Too high, too late...two dead

Nicole was excited. "Hope the weather plays nice :-)", she texted a friend.

Hiroki had already been to
the top four times.
John thought he’d be a passenger, dragged up by all these enthusiastic young things.
Kirsten expected it to be steep, and tiring. And that everyone who went up would come back down.

Labour Weekend 2013. Ten Auckland Alpine Club members set out to climb Mt Taranaki’s difficult East Ridge. A major storm was brewing but they thought they could beat it. Six got down safely. Two veered off course and spent an awful night out in the blizzard. Two more were marooned high on the mountain and clung to life for two nights, texting pleas for help. Nikki Macdonald investigates what went wrong, and recounts the epic efforts of volunteer searchers who tried, tried and tried again to reach the trapped pair.

"Are you kidding, the summit is just there," came a female voice from across the ice buttress.

Rowan had just yelled to the splinter group of four that his team was bailing back down the mountain. Michael and Brendan had returned from soloing to the summit, where they'd had their heads almost ripped off by the screaming gale. Susann was hypothermic and out of it. It was time to go.

Well past time, in fact. Rowan Smith and fellow snowcraft instructor Hiroki Ogawa had exchanged emails earlier in the week, worried about the marginal forecast. Rowan - the trip organiser for the Auckland Alpine Club's annual Labour Weekend Mt Taranaki climb - considered cancelling. "I agree the weather looks s...," he emailed his mate. Hiroki reckoned Saturday might be OK, "as long as we get off the top by mid day", before the evening's forecast gale westerlies and snow.

But that Saturday, as they climbed, no-one had checked their watch for hours. Rowan reckoned it was about 12.30pm. It was 4.20pm.

A jutting ice face separated the two groups trying to climb the mountain’s intimidating East Ridge - the equivalent of trying to get from one side of a classroom to the other, with all the desks piled in the middle. It was too dangerous for Rowan to sidle across to pass on Brendan and Michael's summit weather warning. He assumed the remaining four would also realise the time and risks, and turn around.

On the other side of the ice face, Hiroki and partner Nicole Sutton were pitching with Kirsten Spencer and John Salisbury. Nicole was a keen rock climber, but mountaineering rookie, having completed the club's snowcraft course just three months earlier, like five out of the 10 climbing the East Ridge that day. Hiroki had reached the mountain's crown four times before and John was a six-time summit veteran. Kirsten was an experienced rock climber, but a relative newcomer to ice.

The original plan was to rope-climb the technical East Ridge to the summit, climb into the crater and down the easier, more forgiving North Ridge - the route summer trampers take to conquer New Zealand's most-climbed mountain.

The summit was still 120m away - that’s four rope pitches with their short 35m climbing ropes. But no-one in the second group wanted to descend the breathtakingly steep face they'd just spent five hours picking their way up. They figured climbing to the crater and over to North Ridge was their safest bet.

So, at 4.30pm, with forecast snow and -14 degree wind chill, the four continued up.

The party of 16 climbers had arrived at Tahurangi Lodge the previous evening, various shades of late. They'd mostly left Auckland after work, driving south via supermarkets to buy shared food, through the goblin forest at the base of the volcano, parking up at North Egmont visitor centre, at 900m.

With a day pack and fresh legs, it's a 60-90 minute slog up to the Alpine Club's lodge, which was to be their climbing base. With gear-laden climbing packs, it took some more than two hours. They don't call it The Puffer for nothing.

John’s crew was first to arrive, at 11.15pm, having left Auckland about midday. Rowan came shortly after, at about midnight. Nicole and Hiroki arrived at 1am and Kirsten was last in at 2am.

Among the early-comers, there was some discussion of routes, but mostly the climbers hung their ice axes and drifted to sleep about 2am.

Rowan had told those wanting to climb the East Ridge they should be up around 5.30am. But when he emerged from three hours sleep, only he and Hiroki were up.

There was no formal briefing about who should take which route. The 16 organically sorted themselves into two groups. The less confident chose the easier North Ridge, which is graded 1- in the seven-grade Mt Cook system, and can be free-climbed without ropes. That included Maree Limpus. She'd climbed Mt Cook, but hadn't been on crampons for about 15 years. Rowan told her the grade 2+ East Ridge wasn't the best route to ease back into things.

