‘Harrowing’ rescue for climbers stuck overnight on tiny ledge on 2000m-high mountain

search and rescue
Two climbers bluffed on the top of a peak in the Darran Mountains, between Glenorchy and Milford Sound, in Fiordland.

Two climbers spent a harrowing night perched on a tiny ledge high up in Fiordland’s Darran Mountains before rescuers reached them the next day.

It is not clear whether they were secured on to the vertical rock face of Mt Sabre, Queenstown Alpine Rescue Team leader Jono Gillan​ said.

“It was harrowing,” he said.

The pair were near the top of Mt Sabre, which stretches about 2000 metres from the valley floor.

Rescuers at a briefing ahead of a five-hour operation to rescue two climbers trapped in the Darran Mountains.

When he reached them, dangling from a 60m longline under a helicopter, Gillan attached himself and the two climbers to the rock.

There was just enough room on the ledge for the three of them to stand should-to-shoulder, he said.

The climbers, a young man and woman who lived in the Southern Lakes area, had climbed the peak and were abseiling down when a rope became stuck on Monday, Gillan said.

“It happens … you’re rappelling down, you pull the rope, and sometimes it gets stuck in a crack.”

They tried to go climb back up the rock face, but were unable to and spent the night on the ledge, alerting the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) to their predicament on Tuesday morning.

Gillan and four search and rescue volunteers flew from Queenstown to Lake Adelaide, where they formulated a plan to use a 60m longline to extract the couple.

search and rescue
A rescue helicopter flies over a site where two climbers are bluffed in the Darran Mountains.

Gillan flew up first to join the climbers before the rescuers flew up to transfer each climber individually to the valley floor.

The climbers were not panicked but very relieved and grateful to have been rescued, Gillan said.

They were suitably experienced and competent.

“This is a situation that can befall the best climbers. No-one is immune from this sort of thing.”

They had remained calm and made a good decision to call for help in the morning, he said.

emergency beacons
Helicopter rescue crew spot two climbers trapped on a tiny ledge of Mt Sabre, in Fiordland.

A nighttime rescue would have been even more difficult because of the vertical rock face and the need for specialist equipment.

“Nothing bad was going to happen if they stayed put,” he said.

They were uninjured though dehydrated.

It was a highly technical job that required extensive risk assessment, Gillan said.

“With a [60m] line you do run the risk of knocking them off the cliff.”

Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot Michael Hayes said the doors were taken off his helicopter so he and his crew member could see exactly how close they were to the vertical face.

emergency beacons
Two climbers stuck overnight on a tiny ledge in Fiordland.

“I was leaning out whilst flying and visually flying the line with a rescuer 60m below and bringing them safely to the ledge.

“It’s a high-level operation requiring excellent team cooperation and co-ordination,” he said.

The favourable weather conditions helped.

“If we had high winds and cloud it would have been a very challenging operation, if not impossible, but there were good conditions throughout the whole day.”

The couple were delivered to their vehicle at Homer Hut following the five-hour rescue.

A RCCNZ spokesperson said an SOS alert from the couple, sent through a satellite emergency device, was received at 7.55am on Tuesday.

Safety was a key focus of the rescue team, as this was a complex operation with significant risks, they said.

It involved collaboration between police, Southern Lakes Helicopters, Queenstown Alpine Cliff Rescue and RCCNZ.

RCCNZ search and rescue mission coordinator Samantha Mildon said the couple had a personal locator beacon and a satellite emergency notification device, which allowed the RCCNZ team to communicate directly with them and get details of the situation.

“Having the right equipment and knowing when and how to use it is so important when attempting high risk activities,” she said.

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