Lieutenant Terry Harch, an Australian soldier reported missing after failing to return from his hike, was found on Thursday after enduring extreme winter conditions for almost a week.
The rescuers were surprised to find the 29-year-old on August 2 on the snow-clad Mount Aspiring, one of New Zealand’s highest peaks.
Harch left his car at the Raspberry Flat parking lot at the end of Mt. Aspiring Road before heading for French Ridge Hut, situated almost 4,900 feet above sea level.
He then proceeded to French Ridge Hut where he left most of his heavier gear, including a sleeping bag, a cooker and some food.
Rescue coordinator Geoff Lunt says it is common practice for climbers to leave their heavy gear behind to speed up their climb.
“A lot of climbers leave a lot of their equipment and clothing at a base camp and then make a fast ascent on the mountain that they’re climbing, and then come back down again.”
Lunt thinks Harch was suitably equipped to make a quick hike to the top of Mount Aspiring despite leaving some of his gear behind, but something happened along the way, and further investigation will reveal what went on.
According to Greg Johnston, a senior search and rescue officer for New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ), Harch’s intended route from the French Ridge Hut was to go through Quarterdeck Pass and up the Southwest Ridge of Mount Aspiring.
Quarterdeck Pass is a narrow strip of ridge line with steep cliffs on both sides. Johnston says Harch “seems to have got into difficulty” along the way.
At around 7,200 feet above sea level, Harch sent a signal from his tracking device.
Wanaka Search and Rescue chairman Bill Day says Harch was carrying a private tracking device which was configured to send an alert signal to a private company in Texas.
The device was activated on July 31, the same day a friend of Harch reported him as missing to the authorities. The Texas supplier alerted New Zealand authorities the day they received the signal from Harch.
The rescue team sent to retrieve Harch encountered “extensive difficulties” along the way because of the extreme weather, along with the risk of an avalanche.
It was around late Thursday afternoon when rescuers finally located Harch near a rocky outcrop.
Rescuers were initially unable to reach him because of high winds, so they dropped a team of four further down the mountain, around one kilometer from Harch’s location.
The four rescuers reached Harch and established two tents. They stayed the night with him and provided him with supplies to keep him warm. Although Harch required medical care, he was in “reasonably good condition,” suffering only mild frostbite and dehydration.
Despite the freezing temperature and winds of up to 37 mph, Lunt attributes Harch’s survival to the skills he learned in the army. “We think he dug himself a snow dug-out shelter and that’s helped in his survivability over these last few days,” he said.
He was extracted from the mountain during a short break in the weather on August 3 and taken to the Dunedin Hospital for treatment.