Turangi-based guide Terry Blumhardt, who put his life on the line in 2016 to rescue two teens trapped on Mt Tongariro, has received a special Search and Rescue award for his efforts. He talks to Taupō & Tūrangi Weekender editor Laurilee McMichael about the events of that day.
Search and Rescue is about teamwork.
But when Turangi-based professional guide Terry Blumhardt was rung by police and urgently asked to head into a storm atop Mt Tongariro to find two lost and hypothermic teenagers stranded on an icy face, he was on his own.
Blumhardt, a member of Land Search and Rescue Turangi and of the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, found the two teens within half an hour. That was the easy part. The pair had come to a halt along a steep patch of frozen snow on the mountainside above a near-vertical drop of around 150m to South Crater. It was too slippery to go on or turn back, they were soaked through and freezing and they were both in serious danger.
It was October 2016 and Blumhardt was guiding two clients across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Two other guides and their groups had already turned back because of the conditions, but Blumhardt's clients were well-prepared, fit and exhilarated by the wind.
It was early spring and ice axes and crampons were not needed, although Blumhardt was carrying a snow shovel, as he intended to widen the paths across three patches of snow further down. He says while he and his clients were well-dressed, the conditions were life-threatening to anybody stationary and exposed to the weather.
Unbeknownst to them a group of 13 from Te Wananga o Aotearoa in Hamilton was ahead. The group had only one leader and had set out on the arduous 19.4km tramp without enough warm gear, and in unsuitable conditions. Three had become separated from the group at the summit of Red Crater, taking a wrong turn in misty, drizzly conditions and continuing instead along the summit ridge exposed to the full force of the southerly gale. When they came to the steep snow patch, one turned back. The other two struck out across the patch, but became stranded, unable to move in temperatures below zero.
Blumhardt's group had made it across the main part of the crossing and were out of the weather and beginning their trek down to Ketetahi carpark when his phone rang. It was the police and the call started with the question "Where are you?".
The two boys had managed to make a 111 call and police had narrowed down their approximate location using the mobile locate system.
Blumhardt checked his clients were confident to continue on by themselves — he knew they would meet a Land Search and Rescue team coming up — and arranged for one of his staff to walk up from Ketetahi to meet them. Then he turned and made a beeline for the ridge leading to the summit of Mt Tongariro. Along the way, he passed the third young man heading down.
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It took Blumhardt around 20 minutes to reach the ridge, moving as quickly as the raging head wind, driving drizzle and steep uphill slope would allow. Visibility was variable and he took an educated guess that the stranded boys were most likely towards the summit. He headed that way, blowing his whistle to alert them.
But after only a couple of hundred metres he met a big patch of frozen snow. Blumhardt prepared to head around it. He blew his whistle again and one of what he had thought were rocks on the snow waved to him. His heart sank.
"They were on the piece of snow and couldn't move. It was the end of the season, old compressed snow and they had stepped into the remnants of footsteps to try to get across but then got stuck ... they'd been exposed at that stage to the weather for two hours I think."
Then Blumhardt felt really alone.
"The toughest thing for me about this particular job was that Search and Rescue is a team activity and at that moment I had no team with me. It was urgent and I was alone, and that wasn't a great combination.
"It's one of those things where you feel so much better if you have got a mate with you and you can run a plan and problem solve before you start.
"My big concern was if I had got to them and they moved the wrong way and slipped, that they would take me with them."
Blumhardt was reluctant to put his own life at risk but he had little choice.
He used his snow shovel to carefully dig a track out to the boys, who were uninjured but so cold they could barely move, with one making "the worst breathing sounds I've ever heard".
He ordered them to stay where they were and kept well back so they couldn't grab at him.
"I dug a platform for the first one to move on to and then I did the same for the second one and then I dug a trench to move the far one to the closer one."
