Tramper's death accidental: coroner

The death of a tramper who fell down a rocky gully in Kahurangi National Park was accidental and not the result of shortcomings in his group's preparations, a coroner has found.

John Hannah, 63, retired, of Nelson, fell on the third day of a tramping expedition with three friends.

The fit and experienced trampers had tramped together many times over a 20-year period, said coroner Carla na Nagara.

That day they planned to tramp from Lonely Lake Hut to the Adelaide Tarn, over a route new to them all.

On the morning of the day Mr Hannah died, one of his tramping party, David Lowe, had injured his ankle, activated an emergency locator beacon and been picked up by a helicopter.

After lunch at the Anatoki River the trampers followed the valley up to the headwaters, for a climb up to the Adelaide Tarn.

The route was described as being several hours of hard going. The trampers followed no marked route and were guided by the occasional cairn.

At the end of the valley they found two cairns above them, ending in a steep chute with a rock in the middle. There were two ways past, on the left and the right.

One of the party, Robert Dickson, took the left slot which he described as steep and rocky and about 15 to 20 metres long. He had to use his hands to scramble up and sticks caught on his pack. Mr Hannah went up the same route.

While it was steep, Mr Dickson didn't think it was steep enough to warrant throwing down the light rope they had with them.

Mr Dickson then heard Mr Hannah cry out and heard a rumbling sound. He couldn't see Mr Hannah initially but Mr Hannah appeared as he rolled and slid further down the chute.

Mr Dickson and the other remaining tramper, Richard Wells, climbed down to Mr Hannah to find him bleeding from the head, and non-responsive.

They activated their emergency locator beacon for the second time that day and Mr Wells and Mr Dickson were extracted that night.

Staff on the rescue helicopter confirmed Mr Hannah had died but were not able to extract his body that evening. They returned the next day to do so.

A post mortem examination confirmed Mr Hannah died from a severe closed head injury, right scalp laceration and right skull fracture. He also suffered spinal and chest injuries.

No-one saw him fall. It was possible he'd lost his handgrip or footing, or overbalanced when something caught his pack, although his pack wasn't unduly heavy, the coroner said.

Mountain guide Geoff Wayatt didn't find any definitive contributing factor to the death but noted the accident happened at the end of a long and arduous day's tramping. He also noted the men were separated at the time of the fall.

The coroner noted Mr Hannah was at the back of the trio throughout the afternoon, although he usually prided himself on being first. It may have been that he was more tired than he let on.

There was no evidence to suggest the three men were not appropriately prepared for their tramp, or that they lacked the experience to undertake it. While the particular route was new to them, and recommended for trampers with a high degree of off-track experience, they had previously tramped through very similar terrain.

The coroner was satisfied the fall was accidental and not attributable to any lapse or shortcoming in the men's preparation or management of their day. In retrospect it was easy to identify matters that may have contributed.

"The point of that is not to be critical or apportion blame, but rather to raise awareness of risk in the environment in which the men were, in the hope that this may draw attention to the issues and reduce the chance of similar deaths in the future."

- By Kim Fulton of the Westport News

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