Avalanche that killed Mountaineer results in safety recommendations

2nd March 2021|3min

Despite planning a well-prepared mountaineering trip in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, three Australian mates failed to acknowledge the obvious signs of avalanche risks around them and didn’t change their plans accordingly before one of them died in an avalanche, a report to the coroner says.

The NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) continues its efforts to help prevent mountaineers getting caught in avalanches and it’s six recommendations of prevention were adopted by the coroner.  
Nathan Deutschbein, 40, an Australian police officer, husband and father-of-two, died when he and his friend, Ion Mihaila, were hit by an avalanche that swept them 250m down the Eugenie Glacier on November 29, 2018.

After six months of planning, the three Australian friends, Deutschbein, Mihaila and Conor Quinn, travelled to Mt Cook Village in November 2018 with the intention of climbing Mount Elie De Beaumont. While that climb was intended to take four to five days, they allowed 10 days in case of bad weather.

The incident

Bad weather prevented them from leaving as planned, and instead the trio stayed in the village for a few days discussing the weather and alternative routes with Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centre staff.

A fine spell of weather meant there was a short window of opportunity, and they could walk to Sefton Bivvy on November 28 and then climb The Footstool the following day.

Quinn recalls in his statement to police a DOC noticeboard advising that the avalanche risk was “downgraded to low” with a few aspects at higher elevation remaining in moderate risk.

Notably, these aspects were east facing, the same as that which the group planned to ascend, the report says.

They arrived at Sefton Bivvy around 4pm and spent a few hours chatting to others at the hut, checking the conditions, including spotting evidence of old avalanches, and planning their approach for the following day.

They continued to check the weather forecast on their phones and the daily radioed update.

The next morning at 3.30am there was “a bit of rain” so they decided to wait it out for a couple hours, leaving the bivvy at 6am.

Due to the rain, the snow did not freeze meaning they were walking in soft snow up to their ankles, Quinn recalled.

Quinn returned to the bivvy after feeling unwell, and Mihaila and Deutschbein continued on, arriving at the saddle at the top of Eugenie Glacier, on the Main Divide, at midday.

“The weather was closed in from the west. We could not see The Footstool due to the cloud cover and the weather was getting worse and starting to rain.

“We could see snow sliding down the mountain about a couple of hundred metres away from us and this was towards the summit of where we were wanting to climb,” Mihaila said in his statement.

After a lunch break, they began the descent roped together at about 12.15pm.

Less than an hour later, halfway down the glacier, the pair were hit by an avalanche and were swept about 250m.

Mihaila managed to stay close to the surface of the avalanche and was able to self-rescue and untangle himself from the equipment.

When he found Deutschbein about 5m away, his upper body was trapped under the snow while his lower body was exposed.

Mihaila used his hands and a shovel to clear the snow from Deutschbein’s face which was buried in about half a metre of snow.  

His nose and mouth were full of snow, “... I shook him to get a reaction, but he was purple. I knew then that Nathan was gone”, Mihialia recalled.

He activated his Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and contacted Police before being rescued.

NZ Mountain Safety Council's key learnings

Coroner David Robinson asked MSC to provide a report on causative factors into the death, and recommendations on how avalanche-related tragedies could be avoided in the future.

MSC Chief Executive Mike Daisley said an accumulation of factors contributed to Deutschbein’s death including failure to identify signs of avalanche danger, attempting the trip despite recent rainfall and sunny warm conditions, departing Sefton Bivvy late, and not turning back early enough to ensure they were off dangerous snow slopes.

MSC consider that the root cause of the incident, however, was ‘scarcity of opportunity’ - a commonly identified heuristic trap in avalanche fatalities.

“This drove the desire for the trio to “get something out of the trip”, and likely contributed to them continuing to head up the glacier despite some red flags,” Daisley said.

“They did all the right things prior to the climb, checked forecasts, chatted to local experts and had the correct equipment, but they just didn’t acknowledge the obvious signs of avalanche danger once on the climb,” Daisley said.

“They were seeing loose wet avalanches occurring around them,” he said.

“An undoubtedly worrying position to be in that should have rang alarm bells.”

“Mountaineers need to use their eyes and ears at all times as a low avalanche risk does not mean no avalanche risk,” he said.

“This is particularly true for mountaineers as they are often climbing in steep and dangerous terrain where even a small avalanche can be fatal.” 
MSC’s six recommendations adopted by Coroner Robinson are (summarised): 

  1. Attend an avalanche training course which include avalanche rescue techniques. 
  2. Always thoroughly read, discuss and understand the avalanche advisory for the area.  
  3. Take into consideration weather and snow conditions of the local area. 
  4. Ensure their climbing objective is in alignment with current conditions, and always remain vigilant to changes in the environment and always be prepared to assess those conditions and turn around.  
  5. Always have a ‘turn-around time’ for any return trip, especially in the mountains where snow melt can cause significant risks as the day progresses.  
  6. Finally, CPR should always be administered on avalanche victims “if they are not showing signs of life and not showing signs of obvious death after removing snow and ice from the patients nose and mouth. The only exception to this rule is if the patient has been buried for over one hour and their mouth and nose is totally blocked with snow and ice, and there are other patients who also need to be rescued. A person is not dead until warm and dead, and verified by a medical professional.” This is in line with International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR) recommendations.  

MSC expresses its sincere condolences to Deutschbein family, and his mountaineering friends Mihaila and Quinn.

pdf Coronial Findings | N Deutschbein 2021 pdf – 1.2 MB

Header photo: Nathan Deutschbein PHOTO/SUPPLIED + The Footstool (2764m) and Eugenie Glacier (far right) in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park PHOTO/TOM HARRIS