Blumhardt then dug a trench all the way along back to the track. It was exhausting work. He did it in thirds — digging part of the trench, shifting one boy and then the other and then starting the next section and repeating the process. Because they were so cold and their legs weren't working properly they had to be half dragged, half frog-marched along each part without doing anything that might cause them to slide.
"I had deep concerns for their safety and when I was manoeuvring them on the snow, I had concerns for my safety if they had moved or if there was a wind shift that was going to put me off balance and that's why I had to dig so much. It was 150m down a steep slope to South Crater with a vertical drop in the middle. I doubt you would make it the whole way."
Finally, all three were clear of the snow. Blumhardt moved the boys along to where some rocks gave shelter from the wind. He put up his emergency shelter and started the warming process.
"I had a bit of hot water left from lunch time drinks so they got a cup of water each and some of my lunch and all of the dry clothing I had with me.
"Based on how bad they looked in the wind, I was stunned at how well they re-warmed. At the early stages I thought they were almost going to need stretchering off the mountain but with the bit of forced movement that I had to do and getting them out of the wind and getting the other stuff off them and dry stuff on them all helped."
About 45 minutes after the rescue began, fellow Land SAR volunteers and professional guides Cliff Jones and Sarah Cate, who had both been guiding clients but turned back when conditions deteriorated, arrived, followed shortly afterwards by two Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation members.
The weather on the ridge was still bad and getting the boys lower down was the only option. By then, they were re-dressed and the forced walking helped warm them further.
"One couldn't support his own weight and his legs very well to begin with so he had an arm over the shoulder of a team member both sides and the other one just needed a bit of support on rough ground. We walked them down the slope to Central Crater and that's the point where the other started to improve."
They were walked down to below the cloud where the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter picked them up.
Blumhardt says the incident highlighted a series of failures and while he has been involved in many rescues, this one was particularly frustrating. In the end, he wrote a scathing two and a half page report on the shortcomings of the outing. He says a reasonable safety plan would have identified what gear everybody needed and some critical decision points where the leader should have decided not to proceed.
He also believes the group should have been better briefed.
"If you are situationally aware, you know to stay together and you know where the group's going. Either one of those two factors would have stopped them from separating or certainly going down the path that they went down."
Once lost, the boys' "extremely poor clothing" almost led to their undoing.
"One had heavy cotton sweat pants and a heavy cotton hoodie and no raincoat that was working well. Both were wearing running shoes."
A Te Wananga o Aotearoa spokesperson said the organisation did a full health and safety investigation after the incident and took on board the lessons learned from it.
"We have since tightened procedures for outdoor activities significantly," the spokesman said.
"We again commend the rescuers who went to the aid of the missing students in very difficult conditions."
In May, Blumhardt, along with Cliff Jones and Sarah Cate, received a special New Zealand Search and Rescue Council Award for the events of that day. At the same ceremony, fellow search and rescue member Blake McDavitt of the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation received an award for more than 23 years' service in New Zealand and Antarctica.
Blumhardt says getting the award, while an honour, felt "really weird" because of the time delay since the rescue.
"I was involved only because it's Johnny-on-the spot stuff. If I wasn't closer Cliff and Sarah would have been there first. I've always just felt awkward about it. I'm just part of the team that got the call."
But Blumhardt and fellow guide Cliff Jones say as guides, coming to the rescue of others is a regular occurrence, whether putting themselves at risk or simply providing first aid to people with ill-fitting boots.
Blumhardt says enjoying the view from the base of the mountain may be all people get to safely experience if conditions don't allow more and the modern 'push the limits', 'don't be a quitter' mantra can work against them.
"I love people challenging themselves and all that sort of thing, it's how we all learn, but get out there and do it with some thought about your safety."
But even the best-laid plans can go awry, and that is what Land Search and Rescue is there for.
"Bad things happen to good people and well-prepared people so there will always be a need for organisations to do what we do. The aim is to not have preventable stuff happen to poorly prepared people — that's nirvana."