Misperceived hazards led to deaths on Taranaki Maunga, coroner says
Media Release | For immediate release
A misperception of hazards on Taranaki Maunga, a mountain known for its unique and unforgiving conditions, ultimately led to the tragic deaths of two climbers in 2021, a coroner says.
Coroner Ian Telford hopes the NZ Mountain Safety Council recommendations and advice from the tragic double fatality will help prevent future mountaineering deaths on New Zealand’s mountains and tracks.
The two climbers, who were friends and colleagues, both died from traumatic injuries sustained in a fall on Taranaki Maunga on May 4, 2021.
The climbers cannot be identified due to the coroner issuing a non-publication order of both the deceased’s names and any information that could identify the deceased at the request of their families.
The two men, from Christchurch, were in New Plymouth on a work trip. After work that day, they decided to attempt a night-time attempt of Taranaki Maunga before their return to Christchurch the following day.
The pair travelled to Dawson Falls carpark, and at 6.30pm one of the climbers sent a text to his wife saying they had started their ascent, then at 9.23pm he sent another saying the pair had summited.
However, shortly after at 9.45pm, emergency services received a call from one of the climbers saying the other had fallen a considerable distance and he could not see him. Then the call cut out.
Shortly before midnight, a rescue team located their bodies, about 300m down the mountain from where the call to emergency services was made. Due to dangerous weather conditions, the pair weren’t recovered from the maunga until two days later on May 6.
A NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) expert report, requested by the coroner, identified contributing factors specific to the deaths including the climbers’ limited planning, and underestimation of the dangerous ice conditions which were present on the mountains. The pair chose a route that is discouraged by the Department of Conservation (DOC) due to the gradient and environmental conditions. Their gear, including clothing, footwear and crampons were not suitable for the conditions. The evidence also suggests the pair were not wearing helmets, and it is possible they were not carrying ice axes.
While it appeared the climbers had enough previous experience to climb Taranaki Maunga, they were not suitably prepared for a winter ascent and not equipped for the icy conditions on the upper reaches of the maunga.
The MSC report stated, “it is a mountain with unique conditions and is very unforgiving. No matter one’s experience, winter climbing on Taranaki Maunga is greatly aided by local knowledge and advice”.
The MSC report also stated that, “a misperception of the hazards they would encounter, which resulted in not being adequately equipped to manage them, followed by a small navigational error by not following their original path back down the mountain and not having appropriate footwear with compatible crampons,” were the handful of errors made on the day.
Coroner Telford adopted MSC’s full report and recommendations:
- Climbing Taranaki Maunga outside of the summer months requires mountaineering skills and equipment. It should not be considered a tramp or hike when snow and ice are present, as surface conditions will significantly raise the complexity of the trip and the consequences of poor decisions. Always be prepared to turn around on your trip should you encounter conditions you weren’t expecting or prepared for.
- Taranaki Maunga is very accessible and is a popular climb in summer months. This has led many to underestimate its seriousness in winter, or even when weather or conditions deteriorate. Trampers and climbers should recognise that Taranaki Maunga is a very serious mountain requiring solid planning and decision making at any time of year. They should also consider that due to its unforgiving terrain and exposure to the weather, any mistakes made have the potential for much more severe consequences. It’s no coincidence that it is the second most deadly mountain in New Zealand after Aoraki/Mt Cook.
- Experience climbing elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas, while useful, may not be sufficient to understand the unique challenges and conditions on Taranaki Maunga. Seek information and advice from locals and take a cautious approach on your trip, setting decision making points to consider how experienced conditions compare to your expectations, and how the group is coping.
- Ensure your footwear is appropriate for the objective you are undertaking. Choose crampons that suit your footwear, and both should match your objective. Crampons without front points are not typically suited to steep and slick terrain, especially when combined with flexible-soled footwear like trail running or hiking shoes. Make sure that you learn how to use equipment like crampons and an ice axe on a course, from a mentor, or from trusted friends or family before exposing yourself to highly consequential terrain.
- Climbing or tramping at night inherently raises the difficulty level. It can be done safely and effectively, but requires skill, experience, and appropriate conditions. Thorough planning is required to ensure the weather and conditions won’t compound the challenges, as any issues encountered will be much harder to deal with. Climbers and alpine trampers should consider decisions around travelling in the dark with an increased level of caution, particularly in unfamiliar environments.
The MSC extends its condolences to both the deceased's family and friends.
Contact Communications Advisor Rebekah Wilson with any other queries, for data and photos.
Notes for journalists:
- Watch the NZ Mountain Safety Council Mount Taranaki Summit Route video for more information on how to plan and prepare for a trip up Taranaki Maunga.
- Using Plan My Walk, hikers and trampers can check for track alerts, such as bridge and track closures, and the weather forecast. Then finding an appropriate alternative track before creating a plan and sending to group members and a trusted contact.
- NZ Mountain Safety Council data:
- Taranaki Maunga has had 7 deaths in the last 10 years on the summit routes (including these two). For comparison, Aoraki/Mt Cook has had 5 in the same period.