'Miscommunication' leads to search operation

Guy McKinnon.
Guy McKinnon.
The man being praised in New Zealand climbing circles for his ''incredible'' solo ascent in Mt Aspiring National Park on Friday inadvertently triggered a major search and rescue operation a day later.

However, the Wanaka police officer in charge of the search said experienced climber Guy McKinnon did nothing wrong, other than not being ''crystal-clear'' in his intentions.

The tables were turned when Mr McKinnon, who works at Mt Cook as a search and rescue team member, became the subject of a search on Saturday, a day after taking just five hours to complete the first solo winter ascent of the east face of Popes Nose, near Mount Aspiring.

Others have climbed the 2700m peak in a group or flown to its base in a helicopter, but Mr McKinnon walked there and back alone.

His effort has been described by The Climber magazine editor Kester Brown as ''possibly the finest alpine achievement of New Zealand's modern era'', and as an ''incredible feat of talent and endurance'' by New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton.

Mr McKinnon's subsequent plans to ascend the northeast face of Mt Aspiring were thwarted by poor ice and weather conditions, so he traversed the Bonar Glacier in gale-force winds and a whiteout to shelter at the French Ridge Hut, oblivious to what was about to unfold in nearby Wanaka.

Police search and rescue co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Aaron Nicholson said Mr McKinnon did not initiate the search launched for him from the Wanaka police station on Saturday.

''That came from his girlfriend, who was overseas.''

She was expecting to hear from Mr McKinnon on Thursday.

However, he was unaware of the arrangement.

''There's been a miscommunication between two parties that's led to kicking off a search,'' Snr Sgt Nicholson said.

''He accepted responsibility for that.

''He didn't think he had any arrangement or any commitment to anyone at any time and he was back at work on Monday, so he was oblivious to the whole thing.

''He seemed like a really responsible sort of climber and did everything, from his perspective, right.''

His girlfriend had ''due concern'' to be alarmed and the search team directed no criticism at her, either.

The search and rescue operation lasted for several hours, including the planning and preparation time, before being aborted late on Saturday afternoon when inquiries revealed Mr McKinnon was safe.

The physical search was about an hour of helicopter time, which will be paid for by the New Zealand Police.

Snr Sgt Nicholson acknowledged there had been ''fairly scant intentions left with a number of different people'' by Mr McKinnon, although there was no legal obligation for climbers or trampers in that regard.

Mr McKinnon, who did not respond to Otago Daily Times inquiries yesterday, became the first person to make solo ascents of all 34 of New Zealand's 3000m mountains in 2010 and last year climbed the west face of Mt Tutoko, long acknowledged as one of the country's last great challenges.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz