Alpine action man

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From Matterhorn to Queenstown, he knows climbing pleasure and pain.

In 25 action-packed years as a climbing guide, Queenstowner Chris Prudden has rubbed shoulders with everyone from movie stars to a prime minister – but as a longstanding member of the Alpine Cliff Rescue team, he’s also come face-to-face with serious injury and death.

When not at his regular job as a surveyor, Prudden leads parties of climbers high into the mountains surrounding the resort for a bird’s eye view of the Wakatipu and beyond.

He’s also on call 24/7 to assist local emergency services if something goes wrong.
“Fortunately I’ve never had an accident happen in all of my time guiding professionally,” Prudden says.

“But I’ve had a few on recreational climbs and somehow escaped virtually unscathed.

“I’ve seen people die who have fallen less distances than me and I’ve had to go and pick them up, which is not a pleasant experience.

“But just about every time something serious goes wrong up in the mountains, it’s because of people making a mistake.”

Before shifting to Queenstown in 2002, Prudden ran his own guiding company at Mount Taranaki in the North Island for 20 years.

He climbed the 2518-metre peak about 1300 times and “knew just about every rock”.

There he was involved in a number of search and rescue missions – not all of which ended happily.

“Quite often, when we went looking for people, we weren’t expecting to find them alive but when you do, and get them down safely, it’s some buzz.”

By comparison, during six years with Queenstown’s alpine team, Prudden, 52, insists callouts have been minimal.
“That’s quite surprising, considering the nature of the environment in the Wakatipu,” he says. “But it’s probably because most people who climb or tramp here tend to be that bit more experienced than in other parts of the country.”

However, the mountain man says the 20-strong local rescue team could do with a few more battle-hardened volunteers, especially in the event of a full-scale emergency.

“Because we live in an alpine environment, we have a whole bunch of scenarios that could happen and that would require the right alpine rescue people,” he explains.

“There’s the possibility of buses going off cliffs or roads and access would be a huge problem. 

“There’s also the possibility of a plane crashing into a mountainside or into the lake, which would be another huge search and rescue task.

“In situations like that, you’d need people who are properly trained. You can’t just get anyone to help out or you increase your safety risks again.”

Six years ago, Prudden’s part-time job with Climbing Queenstown led him to showing then-PM Helen Clark the ropes when she opened the Via Ferrata outdoor rock climbing facility off Gorge Road – and Clark had a go herself.

He’s also been called in as safety advisor on movies like the prehistoric epic 10,000 BC, shot at the Snow Farm in Cardrona in 2006.

“It was bizarre because you had all these people running around in the snow dressed in animal skins and they also brought in animal remains to scatter around the place as props.”

Prudden cut his teeth as a guide in Europe and has climbed world-famous peaks such as the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

There, he says, he learned that mountaineering should be “fun rather than a drama”.

“There’s an attitude in New Zealand that you aren’t successful unless you’ve climbed a peak or climbed the route,” he adds. “It’s summit or bust.

“But the real success is getting there and enjoying yourself, no matter what – then wanting to go back again.”