Tuesday, April 30, 2013

High Misadventure - book review by Pat Deavoll

HIGH MISADVENTURE New Zealand mountaineering tragedies and survival stories. By Paul Hersey. Reviewed by Pat Deavoll. CHRISTCHURCH AUTHOR and climber Paul Hersey has his second book in as many years in the bookshops. But unlike the strictly ‘climbing’ appeal of Where the Mountain’s Throw Their Dice, this offering, High Misadventure, is a read for anyone with an interest in the New Zealand outdoors, participant or otherwise. Hersey takes eight incidents from among the many mountain- related accidents in recent decades and explores the critical aspects of how and why they happened and what responses they provoked. The text is built on first-hand interviews with survivors, the bereaved, mountain guides and their employers, and from careful study of coroners' reports. Some of the incidents that Hersey covers include: the deaths of five climbers when the Three Johns Hut blew away in 1977, the 1990 loss of six army cadets during a training exercise on Ruapehu, the stranding of Phil Doole and Mark Inglis on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1982, and the 2004 deaths of four climbers on Mount Tasman. The Ruapehu, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman incidents in particular attracted mas- sive media coverage and scrutiny from the public. However, it was the re-enactment of the 1966 rescue attempt and subsequent deaths of five climbers on Mt Rolleston (Chapter 1), and the description of the distress suffered by mountain guide Ewan Patterson on loosing a client in 1988, that were the most interesting to this reader! In 1966 four young climbers made an attempt on the Otira Face of Mt Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass. It was a Sunday, mid-winter. Come Monday afternoon, the parents of one of the climbers contacted the Park Service to say his son hadn’t returned. A massive rescue effort was launched, the aim of which was to get a winch to the top of the face and extract the climbers by winching them to the top. At one point the climbers’ shouts were heard from the face, but the ensuing bad weather and the death of one of the rescuers in a midnight avalanche meant the rescue plan never really got off the ground. The bodies of two of the young climbers were eventually found within a few hundred metres of the rescuers camp; another body was discovered on the face, while the whereabouts of the fourth climber remains a mystery to this day. Hersey tells the story in a concise matter-of-fact style, with careful attention to detail and timeliness. It’s interesting to compare this early ‘rescue style’—of utilising excessive manpower—to later helicopter-reli- ant rescues. The author’s utility of style fails to detract from the overall feeling of loss and waste that the chapter evokes. Here was an inci- dent that claimed four young lives, and a failed rescue attempt that claimed one more. In 1988 mountain guide Ewan Patterson witnessed a cli- ent drown in the Matukituki River. He was back guid- ing two days later at the insistence of his employer, but suffered a bad fall on the mountain. He was inad- vertently suffering from the shock of watching the death of his client, and spent the next 20 years coming to terms with the loss. ‘I was so angry for such a long time. I was angry at myself, angry at Alan (his client) for not telling me he was petrified of water. I was angry at the company I worked for because they didn’t do the right thing. And I was angry at my friends, other climbers, because I thought they didn’t understand or weren’t trying to help me.’ The account of this incident is an interesting juxtaposition to the other seven accidents, which tell their story from the angle of the victim. Hersey successfully exhibits how far-reaching the effects of a death in the mountains can be and that it’s not just those who are physically affected that suffer. What is also interesting (and questionable) is the ‘get back on the horse’ attitude of Patterson’s employer. These days far more attention is paid to a guide’s state of mind and well being after an accident or death, or at least one hopes that’s the case! If anything, this book is too short, the eight incidents told could easily have been expanded to ten or 12, such is the lively pace and attention to detail Hersey gives to each chapter. There is nothing overly emotive in his style of writing, but there is an overriding sense of trag- edy and senseless loss in the chapters dealing with death. Despite his meticulous research and eye for factual detail, Hersey reveals, once again, how vulnerable we are in the mountain environment.

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