Thomas Dobrisek's fatal skiing accident on Mt Ruapehu could have been avoided by better management of springtime soft-snow hazards, a witness says.
Dobrisek, a 50-year-old expert Wellington skier died in Waikato Hospital yesterday. He was admitted to its intensive care unit on October 11, after crashing into a rock while skiing on the exit track of Raceline, a black diamond run for advanced skiers at the Turoa ski area above Ohakune.
Paul McAlister was first on the scene with Peter Hillary, son of Mt Everest conqueror the late Sir Edmund Hillary, followed by Linsey Churton, after the trio witnessed the accident from the Giant chairlift just before 11 on a sunny morning.
I feel that the main trail out there should have been clearly marked as a hazard
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Dobrisek hit a rock, cartwheeled up to 20m and landed face-down in the snow among rocks. It is thought he lost his balance when he skied through a 300mm by 300mm hole in the snow.
After the trio helped the unconscious Dobrisek and he was sledded down the hill by snow patrollers, McAlister and Hillary filled in the hole with lumps of ice.
"I feel that the main trail out there should have been clearly marked as a hazard," said McAlister, "and the divot [hole] that was on the trail should have been fixed before skiers actually got there.
"It's not like he was skiing off trail. It's a point of hazard because you've got all the rocks on the other side of the track."
When McAlister went back up to the site a couple of hours after Dobrisek's accident, he found the area had been marked as a hazard by the placement of crossed bamboo poles.
If this had been done earlier, he said, the accident would not have happened.
The skifield owner Ruapehu Alpine Lifts has investigated and sent its report to Worksafe NZ and the coroner looking into Dobrisek's death.
Turoa safety services manager Brendon Nesbit said the Raceline exit track had been inspected at 9am on the day and no hazard was identified.
A witness who had skied that run before the accident had said there was no divot then.
Nesbit said the divot might have resulted from someone moving a rock, but that was only speculation.
Chief executive Dave Mazey said skifield staff inspected the field for hazards every morning and made further checks during the day. They had placed the poles in front of the filled-in hole.
Hillary said there would inevitably always be hazards in a mountain environment.
"The reality is that it's spring time; on the lower mountain the rocks are becoming more exposed. You can't remove all the rocks off Ruapehu."
"I don't feel we can apportion blame to anyone."
Worksafe NZ said it was making preliminary inquiries into the accident.
Dobrisek was not breathing when found. He resumed breathing after his airway was cleared. Snow patrollers put him on oxygen. He had a neck brace applied and was taken by sled to the medical centre at the Turoa base area, from where he was flown by helicopter to Waikato Hospital in a critical condition.
A toolmaker, Dobrisek was originally from Austria. He had a New Zealand passport and had lived here for about 12 years, a friend, who asked not to be named, told the Herald.
Dobrisek's elderly parents and other family members are due to arrive in New Zealand tomorrow, the friend said. Dobrisek did not have a partner or children.
He loved the outdoors and, as well as being an expert skier, was a paraglider pilot.
"He used to work in rescue and avalanche work in Austria. He used to have an avalanche dog. His level of skiing is pretty up there."
Hillary said: "It's very sad when something like this happens, when you lose someone.
"I didn't know Thomas. I held his head in my hands; we were trying to help him with his breathing.
"I feel sad for him and for his family in Austria."
"I would be happy to meet them if I could offer them anything in terms of those last moments we spent with their son and brother."