Tarn Pilkington - Tarn to the rescue

4 minutes read
Posted 26 June, 2024
Tarn left with adventurer mate Matt Wilkinson in Antarctica copy

Tarn, left, with adventurer mate Matt Wilkinson in Antarctica

If you’re heading into the mountains, then Tarn Pilkington’s the guy you want around. They don’t come much more qualified than this highly experienced Wakatipu LandSAR Alpine Cliff Rescue team leader and guide of all things adventure.

He’s clocked thousands of hours in his 35 years of round the clock daring rescues as an Alpine Cliff Rescue volunteer, assessed and trained mountain guides, led Antarctica Shackleton ski tour crossings of South Georgia and even kept Tom Cruise safe on the Mission Impossible set.

In demand as a technical guide and advisor, Tarn became an internationally certified mountain guide in 2000, working Northern Hemisphere winters ski guiding in Canada and climbing/guiding in South America, Antarctica and Nepal.

Not bad for a boy from the ‘burbs in Christchurch whose parents had him on skis at four. “Mum and Dad took up skiing later but gave my brother and I so many outdoor opportunities,” Tarn says. “Forty years ago, we were towing caravans with big old two-wheel drive cars with chains on, headed for Mount Hutt, Craigieburn and Queenstown.”

His typical Kiwi upbringing saw that caravan headed for Golden Bay and beautiful Totaranui Beach in summer - a tradition that Tarn and wife Queenstown doctor Elinor Slater have carried on.

Sport was encouraged with Tarn’s Christchurch Boy’s High rowing team winning South Island events.

After planting for the NZ Forest Service, Tarn studied for a Parks and Recreation Management Diploma at Lincoln where he and like-minded classmates with outdoor passions headed for the hills. His Diploma practical was a summer at Auckland’s Waharau Regional Park. The next summer Tarn was a weedsprayer at Mount Cook National Park, living with one of NZ’s leading mountain guides Russell Braddock. “That summer paved the way and mapped my future in the outdoors.”

His first guiding job was as glacier guide in 1988, then ski patrolling at The Remarkables Ski Area, and after more summers at Mount Cook Tarn headed back to Queenstown, working as a rafting and Funyak guide. At The Remarkables he met Scottish wife Elinor, who was also working there. “That allows me to indulge in one of my other passions – malt whisky,” he grins. A prestigious invitation to The Edinburgh Malt Whisky Appreciation Society inspired Tarn to launch The Arthurs Point Whisky Appreciation Society, building his own clubhouse at home where just seven members pay subs to enjoy a wee dram and listen to old LPs, from Led Zeppelin to Abba.

Renowned as a practical joker, things were more laidback at The Remarkables then. “We’d lay water traps, take wheels off cars and do minor stuff with explosives,” he grins. “My best was an exploding acetylene cake at banquet we threw for a Canadian exchange ski patroller. With the right know how we blew it up, covering him in cake.” Their ’Medieval Party’ was legendary too. “Humour’s important,” Tarn says. “It’s important to find the humour in life’s situations.”

Saveloys were a Pilkington favourite come Saturday morning so naturally Tarn organised the raucous Inaugural Aoraki Mount Cook Saveloy Festival while working there.

It’s not been all laughs in 35 years of volunteer rescues, from recovering those lost to avalanches on Coronet Peak to rescuing climbers high on sheer cliff faces. It’s balanced by the successes, those he’s helped and extracted, as well as surfing on the southern coast his ‘go to’ escape.

Tarn’s also done a stint as crew chief for Lakes District Air Rescue Trust, training ambulance and helicopter crews in air rescue techniques.

A memorable and slightly odd rescue involved a Uruguayan woman who’d fallen off a cliff-face below Ben Lomond Peak. “Someone heard her calling from the camping ground. She’d fallen off a cliff, grabbed a tree as she fell and miraculously clung to a branch while we climbed up,” Tarn says. “As I abseiled down to her, she just leapt from the tree onto me and clung on” - the perfect lead-in for his work as safety and guide on the Mission Impossible set.

Tarn’s also worked for the NZ film industry for over 25 years, on everything from Subway sandwich ads and TV series to movies like K2 and Mission Impossible with all of its helicopter action.

But his biggest kicks have come from those countless hours volunteering, working with so many skilled crews, and helping people in trouble. “Volunteering is so crucial to NZ’s structure,” he says. “It’s an enriching new opportunity to meet like-minded people and give something back. We all think we’re busy, but I’d encourage people to think about how they use their time as everyone can volunteer in a way that suits their lifestyle and skillset.”

That huge contribution was recognised recently when Tarn and fellow Wakatipu Alpine Cliff Rescue team member Karl Johnson were honoured at Parliament at the NZSAR Awards for last year’s daring, mid-winter, night-time rescue of two men trapped in a blizzard on The Remarkables. “I flew my mother, 87, up to the awards and it was pretty special.”

Tarn winner of the Mt Cook Tavern Round the Village Race back in the day

Tarn - winner of the Mt Cook Tavern Round the Village Race back in the day

Tarn guiding a Shackleton Crossing in South Georgia

Tarn guiding a Shackleton Crossing in South Georgia


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