Kirsten was 44 and had been rock climbing for 20 years, since getting an instructor's certificate as a phys ed teacher in England, where she’s from. She'd joined the Alpine Club 18 months earlier, and been on six other club trips. A tough nut, she likes a good challenge and decided to take the East Ridge. She packed four sandwiches, 5 snickers bars, 1 ½ litres of water, two bananas and some almonds for the climb, and stuffed two snickers bars in her pockets for snacks. She expected it to be steep, and tiring, and that everyone who went up would come back down.

A lifelong skier and snowboarder, 29-year-old Nicole was no stranger to snow, or blizzards. But she was a mountaineering novice, so had planned to take the North Ridge. Two minutes before leaving, she told her climbing buddy Sarah Hamilton she'd changed her mind: “I’m going up the East Ridge,” she said. “Hiroki has convinced me.”

Nicole had studied environmental science and commerce and worked at environmental planning consultancy Boffa Miskell. Hiroki was a geoscientist and post-doctoral fellow at Auckland University. The couple had met two years earlier and planned to get engaged.

It was a bluebird day when the 10 East Ridgers left Tahurangi Lodge, at about 7:30am, expecting the circuit to take about 6 hours.

Rowan did not re-check the forecast before leaving as he thought it was too early for Metservice’s daily 8:30am update. In fact, the mountain forecast is issued at 7:30am.

There'd been no talk of turn-around times and only hurried discussion about group safety gear, such as snow stakes and ropes. The rule of thumb for rope-pitching is one stake per person. They only had five between the 10 of them.

The group split early for the traverse around the mountain to the east side, but regrouped at East Ridge for morning tea. It was toasty warm and the sun was softening the surface snow to slush, making it slow going. At about 11:15am, some 500 vertical metres from the summit, the face briefly steepened to 45 degrees and the team cracked out the ropes.

Rowan had put on his climbing harness earlier - at the same time as his crampons - and was surprised to see others had not. Rookie Susann Beier found it hairy, trying to pull the harness leg-loops over steel spikes, while balancing precariously on the slope.

They’d originally planned to only rope-climb the most exposed, upper section to the summit. But the novice climbers hung on to the security of being tethered to the mountain. "If we use the ropes from here we are not going to get to the top today", Rowan said to Hiroki. "It is what it is," Hiroki replied.

They'd removed rope-pitching skills from the Alpine Club snowcraft course syllabus so its recent graduates were at best inexperienced. With five people on one 60m rope, it was taking more than an hour for the whole group to plod their way up each pitch.

Hiroki and John were off to the right a bit, on a 35m rope. John was 64 - a broad-talking Brit with a thatch of wiry white hair and fat glasses. He'd been climbing since Scouts but mostly non-technical stuff he calls "walking on snow". He'd been up Mt Taranaki six times before, but always up North Ridge. He left his 60m rope and three snow stakes in the lodge, because he expected to be a passenger, hauled up by a bunch of enthusiastic young things.

It was still sunny, but wind slipped its chilling fingers under the layers of fleece and merino on the long waits to be belayed. Susann was suffering. Used to mothering a bunch of school kids, Kirsten gave her her down jacket.

Rowan was worried Nicole only had one ice axe and was moving too slowly in her new boots, so asked Kirsten to go over to climb with her. The dynamic was tricky. There was no designated leader and everyone had signed a pre-trip waiver explaining they were responsible for themselves. But because Rowan had been an instructor on the snowcraft course so many were fresh off, they looked to him for leadership. He fought the urge to take control.

“I looked west and it was like hell on earth coming towards us”

Climber Michael Pavitt

Michael Pavitt and Brendan Wallace were strong climbers. Getting cold and frustrated, they clipped off the rope and solo-ed to the summit, free-climbing with ice axes and no tether.

Brendan was first to crest the perfectly triangular peak known as the Shark's Tooth. The wind was thumping so hard he couldn't stand.

Michael - a professional abseiller - popped up through the ice cornices. It was so blustery he had to belly crawl to a flat spot. Looking west, it was like hell on earth advancing, a mass of black chasing the white wisps already wrapping the mountain. He looked at his phone. It was 3:15pm.

When they rejoined the group below, an hour and a half after leaving them, they warned Rowan the group needed to descend. Rowan wanted to go over the top and down the easy way. The wind had swelled to a deafening hum and clouds were skittering across the summit faster than Rowan had ever seen, but he couldn’t see the black blizzard gathering.

