Drama at 6500m: Queenstown climber saves mate

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A high-altitude rescue on a remote Himalayan peak in 2013 has earned Queenstown climber Ben Dare a top civilian bravery medal from the New Zealand Royal Humane Society. He says he did what he had to do. David Williams reports.

Ben Dare is rocked as his rope pulls tight.

It’s snowing heavily and he’s hugging a vertical ice face about 400m below the summit of Anidesha Chuli, after an avalanche has rolled past.

Both snow stakes he’s roped to are bent.

Climbing partner Scott Scheele – who had been above him – has taken a serious fall.

There are only a few hours of daylight left and Mr Scheele dangles below, incapacitated by concussion.

Their tent is several hundred metres below.

What happens next has earned Dare a bravery award – which he’ll receive at Government House in Wellington in June.

At a Queenstown cafe last week, he shifts nervously as he recalls ”the accident”.

He grasps for the right analogy. It’s not that he’s embarrassed by the attention but it’s humbling.

It’s not that he’s trying to put it out of his mind, he says – but it’s two years ago now and he’s trying to move on.

”Life goes on,” he tells the Otago Daily Times.

”It was a big ask and very tough but it’s one of those things you almost have to take in your stride.

He adds: ”I’m proud of what I did on the hill but I don’t see it as heroic – it had to be done.

”I don’t even want to think about the alternatives. And Scott would have done the same for me.”

Dare, 31, grew up in the Coromandel – beach country – and discovered climbing while studying engineering at the University of Auckland.

Rock climbing was interspersed with alpine assaults, with regular trips to Ruapehu and Taranaki.

He started taking it seriously when he moved to Queenstown in 2008.

”Ever since I’ve pretty much devoted all of my spare time to climbing.”

The Holmes Consulting Group project engineer finances what is an expensive hobby, because if you’re serious about climbing you can’t just stay in New Zealand.

He’s now one of the country’s leading climbers.

That’s how he found himself with Scheele in May 2013, trying to knock off the unclimbed, 6900m peak Anidesha Chuli, in northeastern Nepal.

The trek in took more than a week, in a sparsely populated area without roads.

At 2pm on the day of Scheele’s fall the pair made their daily radio call to party members Rob Frost and Andrei van Dusschoten at base camp.

The avalanche swept them from the mountain less than an hour later, as they approached a ridge leading to the summit, 400m above.

”Initially you think of the big picture,” Dare says.

”For me it was the need to get Scott to the tent.

”After we get him there then we worry about contacting the people at base camp, trying to get the chopper in. Once you establish that, it’s very much step by step.”

It takes Mr Dare two hours to reach his friend. He rearranges the ropes, fixing Mr Scheele to the anchor, and abseils down.

After a ”quick prod and a poke” he’s sure there are no breaks or internal injuries. While he’s conscious, he’s incoherent.

The radio broke in the fall.

Then that step-by-step process begins, of building a new anchor, lowering Scheele down, joining his friend at the new position and pulling down the ropes.

Each repetition takes one to two hours. After two lengths of rope it gets dark so they spend the night on the face.

The next morning it starts again, rope length by rope length. Beyond the rescue, Dare has to keep his injured friend as awake and alert as possible, ensure he’s hydrated and keeps eating.

They reach the bottom of the face and then traverse across a large snow slope for almost a kilometre.

Then drop down another 200m-300m to the tent.

”That [traverse] was, physically, the hardest part,” Dare says.

”Lowering him down on the ropes, gravity’s doing the bulk of the work. Whereas, through the snow, we’re largely going sideways, not straight down.”

Initially, he helps his heavily concussed friend walk. When he can’t stay upright Dare is forced to drag and carry him.

It’s slow and exhausting. He moves the packs forward, comes back and collects Scheele, and then starts again.

Back and forth.

Again and again.

On reaching the tent in the afternoon, after 26 hours of hard slog, Dare sets off the locater beacon. He’s done all he can do.

”I was definitely drawn [mentally] and pushed to the limit. But you just have to keep going. If you sit down you’re not going to get up again.”

The beacon signal is picked up in New Zealand. The authorities call the pair at base camp and Frost and van Dusschoten climb to their friends, reaching them early the next morning.

The expedition doctor in New Zealand talks them through some initial treatment and a helicopter from Kathmandu plucks them from the mountain later that morning.

After months of treatment, Scheele, who now lives in Melbourne, has made a full recovery.

The harrowing experience hasn’t put either man off. They still climb – together – as much as they can.

Dare says such an accident makes climbers acutely aware of the risks. It ”brings you back down to earth”.

”It’s a life-changing event for all of us involved.

”It allowed me to grow and strengthen as a climber, knowing that put in that position I can, I guess, perform and do what I need to do.

”I gained a lot from that.

”You learn how far you can push yourself, what your body’s capable of in an extreme situation.”

Will he attempt Anidesha Chuli again?

There are no plans, Dare says, but never say never.

He’ll definitely go back to Nepal, hopefully in two or three years.

His eyes come alive as he talks about it.

There’s so much ”scope” in those rarely visited areas: unclimbed peaks, new climbs, new routes.

”It’s immense.

”That’s what largely draws me. The unknown, I guess.

”Trying to take on something that hasn’t been done before.”

• Ben Dare will star at a new Queenstown Winter Festival event – Pecha Kucha – on June 25, where he will share stories about the New Zealand Alpine Team’s adventures.

Otago Daily Times