Wakatipu Alpine Cliff Rescue Team awarded top honours

2 minutes read
Posted 22 May, 2024
Single Cone Courtesy Tarn Pilkington

Members of the Wakatipu Land Search and Rescue – Alpine Cliff Rescue Team rescuing two climbers high up The Remarkables overnight on 1 and 2 July. Photo Courtesy – Tarn Pilkington

A daring mid-winter, night-time rescue in atrocious weather, extreme gale-force winds and high avalanche risk has earned Wakatipu LandSAR’s Alpine Cliff Rescue Team high honours at the 2023 New Zealand Search and Rescue Awards in Parliament’s Grand Hall Tuesday May 21.

Experienced rescuers, team leader Tarn Pilkington and Karl Johnson received a Certificate of Achievement – Operational Activity on behalf of the 16 or so active team members, awarded by Hon Matt Doocey, Associate Transport Minister.

Four team members rescued two lost climbers stranded overnight on 1 and 2 July up the side of Single Cone at about 2000m in blizzard conditions. A helicopter couldn’t get in due to the weather, so they set off on foot from the Remarkables Ski Area base building around midnight as part of a four-hour mission to save the pair.

NZ Search and Rescue senior communications advisor Tania Seward says the avalanche danger was very high. “They constantly had to stop and reassess the snow stability to ensure they didn’t head into a situation they couldn’t get out of,” she says. “It was snowy and bleak.”

Pilkington says they discussed for a long time whether to wait until daylight because of the high avalanche danger, extreme gale-force winds and very poor visibility. “What gave us confidence to continue was our extensive knowledge of the area,” he says. “The wind had stripped many areas of concern, and we made good progress navigating with intermittent visibility.”

Their concern for the lives of the two climbers, who were not equipped to spend the night in temperatures forecast to drop to minus 10degC, was what drove them on. “We felt the risk of getting in there was manageable and we were concerned for their survivability so decided to give it a try.” Pilkington says.

With increasing popularity in accessible backcountry areas like The Remarkables, people aren’t realising that they’re being driven up to a higher altitude in an alpine environment which can be serious, summer or winter, he says. “Just understand how serious that can be and plan for the ‘what if’s’. Turn around if need be and give a margin for safety.”

The awards are presented annually in recognition of outstanding achievements in NZ search and rescues. Twelve winners were selected out of 40 nominations from around the country.

Two awards went to the Queenstown Lakes – Central Otago region, the other to Wanaka’s Jonathan Walmisley MBE, who was awarded a Certificate of Achievement for Support Activity for service and commitment to search and rescue and Coastguard Wanaka Lakes.

“It’s our absolute privilege to give these awards,” Seaward says.


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