Russell Carr - Never one for just another day in the office

3 minutes read
Posted 31 July, 2023
Russell right with family from left Jessica Jono and Clare and grandchildren front from left Huxley Ayla and Harris in Zion National Park Utah USA

Russell, right, with family, from left, Jessica, Jono and Clare, and grandchildren, front from left, Huxley, Ayla and Harris, in Zion National Park, Utah, USA

He’s been one of the region’s leading Search and Rescue [SAR] volunteers and a top NZ heli-ski guide with 42 years’ experience. With a CV stretching the length of the South Island, Russell Carr’s never been one for ‘just another day at the office’.

An experienced psychopaedic nurse, his immense backcountry know-how led him to become a renowned film location scout and safety auditor, and eventually a police jailor.

Born in Scotland, Russell’s World War II veteran Kiwi dad and Scottish mum moved to Christchurch when he was two. While at Mairehau College he developed a love for hunting and fishing, first introduced to skiing at 25 by now wife of 52 years Clare. “I said, ‘I’m never doing this again. It’s awful’, but I had one more go to impress her and got hooked.” Both psychopaedic nurses, Clare and Russell worked the Mount Hutt ski patrol by day and Templeton Hospital at night.

At 16, Russell and his mates had headed north to work at Marsden Point Oil Refinery, saving for their OE. It took six weeks in 1964 to sail to London, costing £607 return.

Russell worked in the spinal unit at Sydney’s Prince Henry Hospital, before returning to NZ where he was called up for Military training.

Back nursing, he took up karate to keep fit, eventually teaching it. He joined the Canterbury Tramping Club, and became a SAR volunteer in the mid-70s. At just 23, but with all the right knowledge, he sat on the Avalanche Committee of the NZ Mountain Safety Council and was a mountain and bushcraft instructor.

Russell and Clare married in Queenstown in 1971, moving here in 1978. In 1979 Ski School director Fraser Skinner told him to go and see Alpine Helicopters general manager Don Spary who was looking for a heli-ski guide. “I said, ‘What’s that?’”

“Don said, ‘I want someone who can take people out skiing and not be afraid of avalanches’, to which I replied that person would be a fool,” grins Russell.

Alpine Helicopters began heli-ski trips, working with Russell’s karate mate Paul Scaiffe, of Harris Mountains Heli-Ski, first flying Wanaka clients and eventually joining forces to form Harris Mountains Heli-Ski Queenstown. Renowned mountaineer Mark Whetu was also guiding.

By 1980 Russell was Queenstown’s Police SAR advisor, holed up in the station with US Secret Service guys as South Island advisor during US President Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit.

In 2002 with more than 30 years’ service he was awarded a QSM (Queen’s Service Medal). Russell served with Wakatipu SAR for 40 years in all, and he only hung up his heli-skis last year, aged 76.

As if all that wasn’t exciting enough, Russell’s clocked 30 years in the film industry as a location scout and safety auditor, with his backcountry knowledge in strong demand. He’s worked on hundreds of commercials and movies, including 10,000BC, Race to the Yankee Zephyr and Willow, and sailed with Sir Peter Blake on Enza filming a documentary in the Pacific.

Most of the work was prior to digital film. “They’d write the story board and I’d decide where they could go, sending photos that took four days to be developed.”

After the Cave Creek disaster Glenorchy DOC ranger Brian Ahern asked Russell to be a safety auditor, which he did for adventure tourism for 20 years, completing more than 350 audits.

He’s driven many alleged offenders to Invercargill Prison as police jailor, his psychopaedic nursing and karate training at the ready. “I’ve never felt threatened.” Russell can be walking down the street in his civvies one minute then phoned by the police to board a plane immediately with a prisoner. Far harder, he’s guarded fatal accident and crime scenes, but is renowned for remaining calm. “The worse the situation is the calmer I become. I don’t know why.”

At his suggestion a local SAR exercise focused on the area where an English tramper had gone missing. “Blow me down if we didn’t find him. His grieving parents, in NZ at the time, were very grateful.”

Russell’s also worked as a jetboat driver, adventure tour operator, art promoter, deer farmer, and more recently a private limo tour driver. He’s health and safety advisor to the Kelvin Peninsula’s Get Ready Group, charged with preparing for a one in 350-year earthquake. He writes poetry, and on Sundays you’ll find him at the Salvation Army Church service.

Russell front back in the day with Enza and its famous skipper Sir Peter Blake behind in the Hauraki Gulf

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