By Martin Johnson
The icy peaks and glaciers of Mt Ruapehu have lured mountaineers and skiers for more than a century. They promise excitement and adventure - yet for the unwary or unlucky they can be a place of misadventure and death.
Twenty-seven years ago today, one of New Zealand's worst alpine tragedies unfolded on Ruapehu, the North Island's tallest mountain, when six of 13 young men on an army training course died of exposure. Having started in fine winter weather, they were caught out in one of the terrible storms that can thrash the mountain for days with extreme winds, freezing temperatures and swirling snow.
A military Court of Inquiry found, according to a summary released to media in October 1990, the main cause of the tragedy was the inadequate skill and experience of the two instructors, both soldiers at the Army Adventurous Training Centre.
They were no match for the ferocious conditions.
The court criticised the absence of a radio for the group, on which they could have got weather forecasts. But it noted one of the instructors, Geoff Snowdon, who was a sergeant, "performed as well as could be expected given his experience and the conditions".
Now the full findings, obtained by the Herald on Sunday, reveal the four-man inquiry levelled severe criticism at the other instructor, Brent Jaggard, a corporal at the time. The documents reveal a fateful decision that raises the question: should more lives have been saved?
The students - 10 infantrymen and one navy rating - set out with their two army instructors for a four-day trek on a Thursday from Whakapapa ski area on Ruapehu's northern flank, according to reports at the time.
They aimed to traverse the summit area and be picked up at Turoa on the southwestern side on the Sunday.
After practising walking in crampons and how to self-arrest falls on a snow slope, they spent their first night in Dome Shelter, a timber shed 2650m above sea level on an icy knob overlooking Ruapehu's crater lake.
On day two of the alpine course - also fine - the servicemen dug two snow caves and built a snow-dome about 400m from Dome Shelter, at the base of Ruapehu's second-highest named peak, Paretetaitonga. The group split into three to sleep in their snow shelters, which provide a safe, if damp, haven.
On the Saturday they woke to a raging storm.
At first they intended to wait it out in their snow shelters, but when the storm relented a little at late morning they were enticed out, acting on what the Court of Inquiry would later call the instructors' "fixation" with getting back to Dome Shelter.
They made it just 50m before they were hit by the full force of the northwesterly blizzard blasting through the Paretetaitonga-Dome saddle at up to 150km/h, forcing them on to all fours. Realising they couldn't make it, they retreated, but could find only one of their two caves and the snow-dome.
The snow-dome was abandoned because of difficulties in keeping its entrance clear of snow and all 13 men now sheltered in one cave.
Its ceiling began to distort, carrying the additional storm-load of snow that had thickened its roof to 3m. By Sunday morning, cracks had appeared and there were fears the cave would collapse and bury the group.
With a slight improvement in the weather about 10am, the men again struck out for Dome Shelter.
They ploughed forward for about 200m, but were being lifted off the ground by the wind. They halted, unable to proceed, in the broad, flat saddle or "col", probably one of the most exposed places on the mountain, given the wind direction.
They dug trenches for emergency shelter and stacked up their packs against the wind, waited for a break in the weather that never came, then pushed forward again before hypothermia forced a halt.
Again they dug into a shallow trench. They were prevented from going deeper to make a full shelter by a layer of ice. Nor could they make a new snow-dome because the wind snatched away the snow they were trying to use - and even took at least one sleeping bag.
The trench was the best they could manage. It would prove a temporary grave for six of them.
Snowdon and one of the trainees, Private Brendon Burchell, left the group to get help. They stumbled down the mountain in an 11-hour overnight epic, unable to see where they were going for much of the trip.
Snowdon, now a teacher in Taupo, yesterday told the Rotorua Daily Post he still felt nervous at this time of the year when memories resurfaced. "It was all about those boys who died, and although we got down the mountain I had a sense of guilt and failure at not being able to save their lives."
Some time after the pair left - the newly released, partly name-redacted Court of Inquiry documents reveal - "Corporal J [Jaggard] absolved himself of the leadership responsibility at a time when it was most required".
Another document, in which the commander of the Army Training Group (ATG) at Waiouru expresses his views about the inquiry's findings, says Jaggard, with frostbitten fingers and frozen feet, had climbed into his sleeping bag inside a bivvy bag - a form of shelter - "and played no further part in proceedings".
