A delay in transporting a team of Alpine specialists to Mt Taranaki to help rescue two stranded climbers, who later died, may have cost an additional 12 hours in which they might have been saved, an expert mountaineer said today.
Nicole Sutton, 29, and Hiroki Ogawa, 31, died after being stranded near the top of the mountain for two days in blizzard conditions on Labour weekend last year.
They were taking part in the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Alpine Club's annual trip to Mt Taranaki.
On the fourth and final day of an inquest into their deaths, which took place in New Plymouth this week, expert mountaineer Geoff Wayatt read his independent report drafted at the request of coroner Chris Devonport.
Mr Wayatt, who has been a professional mountain guide for almost 50 years, said a delay in getting 13 Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation (RARO) members across to Taranaki could have denied the Auckland couple a chance to survive the ordeal.
The inquest had previously heard how there had been lengthy discussions over whether to fly them by helicopter or fixed wing aircraft, with both those options being ruled out because of poor weather, and how they were later forced to drive four hours to New Plymouth to join the search on Sunday, October 27, 2013.
"The despatch of a large skilled RARO team by helicopter directly to a field base in Tahurangi Lodge would have given them time to be fully briefed and deployed with an additional 12 hours to set up a rescue," Mr Wayatt said in his report.
"Any opportunity to get a hypothermic victim into shelter may enhance their survival prospects."
Ms Sutton had been suffering from hypothermia since before 9.46pm on Saturday night, and it had become clear by Sunday morning that Dr Ogawa was also succumbing to the extreme cold as they huddled near the summit of the mountain.
Mr Wayatt's comments came after Sergeant Bill Nicholson, search and rescue co-ordinator for the central district, revealed there had been a "communication mix-up" around the issue of an available helicopter to fly the RARO crew to New Plymouth.
A fixed wing aircraft had been ruled out due to low cloud, he said, but a pilot of a non-rescue chopper in Taupo had been contacted who said he was available to fly.
"He said he could bring the squirrel [helicopter] over in an hour and take six [people] and gear and fly to Taranaki in 30 minutes and come back and get more if need be," Mr Nicholson said.
"His perception was ..... that flying a helicopter was viable."
Asked if there had been a "communication mix-up", he said: "I believe so."
When questioned by Mr Devonport, he said he believed police officers who received the information may have confused it with the fixed wing aircraft not being able to fly in those conditions.
It was pointed out by lawyer for the Sutton and Ogawa families Hanne Janes, and by Mr Devonport, that two police incident controllers had made notes referring to "fixed wing not an option, heli option".
Yesterday, when asked about this note, Sergeant Jeff McGrath said he could not recall what the 'heli option' specifically referred to.
"The information I was provided was that the weather was such at National Park that it wouldn't allow an aircraft to take off," he said.
Earlier today Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust pilot Michael Parker said dropping a survival pack of food and blankets to the stranded couple would not have been possible despite knowing their GPS co-ordinates.
Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa sheltered on a ledge they dug out of the snow for two nights at 2320m in extreme weather conditions, described today as sub-zero temperatures, winds in excess of 80km/h and a wind-chill factor of -17C.
Mr Wayatt said in such conditions exposed skin would freeze in 10 to 30 minutes.
"Nicole incredibly survived 36 hours," he said in his report.
When rescuers finally managed to reach Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa around 7.30am on Monday, they found Dr Ogawa already dead. Ms Sutton was alive, but she lost consciousness shortly afterwards and died before she could be winched off the mountain.
Mr Devonport reserved his decision.