Susann was hypothermic - out of it, feeling sick. She'd lost the feeling in her fingers and feet. When Rowan gave her his down jacket as well, he had to dress her himself. The cold was clawing at them, icing their gear. It was time to get off the mountain.

Down below the roiling clouds, in New Plymouth, Jeremy Beckers was heading home to his wife and two kids after a pleasant five-hour day walk from North Egmont to Holly Hut and back.

The joiner-turned-mountain guide had planned a crack at the summit, but was put off by the atrocious weather forecast.

Jeremy is Taranaki born and bred - been climbing on this mountain since childhood, pushing higher and harder. For 17 or 18 years he's volunteered with the Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue squad - searching for those lost or injured on "the hill", as locals like to call it.

They train once a month and, when the call comes, they drop everything, grab their bright orange helmets and ready-packed red SAR packs, to head into the unknown. Hours later, they dump frozen, sodden gear in the garage and crawl, exhausted, into bed. In the morning, eyes still heavy with sleep, they'll rise again, often to go to work.

Why do it? You'd like to think someone you trusted would come for you if trouble struck, Jeremy says. Trouble is, it's mostly not your mates. It's tourists and idiots, who come horribly unprepared. They've only got one day in town and they're damn well going to summit, whatever the weather.

They're often Europeans - used to high alps and dismissive of a lowly 2500m peak. The French lass who in autumn climbed the ice-slick North Ridge in trainers and thought it was a great lark. They don't understand that this perfect cone standing sentry by the sea sucks storms from the ocean and hurls them back as ice.

It's a fickle old mountain, and a treacherous one. Gullies drop to sheer, jaggedy cliffs, carved off as if with a blunt bread knife. It's claimed 84 lives since 1891 - second only to Mt Cook. Try to pin down the weather more than a few days out, and it'll almost certainly be wrong.

It can be shirt-sleeve sunny under the craggy Tahurangi Bluffs, and goretex-jacket freezing 100m further on at Tahurangi Lodge. It can be perfectly still in the protected Hongi's Gully, just beyond the lodge and the weather warning signs, while a summit gale spits cock's combs of cloud over the peak.

It's the ease of access that makes the mountain uniquely dangerous, says fellow rescue guy, Mike Johns. He's the short-shorn and nuggety complement to Jeremy’s long frame and warm talk. That and the changing seasons - the first slippery veneer of snow and ice; the gauzy veil of disorienting cloud that endlessly builds and clears, builds and clears.

And there's the downhill factor. Trip on the way up and you fall into the mountain. Turn around, and the slope is suddenly a tongue of ice waiting for its prey. Slide on the descent and you'll likely end up in the delightfully-named Body Catcher.

Builder, mountain guide, former conservation ranger, Mike's been doing rescue work for 25 years, having joined the alpine club straight out of school. Long enough for his partner to get so sick of lonely nights of worry she's joined up too.

It was the sense of adventure that captivated him. The one-on-one challenge: just you and the mountain.

But he hadn't been up the hill that day - he'd been building a deck. The deck that remains unfinished.

“Have you seen Touching the Void - the start of that? It was probably worse than that.”

John Salisbury

Kirsten yelled up to Hiroki and John that Rowan’s group was bailing. The four joined up to discuss options. It wasn't about getting to the top, but the safest way down.

Kirsten didn't fancy descending the intimidating face they'd come up. If you're a skier in trouble, do you take the black diamond run or the cruisey green run, she reasoned. John knew the North Ridge. The East - that was something else. Alright when you’re climbing, but when you turn around - vast, and terrifying. He didn't want to go down there.

Hiroki also voted up. He was 31 and a climbing junkie - he once climbed Mt Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in 24 hours. Every weekend he’d be out in the mountains and weird shaped packages were forever arriving at Auckland Uni - the latest addition to his technical gear.

So up they went.

Nicole had seemed fine on the climb up. It wasn't until they reached the crater and the storm closed on them that Kirsten noticed she was struggling.

The speed the weather changed was phenomenal. The thrashing wet wind was like being blasted by the freeze gun guy in a sci fi movie, icing everything in seconds. Sunglasses froze. Kirsten had to break the ice off her hood just to get it over her helmet.
Nicole told Kirsten she was cold and just wanted to sleep. Alarm bells rang in Kirsten's head - hypothermia is no respecter of age, fitness or skill and can take hold so fast a runner was once found dead astride a fence stile. Don't do that, she said. Tell me a joke.

