wanderer had rolled several times on to its side, and the crew felt they had to abandon it.

As the crew was preparing for the operation, helicopter pilot Mike Hall noted the difficulty of winching to and from a twin-masted yacht that was being tossed around by the wind and waves - conditions that were also going to make flying very unpleasant.

The helicopter was buffeted by turbulence and the yacht could not hold a steady course or position.

One sailor was winched off the yacht but the helicopter was unable to lower the winch cable back down to the yacht because of strong winds.

A weight was used to get the cable back to the deck and the second crew member was picked up just as the yacht was rolled by a huge wave.

The cable was then lowered again to reach the skipper, who had become exhausted, disoriented and unable to stand.

When the yacht rolled again, the crew used the opportunity to lift him out of the yacht's cockpit, pulling into the helicopter.

Later, crew member Colin Larsen described the episode as one of the more challenging he'd faced.

Certificates of Achievement for support activity were also awarded to Coastguard Canterbury, for developing national training material, and to Surf Life Saving NZ, for a coastal risk management project at Hot Water Beach.

- NZ Herald

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