Danger zone

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No, this isn’t the latest adventure tourism adrenaline rush to hit Queenstown.

This is serious work.

It’s the Alpine Cliff Rescue Team training to pluck injured and stranded victims from the peaks and sides of Wakatipu mountains.

Serious work maybe, but the thrill of attaching yourself to a 25-metre strop and whizzing around under the belly of a helicopter is undeniable.

Alpine Cliff Rescue’s Chris Prudden: “It’s only allowed for emergency purposes otherwise someone in Queenstown would be doing it for a business. In fact, I would be doing it.

“[But] it’s definitely a bit dangerous.

You’re flying around in a helicopter and you’re underneath it. I guess if the helicopter went down the people inside would have a better chance of surviving whereas the people on the strop would have very little chance,” he says.

Prudden, his team and Heliworks pilot Jason Laing spent the day training on the Remarkables two Saturdays ago.

Prudden has been involved with such rescues for 30 years and says one of the crucial positions on the team is the spotter who sits in the helicopter’s open doorway.

“They look down and tell the pilot what’s going on at the end of the strop.

He’s completely distracted by flying – and that’s good.

You don’t want your pilot looking down and saying ‘What’s happening down there? Oh, there’s a cliff’.
“It’s good for the pilot to learn what they can and can’t do with a strop and people hanging underneath.”

Prudden says he and his team try to do a training session every three to six months.

“In between you can get a live operation and then you quickly have to remember all the training and there’s no room for error.”

Such as during last month’s dramatic rescue of a climber stranded on a ledge of a 155m-high cliff-face at Glenorchy.

Prudden, hanging from the strop, lifted James Briscall from the ledge while helicopter pilot Alfie Speight pushed the limits – his rotor blades were within a metre of the cliff at times during the rescue.

The dangerous but successful operation came 12 hours after Briscall’s abseiling companion Matthew Allison, 26, died from a fall when trying to free a tangled rope at Chinamans Bluff.

“That one at Chinamans Bluff was right at the limit of flying. There was no tolerance for error from the helicopter pilot or myself,” Prudden says.

The helicopter is the Wakatipu’s “key tool” for rescues, he says.

“It saves so much time and gets people to a medical facility as quickly as possible. It also saves on manpower – carrying a person on a stretcher through tough terrain requires a lot of people.”

In the unlikely case of the chopper “going down”, as Prudden puts it, the pilot retains the right to ditch the human cargo hanging below if need be.

“He can [quick] release it if he needs to. We’ve discussed it at length. It would be at the pilot’s discretion.
“If the machine is going to go down, then the people underneath will as well anyway.”