The crater rim plunged into white without end. Hiroki got out his GPS to calculate the drop to the crater’s bottom, so they could lower themselves into it. How he worked that out John had no idea - Hiroki was a technical whiz.

John went first, then Nicole. They broke out some snacks and Nicole seemed in better spirits, laughing as she snapped off strands of frozen hair.

The wind was so violent it whipped the rope back up the sheer drop, over Kirsten and Hiroki's heads as they waited. Hang onto it at the bottom, Hiroki instructed. Damn right I will, Kirsten thought. At the bottom, they abandoned the ropes.

It was still blowing a gale in the crater. It was 8pm and dark was replacing white-out. They turned on their head torches, braced low to the wind and moved towards the rock spine known as The Lizard, which leads down to the North Ridge.

There was a sense of relief. The conditions were horrible - but at least they were over the top. And then Nicole slipped.

They were climbing down backwards, unroped, facing the mountain, as it was too steep to face down. Kirsten was just below Nicole, feeling pretty comfortable. Ice axe, foot, foot; ice axe, foot, foot. And then suddenly something hit her and she was gone.

John caught the flash of movement out the corner of his eye and watched the head torch rocket down the mountain. He figured whoever it was was dead. Even if she was injured, there was no way they could carry her - they couldn't even stand up straight for the wind. After hitting Kirsten, Nicole had managed to stop herself. But she was upset she'd caused Kirsten’s fall. Hiroki tried to call Rowan to deliver the terrible news. It was 9:15pm.

Time slows in moments of crisis. It took a matter of seconds for Kirsten to careen 150m down sheer ice - like falling down a slide in the pitch black, on your belly and feet first. But it was long enough to calmly reason she needed to stop herself, and she'd only get one shot. Do it wrong and you'll probably dislocate your shoulder, she thought.

That snowcraft self-arrest training kicked in and she thrust the ice axe against the slope, throwing her entire body weight behind it. It wasn't instantaneous, but the axe point eventually ground her to a stop. Down below was the Body Catcher, but she didn't know that then.

Kirsten checked her feet - intact, but her right ankle hurt like hell. A red stain seeped through the snow - 'Oh god, that's me'. Her knee dripped blood from the puncture hole where Nicole's crampon had stabbed it, sending her flying. She'd lost one goretex outer glove and her whole left side was bashed and bruised from bouncing over the ice.

She looked around - nothing and no-one. She didn’t want them thinking her dead. She figured they could only be above her, so flexed her aching ankle and began climbing straight up.

John saw a headlamp moving and climbed down to meet it. He could see Kirsten was injured and they needed to get down quickly, before she seized up. Hiroki and Nicole were coming, but slowly. He shouted back up that he would head down with Kirsten. They both expected the pair to follow.

John struck out first and fast. The chill wet breath of the mountain froze on contact - ice building like a suit of armour, hood toggles turning to golfballs. John's helmet was so heavy with the stuff his head torch wouldn't stretch to fit, so he hung it around his neck.

Kirsten inched down facing the slope, watching this light swinging below, knowing that's not how heads behave and wondering if she was hallucinating.

Her ankle was pounding and swelling horribly; the hand left with only a lightweight inner glove stiffened with cold, curling into a claw. But she was a staunch sportswoman. A sports coaching lecturer at Auckland University of Technology and masters’ hockey player, she'd pushed through injury before.

She focused on catching up to that little swinging lightbulb, counting out her steps - 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4, as she used to on the treadmill training for hockey.

When the gradient eased slightly, she turned frontward, glissading down the slope and eventually catching John. Without realising, they’d veered off course - heading straight down instead of bending right towards Tahurangi Lodge. They'd been walking 18 hours, about six in the dark, when the footprints ended in an apparent cliff. They couldn’t see much, but enough to know down wasn’t an option, so they doubled depressingly back.

Kirsten was absolutely flipping knackered - sore, cold and tripping over. John’s an atheist but for just the third time in more than 50 years of climbing he prayed. It helped once, but this time nothing happened. There was little option but to stop.

