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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Couple die in New Zealand snow cave

Dr Hiroki Ogawa 31 was a postgraduate research fellow at Auckland University and had come to New Zealand to pursue his postgraduate thesis on marine studies.  He loved the outdoors and so did his fiance Nicole Sutton 29, so it was no surprise to Nicole's father when they decided to join others and climb Mount Taranaki.

The group reached the summit on Saturday and were heading back down when bad weather closed in.  Two other climbers in the group made it back down safely after spending one night on the mountain.

The couple dug themselves into a snow cave as best they could and Nicole managed to text police and rescue teams, giving them directions, but the weather was so bad, after two nights on the mountain, they were too late.

Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue member Mike Johns said rescue teams got within 200 metres of the couple, but it was impossible to stand upright in the gale force winds that had a wind factor of minus 15.  "......One side of your face was going numb and by that stage, we were so covered in ice, everything was starting to freeze up" he said.

It got so bad, that around 3.30 am, they made the gut-wrenching decision to turn around and go back down.  "It weighed on everyone's mind, we discussed it as a team, but our safety came first and we all agreed we were at the point where it was starting to get dangerous" Mr Johns said.

"Normally, it's possible to get right inside a snow cave and get out of the weather but they had just managed to dig a slot in the snow and get into it.  Considering how hard it would have been up there - the ice gets really hard, especially that high up - it would have been a big effort for them to do what they did, so they did really well."

They were eventually found at 7.30 am on Monday morning near the 2,500 metre summit, after hearing Nicole call out.  They found Dr Ogawa had died and Nicole was barely conscious.  She managed to speak to rescuers who provided medical assistance but they couldn't save her and she died a few hours later.

Ironically, yesterday morning Mike Johns was winched down onto the mountain to help recover the bodies in near perfect weather conditions.

Nicole's father described Mr Ogawa, an experienced mountaineer, as "a very special man" who tried to look after his daughter and he and his wife had hoped the pair would eventually marry.  "We know mountains are a nasty place when things go wrong" he said.

The search involved 30 volunteers.  "If there were no volunteers, there would be no research and rescue in New Zealand" Mr Johns said.