Buried alive

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This could have been the final photo of Katherine – taken seconds before the Aussie teen was sucked screaming into a glacier’s crevasse.

Seconds after this happy holiday snap, death beckoned Aussie teen Katherine Holdsworth – the snow she’s on suddenly gave way, plunging her into a hidden crevasse.

Katherine spent almost two hours trapped eight metres down a cramped chasm – only her hips, wedged in a small gap, stopped her falling another 80m to certain death.

Miraculously, she survived un­­­injured.

The 15-year-old was sucked into the icy void as her family watched in horror – they’d taken a routine scenic flight with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters to the Jura Glacier, near Glenorchy’s Mt Head, last Saturday.

“I was really scared. But I didn’t want to think that I wouldn’t get out,” Katherine recalls.

Rescuer Adam Halstead says Katherine probably doesn’t realise how lucky she is.

“Below her feet was just black, it was nothingness, it just went.

“If she’d fallen another metre to her left, the crevasse would’ve completely opened up and she’d have gone, you’d have never seen her again.”

Halstead – president of the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association – has harsh words for the scenic chopper industry, saying pilots aren’t qualified to judge whether it’s safe to land on often-unpredictable glaciers.

“To give you an idea how dangerous it was, one of the rescue guys actually fell through the crevasse when we were doing [Kath­­-erine’s] rescue. He was tied on to a rope with a harness…but that could have been the pilot or one of the other guests,” he says.

Katherine, parents Kerrie and Steve, and brother Stuart, 14 – holidaying in Queens­town from Melbourne – stepped off the chopper about 2.30pm to take photos in a “safe” area picked by their pilot.

Suddenly, Katherine was swallowed up by snow she was standing on.

“First of all, she sank to her neck and it was just her head that was visible,” Kerrie Holdsworth says.

“Before I could barely take a step towards her to grab her arm – and she wasn’t terrified at that point because we’ve skied and she thought she’d just sunk in a lot of powder snow – then she completely disappeared.

“At first I thought we’d lost her.

“Maybe it was half a minute or two minutes, time kind of stood still, but a hole started opening up where we were standing and we could look down and we could hear her screaming.”

By sheer luck, Katherine had hit a snow ledge that broke her fall.

“I could see mum’s hair and the top of the pilot’s head. But I couldn’t hear anybody.”

Surrounded by whiteness with little room to move and ice falling around her, Katherine waited about 30 minutes for rescuers.

Mum Kerrie kept calling out from the top of the gaping hole, telling her daughter she’d be OK, while Dad Steve helped the pilot throw a rope down to Katherine.

Halstead and another glacier guide were first helicoptered to the scene, followed by a second chopper with Alpine Cliff Rescue Team members and a paramedic.

Halstead abseiled down the crevasse and quickly harnessed Katherine.

“My first response was to secure her because I had visions of her falling to her death in front of me.”

He then dragged Katherine – just in jeans and canvas shoes and without a hat – on top of him to keep her warm.

“She did really well. She could have completely broken down and lost it … but she was great.”

Katherine and Halstead were hauled up together.

“Seeing her coming out was like seeing her being born again,” recalls dad Steve.

Escaping with minor cuts and bruising, Katherine was checked at hospital for hypothermia but was otherwise OK.

Halstead: “I’d say it’s one of the most amazing chances of survival in terms of no injuries and surviving that amount of crevasse fall.

“If you fell off a rock bluff at 8m, you’d break both your legs.”

The family are grateful for the quick actions of their pilot and have nothing but praise for her “fantastic” rescuers.

 

Chopper flights to Jura Glacier suspended

The chopper company that flew the Holdsworths to the Jura Glacier has suspended all glacier landings – and told other operators to do the same.

An independent report into the accident suggests there could be more hidden crevasses South Island-wide, due to a lack of snowfall that would normally fill them up, Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters (GSLH) boss Pat West says.

One of Katherine Holdsworth’s rescuers, Dave Macleod, backs this up: “Something’s happening on a geophysical scale that hasn’t happened before. It’s due to climate change, lack of snow and the glacier being pulled and stretched by gravity.”

Fellow rescuer Aaron Halstead, who’s also the president of the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association, criticises the scenic flight industry, saying mountain guides should be the ones assessing landing sites – not pilots.

“As an industry, they need to look at their landing sites and assess if they’re landing on glaciers [whether to] choose another location, or they should be sending mountain guides in there to assess the environment to say this is safe or this is not.

“I firmly believe pilots aren’t mountain guides and shouldn’t be making that assessment.

“To be honest, my biggest fear would be it happening again and I’ll be doing everything I can personally to ensure it doesn’t.

“You don’t say it was a one-off, freak [accident]. Accidents tend to occur at the tip of the iceberg – that is, there’re a number of incidents that occur before a fatality or serious harm incident.”

Areas will now be regularly probed by mountain guides before GSLH choppers land, West says.

“These are known sites that we have been operating on for at least 10 years.”