It was snowing and Kirsten's hand had hit full-claw. John used his helmet and ice axe to dig a shallow snow trench to get out of the weather, and they tried to both lie in it. It was hopeless - so John shifted to a 50cm boulder nearby, putting his feet into his 90l pack and his pack liner over his head. There was no sign of the silver survival bag he was sure he'd packed.

Kirsten lay cocooned in an orange plastic survival bag - like a thick bin liner - on top of her pack. But the cold still penetrated from the bare ice below.

It was about 2am when they settled to try to sleep. John had nothing to tie himself to the mountain - he'd heard of people shaking so much, they fell off their ledge. He set off his personal locator beacon. So they can find our bodies, he said.

Back at Tahurangi Lodge, Rowan started to worry. The climb back down the East Ridge had been hairy. They’d cut corners, dropped gear, but all made it back safely at about 8.30pm, joining the six North Ridge climbers, who’d arrived back three hours earlier. There was no sign of the other four East Ridgers.

It wasn't until 10pm that Hiroki called to say Nicole was hypothermic and Kirsten had fallen. At that point Hiroki and Nicole were still moving. The hut party called police and Rowan and Brendan geared up for a rescue attempt.

The scoria field just beyond the lodge was iced and treacherous. Above it, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and a blizzard pummeled the mountain, with 80kmh winds threatening to sweep them off the face. Rowan needed an ice axe to break open his pack buckle. They made it to The Lizard but the wind was too strong to continue. At 11.57pm, they texted the lodge they were coming back.

By then, Hiroki and Nicole were marooned on the mountain. At 11:31pm, Hiroki texted that Nicole was in bad shape - alert but slightly disorientated - and it wasn't safe to move far. By 11:45pm he reported they'd dug a shallow trench. They had no shovel, so Hiroki had scraped at the 30cm of solid ice with his ice axe and helmet.

Nicole was out of the wind, Hiroki texted: “Better make shelter bigger for my self! Too much/ ice form ing, on :-(“

When Hiroki texted their GPS co-ordinates, Rowan couldn't believe where they were. At 2318 metres they were only 200m below the summit - above The Lizard and barely lower than where John and Kirsten had left them.

"Do whatever you can to make shelter," Rowan texted back.

“Search teams now on mountain. Keep warm and safe. We are coming.”

Police text to Hiroki

Jeremy Beckers and Mike Johns had settled in for the evening when they got the call from police. A party was lost on the hill - could they help with a search? It was raining in New Plymouth but they knew the mountain would be raging. It was going to be a long night.

About 12:30am, the team of Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue members arrived at Tahurangi Lodge. Brendan and Rowan returned just as the search team was leaving. It’s pretty ugly out there, they warned.

They started out as five. One member wasn't up to it and had to turn back. He was looking disoriented, so someone else went down with him. That left Mike and Jeremy and Jonathan Crane.

They plodded toward The Lizard, focusing on the couple of metres ahead, and on bracing for wind gusts. The veneer of liquid in Mike’s eyes froze up.

It's always a balancing act, between warmth and sweat. A full rescue climbing pack weighs 20kg - too many clothes and you overheat, clammy sweat chilling your core. Too few clothes and you risk hypothermia. Usually, there's chopping and changing on the hill. Not this time - it wasn't safe.

Focus is what Jeremy likes about climbing - everything else in your life falls away as you concentrate on the next few steps. But this was extreme. It was pitch black. The wind was throwing them sideways. Getting blown over above a sheer ice slope is bad news.

He'd climbed in windier conditions and in worse visibility; on harder ice and in colder temperatures. He'd been more iced up. But never all those things at once.

They were about 150m away from the pair when they decided to turn back. Mike was worried about getting back safe. Hypothermia was biting, and mistakes facing down the mountain could be fatal.

In any case, even if they made it to Hiroki and Nicole they would be precious little use. Mike and Jeremy had already been up for 20 hours and were cold and sapped. Losing a searcher wasn't part of the plan. It was just too far and too hard.

“I remember thinking, I’m not going to die. John can think what he wants, but I’ve got to see my nephew in Panama. So that’s not happening.”

Kirsten Spencer

Black had turned to white and Kirsten expected John to be dead.

When he said he was activating his rescue beacon so searchers could find their bodies, Kirsten had a thought beyond 1,2,3,4: "I'm not going to die. John can think what he wants - but I'm going to see my nephew in Panama." She had a trip planned, at Christmas, to meet her parents and brother and three-year-old nephew. And she was damn well going to go.

