Richard Phillips, 46, and Peter Kirkwood, 33, work colleagues from Christchurch, died after an apparent fall near the summit of the mountain on Tuesday, 4 May.
The men were recovered from an isolated spot on the mountain 34 hours later, on Thursday 6 May, by the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter in a combined operation with the Taranaki Civil Alpine Cliff Rescue, Search and Rescue, and the Police.
Base Manager and Pilot, Mike Adair, recalls his emotions at the conclusion of the operation. “I think relief is the main feeling. The whole time you know they’re up there you want to bring them back to their loved ones. “The police, alpine rescue and the crew itself did a fantastic job. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in an operation that was so well run, safely executed, and to that level of professionalism. I was extremely proud of how everyone worked together.”
At the heart of the operation and symbolic of the coordination between the teams was the Methanex Rescue Winch operated by Crewman Ed Garvey.
On Wednesday, in the first attempt for recovery, members of the Civil Alpine Cliff Rescue team had been dropped to the climbers. “The pair were found on a very steep slope, almost 40 to 45 degrees of slope with surface ice, slate,
shale, and scoria. It was quite a difficult spot for the rescue team to be working in,” said Adair, and after 20 minutes he received a call asking that they be picked up.
During the final recovery operation on Thursday, four alpine team members were winched 150 feet down to the men, before they were winched up and transferred to the Stratford Plateau where police and hearses were waiting to return the pair to the families.
Adair was first notified at about 10pm on Tuesday that a climber had fallen near the summit of the mountain. A search and rescue operation was launched.
“It was one of the most challenging flight environments I’ve ever operated in, that night,” he said. Strong wind conditions created severe turbulence which Adair described as “very, very challenging to fly in”, pushing the aircraft to its limits. It wasn’t until a light was spotted glowing out of the black mountainside that there was some hope of a rescue mission, but that turned to recovery after scanning the area without seeing any signs of movement.
Around midnight, the pair were located, separated but relatively close together on the eastern side of the summit. They were a “pretty decent distance” from the torch, Adair said, and near a track that leads to Syme Hut, but not in a place climbers would usually be.
After on-board paramedic Heath Gillot made an aerial assessment of the climbers and determined the pair had not survived their fall, the crew made the hard decision to leave the pair on the mountain due to the extreme conditions – a decision that Adair and his colleagues did not take lightly.
“It’s always hard when you have to make that decision. You go home and have a restless night wondering if you could have done more or something different. “But you have to temper that with the knowledge that it was too challenging and too difficult and would have caused more issues trying to stay out there that night. We did everything we could have done.”
The recovery operation resumed on Thursday morning and was captured on camera by the Civil Alpine Cliff Rescue team.
“At the time you’re so focused on the job I didn’t even think about it, but it was pretty emotional seeing the photos when we got back to the hangar.
”Having the men off the mountain was a huge relief for Adair and the personnel involved. “There were a few days of briefing and planning and trying to execute the operation in the safest way possible and knowing that we were able to
return them to their loved ones was a massive sense of relief.
“We deal with human tragedy daily here, so you kind of become a bit numb to a lot of that stuff. But this one will stick with me.
“With more than 80 people having lost their lives on its slopes, Taranaki Maunga is New Zealand’s second most dangerous mountain in terms of fatalities behind Aoraki / Mt Cook. It is also second highest in terms of the number of people requiring search and rescue assistance with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing having a higher overall number across a ten-year period from 2007 to 2017.