Miraculous survival: I was sure I was going to die

Lauren Smith took this photo of Mt Rolleston during her ill fated climb. Photo: Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith took this photo of Mt Rolleston during her ill fated climb. Photo: Lauren Smith
As Lauren Smith uncontrollably tumbled hundreds of metres down a mountain, she was sure she was going to die.

“Each time I hit my head, I was wondering how I was still conscious,” Miss Smith said.

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“A lot ran through my mind during that time, including how devastated my mum would be if I died.

Lauren fell 600m down a mountain and lived to tell her story.
Lauren fell 600m down a mountain and lived to tell her story.
“I had absolutely no control in that moment and that was the scariest part. I had lost my ice axe at the top. Combined with the speed I was falling and my body bouncing from the drops down the bluffs, it was only near the bottom which I gained some control.”

The 25-year-old medical student, who planned to start work as a junior doctor next week, miraculously survived the 600m fall down Mt Rolleston, near Arthur’s Pass, escaping with only minor injuries.

Miss Smith had been climbing with her friend, Chris, an experienced mountaineer, with a plan to reach the high peak of Mt Rolleston, via Rome Ridge.

The two friends left Christchurch on November 8 and embarked on the climb the next day at 3.30am so they could descend before it got too warm.

During the climb, they had dropped below the ridge for a short section and to get back up, they needed to climb up a section of rock.

Disaster struck when a large slab of rock gave way under Miss Smith’s hand, causing her to lose balance and fall.

“I did everything I could think of to protect myself. Knowing how to self-arrest well is critical in a fall like that because in a life-threatening situation your body is thrown like a rag-doll. You barely have time to think so the skills have to be instinctive.”

As she tumbled hundreds of metres, Miss Smith fell in and out of consciousness.

“I passed out briefly at the bottom, but following this, I gave every effort to keep myself awake.

“I don’t know how I survived, whether it was pure luck or something more. I never thought I could have a fall like that and be alive at the end of it, so maybe God was looking out for me that day,” she said.

When Miss Smith eventually slowed to a stop, she realised it was because the snow beneath her was very soft as a result of a recent avalanche.

“I was also very worried about another avalanche as the sun was just coming out. I didn’t know how I was going to get down the mountain in so much pain but I just knew I had to.

“After letting my head recover for 20min, I started very slowly trying to make my way down, being very careful not to fall over due to dizziness from the concussion,” she said.

Miss Smith felt “incredible relief” when she saw the rescue helicopter and burst into tears.

She cried out for their help while waving an orange bag.

“It wasn’t until he had his arms around me and I was in the helicopter that I could really believe I was okay.”

Miss Smith said her rescue demonstrates the importance of having a locator beacon and how valuable having a response team is. Chris activated his beacon after her fall, triggering a rescue helicopter to fly to their location.

“I have analysed the climb over and over, and there are definitely things I would have changed. I am just lucky I have another chance to learn from those mistakes.”

Miss Smith said she can’t remember whether she tested the slab of rock with her hand before it gave away, as she did with the other rocks.

“As a climber, you always ask yourself if there is something you could have done differently,” she said.

Her injuries included a slight fracture in the ankle joint, deep bruising and abrasions, friction burns to both arms and a concussion.

“I start my job as a junior doctor next week but this will likely be delayed until I have fully recovered.

“I am unsure when I will be back to normal activities due to the concussion.”

Part of being a good climber is being good at assessing risks, and having the knowledge to do so effectively, Miss Smith said.

She admits she would never let her accident stop her from doing what she loves.

“This fall was a good reminder to myself to slow down and really improve my skills on the small climbs before committing to the more challenging ones. 

“I am ambitious and forget I have the rest of my life to enjoy the mountains.”

The Star reported on her rescue last week and revealed an off-duty police officer played a role.

Senior Constable Reuben McCormack’s experience in the police search and rescue team led him to be able to communicate with the rescuers through a radio and help them find Miss Smith.

He was climbing on his day off when he came across Chris looking shocked.

“(Chris) said to us: ‘I’ve lost Lauren’. We said: ‘What do you mean you’ve lost her?’ And he said: ‘Down there’ and pointed down into the Bealey Valley, which is a huge drop,” Senior Constable McCormack said.

He described the moment they found out Miss Smith had survived. “They told us on the radio: ‘She’s waving at us!’ And that was the first we knew that. ‘Oh my God, she’s alive’ that was a very exciting moment for us. Just to know she was alive.”

sophie.cornish@starmedia.kiwi

 

 

 

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