It was a clear day when four women set out with their guide on the thrilling 13km trek across the Tasman Glacier to stay the night in Malte Brun Hut.

After struggling through the glacier ice and moraine rocks, they would have been hoping for the famed view of Aoraki/Mt Cook from the hut.

But despite it being mid-summer, stormy weather set in overnight and when the five left for their return to Ball Hut at 10.30 on the Sunday morning, light rain was falling.

They never reached Ball Hut. They all died on the glacier on January 19, 1930, in what remains one of New Zealand's worst mountaineering tragedies.

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A coroner, guided by a doctor's examination, ruled that they had died of exposure in a terrible blizzard, although witnesses did not describe snowfall. They emphasised the heavy rain and a gale-force wind.

Controversy broke out when Guy E. Mannering, the uncle of one of the dead women and a pioneer of climbing Aoraki/Mt Cook, published an article backing witness and guide C. Hilgendorf's theory that all five had died from lightning.

The dead were:
• Teddy Blomfield, 20, guide and Dunedin medical student,
• Doris Herbert Brown, 38, of Rangiora, Mannering's niece and an experienced climber,
• Mary Heather Monteath, 20, of Fendalton in Christchurch,
• Helena Keane, 24, clerk, of Spreydon in Christchurch, who was on the last day of a fortnight's holiday at Mt Cook, and
• Dorothy Marion Smith, 26, of Epsom in Auckland, who was on a three-week holiday at the Hermitage.

Guide Teddy Blomfield was thought to have been reduced to crawling by the extremely strong wind. Photo / Otago Daily Times, National Library
Guide Teddy Blomfield was thought to have been reduced to crawling by the extremely strong wind. Photo / Otago Daily Times, National Library
Guide C. Hilgendorf, who found the four dead women including Helena Keane. Photo / Herald archives
Guide C. Hilgendorf, who found the four dead women including Helena Keane. Photo / Herald archives

In the days before a large volume of New Zealand's largest glacier had melted away, leaving its surface far below the moraine rock walls at the sides of its valley, the walk across the Tasman's rough surface to Malte Brun Hut was a highlight for adventurous tourists at the Hermitage.

At one time the top of the glacier ice was above the undulating surface of the moraine where the original Ball Hut was built in 1891. The current Ball Hut is the fourth in a series of accommodation buildings in the vicinity, although the third was deemed only an emergency shelter. Malte Brun Hut, which no longer exists, was built in 1898 on a grassy terrace about 150m above the glacier.

On the day of the tragedy, Hilgendorf left Malte Brun Hut 90 minutes after Blomfield's group, at about midday. A full-scale storm was now raging, with bolts of lightning and heavy rain.

Malte Brun Hut, which was on a terrace above the Tasman Glacier, no longer exists. Aoraki/Mt Cook is in the background. Photo / Herald, National Library
Malte Brun Hut, which was on a terrace above the Tasman Glacier, no longer exists. Aoraki/Mt Cook is in the background. Photo / Herald, National Library

"After I left the Malte Brun Hut the blizzard increased in intensity, vivid flashes of lightning cleaving the heavens," Hilgendorf told the inquest.

Because the metal head of his iceaxe "sparked and sang" whenever there was a flash of lightning, he tied it to a strap and towed it. The weather was the worst he had experienced. The northwesterly wind was so strong he was forced to crawl.

Herald graphic showing the victims' route on the Tasman Glacier and where they were found at De La Beche Corner. Source / Herald, National Library
Herald graphic showing the victims' route on the Tasman Glacier and where they were found at De La Beche Corner. Source / Herald, National Library

At about 2.30pm he found the first of the dead women, at the point on the glacier known as De La Beche Corner, near the foot of De La Beche Ridge. She was lying, face down in a hollow in the ice, where he thought she had been sheltering from the wind. He saw no disfigurement.

About 30m further on, he found another woman and after another 10m, the last two women, one with her face under water.

The weather now eased and Hilgendorf pressed on to Ball Hut, where he was taken by car to the Hermitage.

The De La Beche Memorial and Malte Brun huts, which no longer exist, were on either side of the Tasman Glacier. Ball Hut is beyond the lower left corner. Map / mapspast.org.nz
The De La Beche Memorial and Malte Brun huts, which no longer exist, were on either side of the Tasman Glacier. Ball Hut is beyond the lower left corner. Map / mapspast.org.nz

At Ball Hut, guide Mick Bowie organised a search party. They found the women's bodies, three of which were now together. The searchers surmised that the wind had moved them.

Blomfield's body' was about 140m from the women. The searchers wrapped Blomfield in blankets and rubbed him, trying, unsuccessfully, to revive him.


Herald reports two days after the tragedy. Source: Herald archives

In July 1930, Mannering published the lightning theory in the NZ Alpine Journal. He had taken part in the retrieval of the bodies from the glacier in the days after the deaths.

Mannering noted no injuries were found on the victims apart from minor abrasions and evidence on Blomfield's knees indicating he had crawled on the glacier.

An unnamed doctor who supported Mannering's theory pointed out to the Press that the group mustn't have felt cold enough to put on all available clothing - three cardigans were found in the women's rucksacks.

Mannering, whose article was covered by the paper, said he could find no cases among reports of deaths in the European Alps of a whole party dying so suddenly "from mere exposure".

"A great many cases are reported, but I can find none (where the period of exposure is known) in which death has occurred under a period of about 12 hours, and then it is usually only one or two members of the party who have succumbed. There are numerous instances of resistance for periods of 24 and 48 hours and even longer, without death resulting."

"Lightning is very varied in its effects upon animal bodies, and frequently takes life without leaving any sign of burning."

However, Dr Stanley Fraser, who had examined the bodies for the coroner, rejected Mannering's claim. He told the Press that Mannering's own evidence that some of the victims' watches had continued to keep time until they ran down hours after their deaths disproved the lightning theory. If it was lightning that killed them, it would have damaged and stopped their metal watches too and the time shown on them would have been the time of death.

"All of the staff at the Ball Hut were of the opinion that it was an intense, violent, wet blizzard which struck the party in an exposed place. Considering the inadequate, not to say scanty, clothing of some of the members of the party, combined with the post-mortem appearances of the bodies, the facts bore out the verdict of death from exposure."

Otago University at Wellington epidemiologist Professor Nick Wilson told the Herald in 2017 that data on deaths and injuries suggested it was far more likely the five died from hypothermia than lightning.

He said the majority of people struck by lightning survived the event.


The De La Beche Hut plaque now hangs at the Alpine Club's Unwin Lodge near Aoraki/Mt Cook village

As a result of the tragedy, the NZ Alpine Club, following a fundraising appeal, had a memorial hut built beside the glacier, at the foot of the De La Beche Ridge. That hut, opened by Mannering in 1931, was replaced in 1979, by a hut which was itself demolished in 2012.

Two huts in succession existed near De La Beche Corner from 1931 until this hut (picutred) was demolished in 2012. Photo / Supplied
Two huts in succession existed near De La Beche Corner from 1931 until this hut (picutred) was demolished in 2012. Photo / Supplied

* In the H Files, Herald reporter Martin Johnston revists historic stories from the Herald archives.