"He told the privates that 'I wasn't going to be able to carry on and that they were to carry on and do the best they could at that stage'."
It was the commander's view that: "While one could suggest that he did abandon his responsibilities to ensure his own survival in the end I consider it would be unwise for the authorities to not give Cpl J the benefit of the doubt.
"Cpl J's refusal to allow a soldier to share his bivvy bag must be viewed in the same light. In a conventional military environment it seems inexplicable but given the conditions, Cpl J's state of mind, and his understanding of the effects of allowing someone with hypothermia to share his bivvy bag his actions can be put into a different perspective than that put forward by the Court."
In the commander's opinion: "Cpl J believed that he would be risking his own life by bringing a person with hypothermia into his own bivvy bag.
"If his interpretation was correct from a medical perspective both probably would have died. The Court called expert evidence which suggested otherwise, but prior to this two GPs disagreed on whether it was right or not."
The court members said in their opinion, Jaggard's action on the evening of Sunday, August 12, 1990, when some in the group had hypothermia, "was at best irresponsible and at worst inhumane".
The court believed Jaggard's bivvy bag was big enough for two.
Today, Jaggard runs a bed and breakfast and says he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But he is stumped when the Herald on Sunday tells him of the new documents. He has never seen the court's full findings. "We were never privy to it," he says.
Jaggard doesn't remember refusing anyone entry to his bivvy bag; nor - as also reported in the documents - giving his gloves and survival bag to one of the others.
"A lot of it I can't remember. Everything happened very quickly. There's a lot of things that aren't even in the report - that were never made public either," says Jaggard, although he was unwilling to state these publicly.
Private Sonny Te Rure was 23 at the time and was carried down the mountain by rescuers.
Te Rure, Brendon Burchell and David Stewart were awarded the NZ Bravery Medal for their efforts to help their colleagues, Stewart's posthumously as he was among those who died. Te Rure, now a bus driver, wasn't aware of the bivvy bag incident and was surprised to be told Jaggard had been in one.
"No bivvy bag mate. None of us had bivvy bags - Jaggard, I don't know where he got his one from."
They had silver survival bags, but the court said they were too short. It also found the army issue cold-weather gloves weren't as good as civilian mountaineering gloves. Perhaps as important was what the court said was the "failure to check students' clothing and equipment prior to departure".
Te Rure says he knew things were going bad while they were still in a snow cave when he learned that Brett Barker "didn't bring his wet-weather kit". He was the first to develop hypothermia, although not the first to die.
Frostbite to the left hand is Te Rure's scar. The hand is still vulnerable to the cold. But mentally, "I'm all good".
"If people ask me, I tell them. That's only because I feel comfortable with it now, because I know what I did up there and put myself in a position where I could almost have lost my life to save some of my fellow men.
"The one thing I couldn't understand is, here's two guys we didn't know, we hadn't worked with, but we were just under the understanding that, okay, they obviously know something about this terrain, so we better listen to them."
In Te Rure's view: "Well, little did we know that when the s*** hit the fan, one of those forms of leadership decided to put his tail between his legs and give up."
Ian Barker, whose son, Brett, 18, died on his father's birthday, says there was confusion in the years after the tragedy, as snippets of information came from the sometimes-distressed survivors. It was hard to know what was true.
"We know that Brett and a couple of others had nothing on [their legs] but army track pants. They were thin as all hell, nothing underneath them or anything. So they weren't going to survive long the minute they got out."
Barker says the blame lays at the feet of the army. His view was that: "Those two guys should never have taken that crew up there. That's the army's fault ... the hierarchy above them let them go."
The review recommended by the Court of Inquiry was carried out and the army said in later years it had learned from the tragedy and changed its training.
The Waiouru commander acknowledged failings, but said the court's comments about Jaggard were too harsh and his actions as an instructor were "not criminally negligent".
Another senior officer wrote to the chief of general staff, Major-General Bruce Meldrum, to say in his opinion Jaggard's performance was less than would be expected of a non-commissioned-officer instructor, but: "I do not believe charges against Cpl J could be sustained and therefore recommend that no disciplinary action be initiated against him."
When the court's summary was released to the media, Meldrum said the Adventurous Training Centre's systems had fallen short and no one would face charges.
"We don't intend to crucify anybody for that reason. There is a collective responsibility."
- Herald on Sunday