Climbing community ‘rocked to core’


Queenstown’s climbing community is in shock after two tragic accidents within a few days.

New Zealand Alpine Team members Conor Smith, of Queenstown, and Sarwan Chand, of Wanaka, died in a fall in the Darran Mountains, Fiordland National Park.

Their bodies were found on Monday evening.

Just two days before, keen climber Ben Letham was killed in a parapenting accident at Queenstown Primary School.

NZ Alpine Team leader and mentor Ben Dare, of Queenstown, says the deaths of Smith, 22, and Chand, 27, have hit the team hard.

Dare: “It’s tough to put words to it. It’s rocked us to the core.

“Especially because they’re young guys; it’s such a tragedy to lose two bright young stars like this together.

“They were both great guys and strong competent climbers.”

Fatal fall: Conor Smith

The team’s aim is to bring through the next generation of New Zealand’s alpinists.

Smith and Chand joined in late 2015 and recently returned from a month-long ice limbing team expedition to the Canadian Rockies.

Parapenting death: Ben Letham

Letham, 26, a GForce Paragliding pilot, died on Saturday after launching from Skyline Hill.

Letham’s solo recreational flight went wrong when he became tangled in the cords, fell and hit a school building.

GForce boss Gavin Taylor says: “Our whole team is absolutely devastated.”

He was a volunteer with the Queens-town Alpine Cliff Rescue team.

Fellow volunteer Chris Prudden says: “We’re pretty shocked about both incidents, it’s terrible. It’s a close community.”

Chand, originally from Canterbury, was recently inducted into the Wanaka Alpine Cliff Rescue team.

Smith and Chand, experienced and competent mountaineers, were attempting a challenging route on Marian Peak.

A helicopter search on Monday night, when they were 24 hours overdue, found their bodies at the base of a climbing face. The bodies were recovered on Tuesday.

A NZ Alpine Team website post says: “While details of the accident are not yet fully known, we believe that while climbing the leader fell before being able to place gear after the belay.

“This resulted in a factor two lead fall, pulling the team off the wall.”

A factor two fall is the maximum possible in lead climbing. The leader has climbed above the belayer to the full length of the rope before falling.

Team members Gemma Wilson and Alastair McDowell crowdfunded $5700 in nine hours to pay for their return from Canada to attend their mates’ funerals.