Adventurer survives ‘wave of ice’ in New Zealand avalanche but two guides die

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A well-known adventurer has dug herself out of an avalanche on a New Zealand mountain, while two guides climbing with her died.

The three were roped together as they tried to reach the summit of Mount Hicks on the South Island.

Jo Morgan survived after being almost completely buried in snow and then punching and wriggling her way free over the course of about an hour.

An adventurer and philanthropist from one of New Zealand’s most well-known families, she described her ordeal in an interview with Radio New Zealand.

“It’s a terrifying thing,” she said. “It’s a bit like the surf coming down on you. Just a huge big wave of ice coming down the slopes toward you.”

She said she got lucky and landed with her face in a hollow at surface level and one hand free, while her body was buried.

“I could feel when I stuck my hand up that I was into air rather than into something solid,” she told RNZ. “So I was very lucky that my position allowed me to actually clear my face and take a big breath and think, ‘Wow. Let’s hope no more comes down’.”

She said she shouted to her friends but heard no reply, then began the painstaking task of freeing herself.

It took her 30 minutes to grab and trigger her locator beacon to alert rescuers, and another half hour or more to wriggle out of the snow. She said it was frustrating not being able to help her friends as the minutes ticked away.

“You know in your deepest heart that the chances of survival are not good,” she told RNZ.

Ms Morgan is married to well-known businessman Gareth Morgan, who launched a political party that unsuccessfully contested New Zealand’s 2017 election.

The couple’s son Sam Morgan is one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs and founded the online auction site TradeMe.

Ms Morgan was in her late 50s when she took up serious climbing a few years back and she had been ticking off a list of New Zealand’s peaks of over 3,000 meters. She only had a couple left to go.

She said she had reached 23 summits with one of her guides, whom she identified as Wolfgang. The latest mountain they were climbing, in a national park in the central South Island, is 3,200 meters tall.

Police have not identified the guides while they notify the families.

Inspector Dave Gaskin told media that both men were in their 50s and were very experienced and well equipped. He said both guides were New Zealand residents but were from overseas, including one he believed was from Germany.

Mr Gaskin said there had been cold weather in the area that had created ice on the mountain, then it had snowed.

“Recent snow sitting on ice always makes avalanches even more frequent,” he said. “They took a chance and, unfortunately, it didn’t work.”

Ms Morgan told RNZ the guides were professionals and they had all made an assessment of the conditions.

“Maybe we got it wrong that time,” she said. “Who knows?”

It has been bleak up here at Empress hut the last couple of days but a 20 hour weather window has us planning to leave about 2am. Hopefully Mt Hicks feels like visitors

Posted by Jo Morgan on Monday, October 29, 2018

“Mt Hicks lords over us as we hope for a weather window before our rations are done for,” she wrote. “Yes I wish I’d done more training, but have decided I excel in suffering.”

New Zealand’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre said it got a notification from Ms Morgan’s locator beacon and rescuers dispatched helicopters and climbing teams.

Ms Morgan said it took more than two hours for a helicopter to reach them, as it had to fly from the city of Christchurch to the remote location.

Mr Gaskin said rescuers tried performing CPR on the guides but it was too late. One had died instantly while the other died before anyone could reach him. He said the men were well known in the guiding fraternity and their deaths would have a dramatic impact.

Ms Morgan said: “I’m absolutely broken. Two of my very dear friends lost their lives today, under tragic circumstances. I just got really lucky.

“They were great mates. I wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye to them. They’re an amazing loss to the climbing community. They’re both just so cheerful and capable and competent.”

She said the experience had brought home to her how risky climbing is, and that she did not plan to climb again.

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