Every year remarkable stories of survival catch the attention of the nation. Over the next five days the Herald takes a closer look at those who came back from the brink of disaster and defied the odds. Chelsea Boyle reports.

Jo Morgan only had two 3000ft peaks left to conquer in New Zealand – but its unlikely the avalanche survivor will ever attempt Mt Hicks again.

Morgan is lucky to be alive after she and two climbing companions were buried when a two metre wave of snow and a huge slab of ice came crashing down Mt Hicks earlier this year.

She credits the personal locator beacon tucked in her front chest pocket with saving her life.

Morgan set out in the wee hours of October 31 alongside trusted climbing companions Wolfgang Maier and Martin Hess. Both men were originally from Germany but had made their homes in New Zealand.


"These two guys, the alarm goes at 1am and we walk out the door at 2am on the dot," said Morgan, who is married to philanthropist Gareth Morgan.

"We had done a lot of assessing on the snow pack and what we thought was safe and I think in mountaineering there is lots of risks.

"And we were prepared to carry that risk."

It was a fairly technical climb to the saddle with Morgan leaving one of her walking poles in the ground to use as a marker for the point they planned to abseil down from.

They approached the next slope with textbook planning, carefully following the route mapped out in the guidebook instructions.

The three were climbing by torchlight in the dark when the avalanche hit.

Wolfgang Maier, Jo Morgan and Martin Hess. Photo / Supplied
Wolfgang Maier, Jo Morgan and Martin Hess. Photo / Supplied

"Suddenly Wolfgang shouted something at me and I sort of looked up and everything had gone all shaky," Morgan said.

A 2-metre wave of snow rushed towards the group, carrying a huge slab of ice on top, she said.


"At that stage you are out of control and you are trying to maintain some breathing space in front of your mouth."

Then it all stopped, and three were buried in the snow.

"It was very touch and go, that all three of us were going to be lost really."

Morgan yelled out to the others.

"When you don't hear a voice back, it sort of seemed like a party game gone really wrong you know?

"That you are playing hide and seek and everybody else has left you there, hidden ..."


She set off her locator beacon as soon as she could.

"And that was purely because I had it in the right position, having the locator beacon in my chest pocket was potentially a life-saver for me."

It was a 30 minute struggle to free herself from the snow.

"I was still tied to the boys, we were all on the one rope," she said.

"It took me ages to get my legs out ... it is sort of akin to being buried in wet sand.

"I am sure if I was injured, it would have been really a different ball game."


Standing freed, alone on the mountain side, her phone began to ring with search and rescue calling.

Help was on the way.

Morgan then used her phone to call her husband and tell him what just happened.

"I am okay, I've dug myself out and I am okay," she told him.

"He had been watching the weather like a hawk too."

That little bit of communication was so important, it was a lot easier than their family having to listen to it unfold on the news and be left wondering, she said.


Of Maier and Hess, Morgan said it was a tragedy to lose two wonderful men.

"I think as climbing companions you I couldn't have wished for nicer people," she said.

"It's such a loss to the climbing community because both of them gave so much to their communities.

"They loved sharing their skills and their knowledge."

Jo Morgan said the guidance her climbing companions had given her had enabled to her to chase her dreams. Photo / Supplied
Jo Morgan said the guidance her climbing companions had given her had enabled to her to chase her dreams. Photo / Supplied

The outpouring of love for them and kind comments had been enormous, she said.

Young guides who were close to the German duo were among those who reached out to Morgan.


The pair had both been hugely encouraging of her climbing adventures, she said, something she started pursuing at age 58.

"It was a bit of a late life passion. I had always loved clambering around trees and when I discovered the mountains I thought 'oh this is just amazing'," Morgan said.

"I was intending to have all these [3000ft] peaks climbed before I got the gold card but it crept up on me," she said.

"The boys would always make funny jokes about taking granny climbing.

"It is an amazing thing these mountain guides do because they do help people fulfill their dreams."

Morgan counts herself lucky to be alive and plans on making a special commemorative trek into the lower mountains of Mt Cook alongside Maier's partner in the New Year.