Queenstown mountain fatality highlights danger

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A leading Kiwi climber says the death of his friend shows the mountains have no respect for experience.

Christchurch mountaineer Jamie Vinton-Boot, 30, – one of the country’s most gifted alpinists – was killed on the Remarkables on August 12 last year.

A coroner’s report, released yesterday, confirmed he was swept of his feet by a small avalanche and fell 500 metres.

NZ Alpine Team member Ben Dare, 30, – who raised the alarm after being phoned by Vinton-Boot’s climbing partner that day – believes there are lessons to learn.

“[It shows] no matter how much experience you have or how small an incident could be, when you’re in the hills there’s absolutely no room for complacency and you need to stay on your toes at all times,” Dare says.

“It’s always a tough one when something like this happens.

“In the back of your mind you always know as a climber there’s the potential for something like this to occur.

“But when it’s a friend it hits home a lot stronger than if you just read a headline.

“For me personally, Jamie’s a tragic loss.”

Vinton-Boot and his climbing partner Steven Fortune were making their way to a climb across the Queens Drive route on the southwest face of the mountain range, without using a rope and belay.

At 8.15am a slab avalanche – four metres across and about 30cm-40cm deep – swept Vinton-Boot off the steep slope and down a gully.

He died of multiple traumatic injuries, including a head injury.

Coroner David Crerar’s report states the pair had set off before a Back Country Avalanche Advisory upgraded the avalanche risk from moderate to considerable.

Senior guide Geoffrey Wayatt gave evidence to the inquest and in his opinion, “they appeared unaware of, or ignored, the possibility of, the significant avalanche danger on the morning”.

“They did not fully consider the new snowfall, steep access terrain and avalanche implications when they were traversing the steep slopes of the Queens Drive,” Crerar quotes Wayatt as saying.

Crerar states with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear the pair needed to rope up and belay over the avalanche prone sections of the approach route.

Dare, who rescued climbing partner Scott Scheele on an ill-fated Himalayan expedition last year, says the NZ Alpine Team will pass on the findings to a group of young climbers they mentor.

“Obviously avalanche risk is a very real risk and irrespective of the size or location, the consequences of that can be very major,” Dare says. “Jamie got caught in a very small slide.

“If an avalanche is triggered in that situation, a terrain trap, it funnels down a shoot – it’s not just the avalanche that will cause problems, it’s where it will go.

“If that’s off a bluff, then the biggest problem is probably not the avalanche itself, it’s the fall it could cause.”

Crerar issued recommendations that alpine climbers should be encouraged to gain an increased awareness of avalanche risk and the consequences, should be encouraged to talk to experienced locals and resort ski controllers about risks and conditions, and should carry beacons, probes and shovels.

He says Vinton-Boot was carrying a beacon and accepted it would not help in such an instance.

New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton said he will be circulating the finding to members, as directed by the coroner.

“The report serves as a reminder to all climbers, that even small pockets of instability can fatally knock you off your feet,” Newton says.

“An avalanche doesn’t have to bury you, to kill you.”