Two climbers buried by an avalanche and then caught in a blizzard atop one of New Zealand’s most famous mountain ranges survived their ordeal by digging themselves in the snow, building a cave and living off bars at muesli.
The two men in their twenties were on a three-day ice climbing adventure in The Remarkables – a 2,300m high range above Queenstown – when they triggered an avalanche and were swept away about 20 meters downhill.
The pair dug in to find the weather was getting closer and they couldn’t safely cross the ranges without risking another avalanche.
The men called police for help at midday on Tuesday, who then requested assistance from Wakatipu Alpine Cliff Rescue.
“It’s very steep and rugged terrain, mountainous and snowy…when the storms hit it can be quite an inhospitable place,” said team coordinator Russ Tilsley.
The first two helicopter rescue attempts were thwarted by a blizzard.
“It was getting late in the day and we decided it was too late to lay off a team… we knew we had a nice quiet morning the next morning so we spoke to the guys and they were in good spirits , and they decided to build a snow cave,” Tilsley said.
The men found a boulder the size of a garage that had been built with snow and dug up next to it. This would have made their overnight stay a comfortable 0C; outside, the temperature would have felt like -12C in the wind.
“They had had a tent the previous nights, but that had been buried in the wind and snow and would have been quite wet – they would have been much more comfortable in the snow,” Tilsley said.
The rescue team checked that the men had enough food for the night. “And the guy says, well, you know, I think we have maybe 10 to 15 muesli bars,” Tilsey said.
The men were nearly out of fuel for their stove – needed to melt water – which was “a big concern” as trying to melt snow in the mouth to hydrate can consume more energy than it does not provide any.
But the men survived the night and were rescued the next day.
“They were a little shaken, a little wet more than anything, and they were quite humble.”
It was incredibly lucky that the men were on the edge of the avalanche when it hit, Tilsley said.
“They were lucky they were there and not 50 or 100 meters out in the current because they would probably have been dead.”
The men had made the right decision to retreat and wait for help, he said. “A lot of people – especially young Kiwi men – are quite stoic at times, so it’s a bit hard for them to swallow, knowing they couldn’t make it. But they did what they had to.”