A Queenstown climbing mentor says the New Zealand Alpine Team doesn’t push young climbers beyond their boundaries, but the sport’s “exorbitantly risky” compared with the daily life of normal people.
Daniel Joll’s comments came during a coronial inquest in Queenstown this week following the deaths of Queenstown’s Conor Smith, 22, and Wanaka’s Sarwan Chand, 27, in April 2017.
They died in the Fiordland National Park attempting a challenging route, dubbed Maid Marian, on the south face of Marian Peak in the Darran Mountains.
The two were both members of the team, which comprises promising young climbers mentored by the more experienced.
Veteran Wanaka mountaineer Geoff Wayatt told coroner David Robinson it was clear Smith was leading the climb, with about 17 metres of rope between him and Chand, when he fell for an unknown reason, leading to a “factor two lead fall”.
That meant he fell to Chand’s level on the cliff, then fell 17m below, at which point both were pulled off the wall and fell about 100m further.
Two rock anchor devices found attached to their rope had apparently been pulled out of the rock due to the load placed on them by the men’s fall.
Wayatt said based on what he knew of the pair, they were capable of climbing the route, which had sections with a technical difficulty rating up to 20.
After the tragedy, former team mentor Jane Morris, now president of the NZ Mountain Guides Association, made public comments that Joll “drove the team very hard”.
But, she back-tracked when asked about those comments at the inquest, saying they were more about him personally than his impact on the team.
Asked about Morris’ comments, Joll said he was “ambitious”.
“I work hard, and I expect people who join my team to have a good work ethic.
“That’s not to say that I tell them what to climb.”
Morris said she now believes the team’s mentors give its young climbers guidance on “what’s been done and what’s possible”.
“But ultimately it’s something that comes from your own drive.”
Queenstown mountaineer Steve Skelton said the route the pair was attempting is extremely challenging.
“It’s conditional, it’s committing, it’s dark, it’s long, and it’s only been climbed a few times.
“I don’t think he [Smith] should’ve been on there.”
He said the team’s principal mentors – Joll, Ben Dare and Steve Fortune – are the “three best climbers in New Zealand”, and hold a different perception of risk to others.
“I think being such amazing climbers themselves, they might underestimate the challenges that are posed to other climbers.”
The team, an off-shoot of the Expedition Climbers Club, was set up 2013.
Climbers aged 18 to 25 can apply to join its three-yearly intake as mentees.
Since being established, five of its mentees have died.
Dare, another Queenstowner, previously described the team’s aim as compressing 10 years’ climbing experience into three.
Mentors had always encouraged the young climbers to discuss routes they were planning to attempt in their own time, particularly alpine climbs, he said.
If they thought climbs weren’t suitable for their skills and experience, they would “voice their concerns”.