'Capable' climbers fell to their deaths

Conor Smith climbing Barrier Knob, in Fiordland in 2016. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND ALPINE TEAM
Conor Smith climbing Barrier Knob, in Fiordland in 2016. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND ALPINE TEAM
Two  promising mountaineers who died in a fall in Fiordland National Park in 2017 had sufficient skills and experience for the climb they were attempting, an inquest in Queenstown was told yesterday.

Veteran Wanaka mountaineer Geoff Wayatt was giving evidence into the deaths of New Zealand Alpine Team (NZAT) members Conor Smith (22) and Sarwan Chand (27) on April 22 of that year.

The pair died while attempting a challenging route on the south face of Marian Peak in the Darran Mountains.

Mr Wayatt was the only witness on the first day of the inquest, overseen by Coroner David Robinson, in the Queenstown District Court yesterday.

Sarwan Chand on Sabre Peak in Fiordland in 2016.
Sarwan Chand on Sabre Peak in Fiordland in 2016.
The "Maid Marian" route the pair were attempting had a difficulty rating of 20 at its most challenging section, he said.

However, based on his knowledge of their skills and experience, they were "capable of climbing at that technical level".

The route had been climbed twice before, each time by an NZAT mentor, Daniel Joll, with a different partner, so they would have had an "intimate knowledge" of the conditions and challenges they were expecting to encounter.

Given their intention to bivouac overnight between the lower and upper sections of the climb, and the fine weather at the time, there were no reasons for rushing the climb.

They were also "well-provisioned and well-equipped".

Mr Smith had climbed routes with a technical difficulty grading of 29, and was therefore capable of climbing at standards "one-quarter to one-third more difficult" than required for Maid Marian.

The NZAT is made up of promising young climbers who are mentored by experienced older climbers.

Mr Smith, of Queenstown, and Mr Chand, of Wanaka, joined the NZAT team in late 2015.

Mr Wayatt said he had no knowledge of the NZAT’s structure, culture or recruitment policy, but ‘‘loved the concept’’ of mentoring young climbers.

He saw no problem with the team’s goal of compressing 10 years’ normal climbing experience into three years.

With the appropriate guidance and support, a period of intensive climbing experience could "fast-track" a young climber’s development.

"It’s less a matter of years ... and more about the quality of experience."

While there was a risk of young climbers being "stretched too far", in his experience that risk could be tempered by regular, ongoing contact with a mentor.

Because there were no witnesses or survivors of the incident, his opinions about what happened were "purely speculative", and based on the equipment found attached to the rope and harnesses used by the pair.

However, it was clear Mr Smith was leading the climb, with about 17 metres of rope between him and Mr Chand.

It appeared Mr Smith had fallen, for an unknown reason, leading to a "factor two lead fall".

That meant he had fallen about 17m to Mr Chand’s position, then continued to fall the same distance below, at which point both men were pulled off the wall and fell an estimated 100m.

Two rock anchor devices found attached to their rope had apparently been pulled out of the rock as a result of the load placed on them by the men’s fall.

Mr Robinson has made a non-publication order relating to any statements from a report into the incident commissioned by the NZAT.



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