MEDIA RELEASE Mountaineer’s death highlights greater focus for emergency preparedness, coroner says
For immediate release
The 2020 death of a mountaineer on Mt Ruapehu has highlighted the importance of being prepared to deal with emergencies in high-risk areas in Aotearoa.
Emma Langley was on a NZ Alpine Club (NZAC) day-climb on Mt Ruapehu in 2020 when she slipped and slid nearly 500m down the mountain. Unfortunately, due to deteriorating weather and the location, rescue efforts were difficult, a coroner’s report released today says.
The NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) was asked to provide an independent expert report for Coroner Matthew Bates, considering factors surrounding Langley’s death and recommendations on preventing future fatalities. The report identified several contributing factors, including the environmental and weather conditions, equipment, human factors and NZAC systems and policies which led to the incident and contributed to her death.
Langley, 37, was a novice mountaineer, however her family say she was excited by the prospect of learning more climbing skills upon moving to Wellington from the United Kingdom in 2019. She became a member of the NZAC Wellington section and had recently completed the NZAC Level 1 Basic Snowcraft Course in July and August 2020.
On 26 September 2020, Langley joined a group trip organised by the NZAC Wellington Section for members to practice and consolidate the skills they had learned on the snowcraft course. At 7am the group departed the Tukino Alpine Ski Club Lodge on Mt Ruapehu in the Tongariro National Park.
At around 12.30pm Langley and several others were attempting to traverse an icy slope at Cathedral Rocks above Whangaehu Glacier. While traversing, Langley slipped and began to slide uncontrollably down the mountain about 400m to 500m, stopping as she reached soft snow.
When the first group members reached her, she had a reduced level of consciousness.
After calling Police, the group attempted to move her down the mountain a short distance before the decision was made to try and make her comfortable and attempt to shelter her from the deteriorating weather as they waited for rescue crews.
Due to the terrain surrounding her location and strong winds, rescue efforts were difficult. After attempting to fly in, at 2pm the decision was made that the helicopter could not safely reach the group, and during the afternoon and evening, rescue teams assembled at Tukino and deployed on foot. The first rescue team arrived at 9pm, after climbing for about 4 hours, and transported Langley by stretcher off the mountain. Unfortunately, after over 8 hours since her fall, she had succumbed to hypothermia. No other practical steps could have been taken to get Langley off the mountain sooner, the coroner says.
The MSC report highlighted several contributing factors to Langley’s death, including finding that she was inadequately treated for shock and hypothermia following the incident.
The report recommends further support to help trip leaders and instructors understand what is required to stabilise an injured person and treat them for shock, particularly in an alpine environment where hypothermia is a significant concern.
While the group leaders supported other group members immediately after Langley’s fall, the coroner says the first steps should have included planning how they would respond to Langley, what first aid and emergency equipment they would need.
The coroner has accepted all 13 MSC recommendations including that instructors, leaders, and mentors should have a minimum of two days Outdoor First Aid training, and that clubs should review their emergency procedures to include caring for participants in adverse weather conditions. Insulation from the ground, particularly when on snow, is essential and should always be an immediate part of first-aid treatment or emergency response.
MSC state that NZAC plays a positive and influential role in teaching and supporting aspiring mountaineers in New Zealand.
The coroner endorsed the range of MSC’s recommendations directed to both NZAC and other alpine training and course providers, and to the general mountaineering community for the purpose of preventing future deaths.
MSC’s set of recommendations for the mountaineering community are:
- Having contingency plans for when the weather, terrain or group needs dictate that plans must change are essential and should be discussed as part of pre-trip planning and preparation.
- When training novice climbers, emphasise the critical skills of fall prevention (effective footwork and crampon techniques balanced with decision making on all terrain and surface conditions). Self-arresting should not be relied upon. Teaching must be conducted at locations where the failure to perform a skill will only have acceptable outcomes (i.e., low risk sites where there is no potential for harm resulting from an error). When the consequence is not acceptable, the instructor/leader must have direct evidence that the individual can perform the skill in same or similar circumstances. Do not rely on a beginners' ability to execute skills they have recently learned while in stressful situations.
- Always be prepared and equipped to deal with emergencies in the mountains. Further advice is available on the MSC website www.mountainsafety.org.nz. Specifically, ensure you know how to care for a patient’s body temperature following an injury, no matter how severe. Insulation from the ground, particularly when on snow, is essential and should always be an immediate part of first aid treatment or emergency response.
Further MSC recommendations for course providers and alpine training, including NZAC:
- View course instructors and section trip leaders/mentors collectively. To avoid confusion between the two roles, training and competency assessment should be part of a collective framework for all leaders.
- As Instructors, Leaders and Mentors take on these roles on an ad-hoc basis, they may not always be fluent or current in all the skills required. The resources that NZAC provides are essential in assisting them when they take on those roles and regular refresher training is important to assist in keeping these skills fluent and current. The following recommendations include important content to include in both resources and training.
- Instructors, Leaders, and Mentors should have a minimum of two days Outdoor First Aid training. Ensure that the management and treatment of hypothermia is emphasised within this training, and that emergency response procedures are emphasised.
- The Emergency Management Procedures should be reviewed to include caring for participants in adverse weather conditions. Insulation from the ground, particularly when on snow, is essential and should always be an immediate part of first-aid treatment or emergency response. These procedures should also consider that mechanised rescue often cannot operate in such weather conditions and should not be relied upon.
- Course Instruction should emphasise the critical skills of fall prevention (effective footwork and crampon techniques balanced with decision-making on all-terrain and surface conditions). Self-arrest should not be relied upon.
- Teaching must be conducted at locations where the failure to perform a skill will only have acceptable outcomes (i.e., low risk sites where there is a lower potential for serious harm resulting from an error). When the consequence is not acceptable, the instructor/leader must have direct evidence that the individual can perform the skill in same or similar circumstances. Conservative plans are recommended that reduce the likelihood of serious incidents or facilitate easier rescue when weather or terrain reduce margins as ground-based rescue as long, complex, and dangerous 76 for all involved. Identifying appropriate terrain for certain skills may need to be different in the North Island than in the South Island.
- Do not rely on beginners’ ability to execute skills they have recently learned while in stressful situations.
- Where multiple leaders are working together, the plan must clarify roles and responsibilities – i.e., ‘who will be watching what’ and ‘who will have ultimate responsibility.’
- Two-way communication between leaders/mentors in larger groups needs to be clarified and included in the field communications plan. When leaders separate, they should attempt as much as possible to remain in contact with each other, especially in an emergency.
- Changes in leadership styles and plans should be communicated clearly to the group and receipt of these changes confirmed by participants.
MSC extends its sincere condolences to Emma Langley’s family, friends, the NZ Alpine Club trip members and the rescue crew.
Contact Communications Advisor Rebekah Wilson with any queries.
Header Photo: Tukino side of Mt Ruapehu. PHOTO/TARN HOYLE