The climber who died on Mt Aspiring on Sunday night was a “sensible young guy” who has only just achieved his goal of conquering the difficult south face when tragedy struck.
The body of Ari Ross Kingan 21 was recovered by a Wanaka LandSAR team and police Monday morning.
Kingan, formerly of Golden Bay and Dunedin and most recently the West Coast, was descending after climbing the south face of the mountain, one of his “great goals”, fellow member of the New Zealand Alpine team, Dan Joll, says.
Kingan was a “nice young guy, a good person to be around. We are going to miss him.
“We are feeling for his family … his brother and his mum and dad, and also ourselves because he was one of our mates.”
Joll notes Kingan, whom he saw in Queenstown last week, was not an extreme risk taker but a “sensible young guy”.
Kingan and another team member – a 20-year-old University of Otago second-year physics student – completed the climb, having earlier set off from French Ridge Hut, about 2am on Sunday.
During the night, the pair descended part of the northwest ridge, and began down The Ramp when it seems a change from powder snow to ice caught Kingan, who was in the front, by surprise.
He lost his footing and plunged hundreds of metres.
“It is a tragedy that his life should be taken when their climb was almost over,” Joll says, and it is a sad reminder to all mountaineers that “the summit is only halfway – all too often accidents occur during descent”.
The Ramp is notoriously treacherous.
Two climbers died in one incident in 2004 and two in separate accidents in January 2005.
Kingan became a member of the New Zealand Alpine team last year.
His profile on their website says he was “keen to tick off New Zealand’s biggest peaks by the end of the year”.
He was also a keen mountain-bike rider and was studying outdoor instruction and guiding.
Senior sergeant Allan Grindell, of Wanaka, says the body was recovered Monday morning.
Kingan’s companion, who is unharmed, was rescued by Southern Lakes Helicopters the previous night.
The company’s rescue helicopter was called in by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre responding to an emergency locator beacon set off at 8.48pm.
Operations manager Lloyd Matheson told the Otago Daily Times although the beacon stopped working before the helicopter reached the mountain, they had the survivor’s co-ordinates and he signalled them with a torch when they arrived overhead.
Matheson says he and pilot Sir Richard Hayes, with night-vision goggles, could see the man “attached to an icy ledge” near The Ramp.
The man pointed downwards, indicating where his companion had gone.
The helicopter crew spotted Kingan about 400m to 500m below and dropped off a doctor who, with the aid of the helicopter lights, confirmed Kingan was dead.
The helicopter then flew away so the doctor could talk safely to the survivor about his predicament.
“Our biggest concern was with the B3 [Squirrel]; the rotor wash is just horrific and it could just blow anyone off a cliff if they weren’t attached.
“But he was anchored into the snow on this little bit of a perch he had.”
The man was winched into the helicopter and flown to Wanaka.
Matheson understood the two climbers were 10m apart traversing The Ramp when Kingan slipped “and of course it was pitch black so he [the second climber] didn’t see where he went but just knew he went over the side”.
The surviving climber set off his beacon and then abseiled quite some distance looking for Kingan, Matheson says, “until he got into a predicament himself'”.
Adventure Consultants Ltd guide Mark Morrison says the route can be “taken quite lightly” by climbers and can catch them out even though it is the easiest route on the mountain.
“You can start by walking easily from the top, and it all seems nice and easy.
“Before you know it, you are on a 45- to 50-degree slope and if you are not careful you lose your footing.
“It’s a really bad run-out, which means there is a big cliff at the bottom.”
Morrison, who has been guiding for about 18 years and has climbed Mt Aspiring about 20 times, says he would always be “roped up” while guiding on The Ramp.
Winter climbing conditions prevail in the Southern Alps at present, with “pretty good mountaineering conditions”, Morrison says.
Aspiring Guides’ chief guide, Whitney Thurlow, says his company began climbing on the mountain in October and it is “unusual” to be climbing it now, although not unheard of.
“The access up there in the winter is very steep and prone to avalanche, so it is just difficult to get in and out.”
Thurlow, who has climbed the mountain 50 times, says he would be comfortable doing it in the dark.
Kingan has recently climbed Denali (Mt McKinley) in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain, with a New Zealand Alpine Team group.
The Ramp is a glacial feature about 600m long which is typically covered in snow, not ice.
- Otago Daily Times