Area: Zit Saddle, Toaroha catchment, West Coast
Activity: Multi-day tramping trip
Survivors: Experienced New Zealand male and female
Time: Twilight, late October
While crossing Zit Saddle from west to east, the two trampers encountered unexpected snow. On the western side, the snow was soft enough to travel across with good foot purchase in running shoes. However, as they crossed the pass, onto the south-eastern slopes, snow conditions became icy. While descending, one of the party slipped, collided with the other, and both slid down the slope, coming to a stop uninjured. They considered backtracking but decided this could not easily be accomplished. After continuing to descend, both slipped again and fell a considerable distance, hit rocks and came to a halt only where the slope flattened. Both sustained multiple injuries including concussion, broken bones, dislocations, soft tissue injuries, cuts and abrasions. All but immobilised, they spent five nights out in the open with little food and water, and slowly made their way towards Top Kokatahi Hut, one kilometre away. Subsequently both became hypothermic. When they were close to reaching the hut, a Search and Rescue team in a helicopter found and evacuated them.
Take equipment suitable for the conditions
The trampers had chosen not to take ice axes or crampons on the trip, as on the previous weekend they had not encountered any snow in a similar area at similar altitudes. DOC staff at Arthur’s Pass informed the pair that the snow level was higher than their planned trip.
One of the trampers wore running shoes and the other tramping boots. When they got onto the icy snow, neither the tramping boots nor the running shoes were able to ‘kick in’ to the slope. They decided to leave their personal locator beacon (PLB) in the car, reasoning that if one of them became injured, the other would tramp out to raise the alarm.
‘Get-there-itis’ and Familiarity Traps
On the western (Toaroha) side of Zit Saddle, they had encountered soft snow, which they easily managed in running shoes and tramping boots. Earlier in the day, the snow on the south side could have still been soft.
Upon encoutering difficult snow conditions, they could have returned to Adventure Bivouac (approximately a one-kilometre walk and 500 metre decent), but chose not to retrace their route and pushed on regardless.
The trampers let their guard down because they were confident of descending the slope, having done so on similar snow slopes many times previously. They did not consider the abrupt change in snow conditions as a potential danger.
With daylight running out, the trampers felt the need to rush down the icy slope to get to the hut. In hindsight, they judged that their slip resulted from not taking adequate care. Further, after slipping the first time, they did not take the opportunity to change tack.
Key learning points
Snow can persevere long into spring and summer in gullies and on faces with a southern aspect. When planning a route, make careful note of any such areas. Take suitable equipment or alter your route to avoid these areas.
Snow surface conditions can change rapidly with aspect, elevation, time of day, and ambient temperature. Trampers should be mindful of these conditions. As these variables change, avalanche risk will also change.
Taking ice axes but not crampons can be a good compromise – enabling trampers to cut steps in the snow. An ice axe is usually essential for self-arresting. On the other hand, taking crampons without an ice axe is always dangerous.
Carrying a PLB, or some other form of communication, such as mountain radio is highly recommended. Walking out to get help should not be considered an adequate emergency response. A PLB or mountain radio allows much faster communication, which may be critical, and allows a person to remain behind to care for the patient.
When reaching a critical point, such as making a important route decision, crossing a difficult section of track or crossing a river, stop and pause. This allows time to gather your thoughts, perhaps have a snack or a drink, and catch your breath. Take a moment to assess the situation, weigh the risks and benefits of a particular course of action, make a good decision, and then continue on without rushing.
Both trampers have since made a full recovery and returned to the hills. This report was written in consultation with them both.