She settled into the orange rescue bag, which came up to her shoulder, and snatched at sleep. It was the worst night she'd ever had, shivering uncontrollably, enduring shooting pains as she crunched up for warmth, then extending and being thrashed with snow.

John managed to dream a bit - he remembered hearing car doors slamming. Then it was grey, and he was alive.

He was cold, cold, cold. And soaked to the skin. He heard the crinkle of plastic and assumed Kirsten was alive. I'm going, he said. You can come, or I'll bring back help.

I can walk, Kirsten said. Her ankle was fat with swelling, but she'd had enough injuries to know it would only get worse.

They left their packs to lessen the load. Kirsten grabbed her phone. She'd had it the whole time, but hadn’t thought to use it.

They walked until John caught sight of a pole in the distance. It wasn't much of a pole - a sad, wooden thing - but it was the first sure signpost of survival. Kirsten talked herself through the pain, naming geological features from geography teacher days. Anything to stop thinking about a frost-bitten hand and agonising ankle pains.

They should have turned right to the lodge but in their confused state they turned left, back towards the visitor centre. They met a couple, who asked the way to Veronica Track. It was utterly surreal. They'd just dodged death and here were day-walkers, asking directions.

They walked five hours on empty. It's funny what you talk about when you're hypothermic and slightly delirious. Neither had brought money so they decided John would blag a cup of tea and walk back up to the packs and pay later.

But Kay at the visitor's centre wasn't worried about money. She knew who they were. She wrestled dry clothes off mannequins and fed them tea and toasted sandwiches. It was 11am on Sunday and they were safe.

At 2.30am on Sunday morning, New Plymouth police tried to call Conrad Smith, the SAR contact at National Park, at the foot of Mt Ruapehu. There were four people stranded on Mt Taranaki and they needed reinforcements. Being a long weekend, a bunch of Taranaki alpine rescuers were away on their own adventures.

Ruapehu has its own alpine searchers, known as Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, or RARO, made up of professional outdoorsmen and women - ski patrollers, Conservation Department workers and instructors from the nearby Hillary Outdoors Centre.

Conrad’s phone was off so they tried an alternate contact. He scrambled three searchers in time for a pick-up by an Air Force Iroquois helicopter police had called in from Ohakea. With heavy gear and a full crew, it’s debatable whether they could have carried more SAR crew, even if they’d been ready to go.

They’d already left by the time Ohakune-based Paul Andreassend picked up a text at 6:45am asking for help with a Mt Taranaki search. He'd never been there but mountains were his tūrangawaewae. The rest of his family were academic. He was the skier.

Straight out of school he trained to become an outdoor instructor, then ski patroller. As a teen, he’d seen someone stove their head in under the chairlift. Patrollers came to the rescue and he thought 'I could do that'.

He did 16 winters back to back between New Zealand and Canada, then trained as an emergency nurse. Action, adrenalin, helping people - that was his thing.

He went from emergency nursing to film industry safety consulting, re-honing those ski patrol risk assessment skills. He would flit between the mountains and Wellington, helping out RARO when he could.

That morning, he grabbed his gear and headed to National Park with the other RARO searchers to await a helicopter pick-up. But the Iroquois did not return - police command decided to save the pilot’s restricted flying hours in case of a weather window to pluck the lost climbers off the mountain.

Conrad Smith confirmed a commercial Taupō helicopter was available to shuttle the searchers, and told police command in New Plymouth. It was never called.

Instead, New Plymouth police instructed the remaining 14 RARO searchers to drive the four hours to New Plymouth, costing precious time and energy.

At 8:38 on Sunday morning, Nicole texted Rowan that Hiroki's phone was dead. They both had hypothermia, she told police.

"Any chance of heli? Same location as last night on the snow. Cold. Hiroki not doing well."

Hiroki had positioned himself on the windward side of the narrow snow slot, taking the brunt of the storm. That was the kind of guy he was, a friend later said. Everyone agreed he could have walked off that mountain. Instead, he stayed with Nicole.

Hiroki and Nicole's legs were tucked into the ledge, but their upper bodies were exposed to the wind, which was still gusting furiously.

Too furiously for the two helicopters trying to reach them. Michael Parker lifted off in his Taranaki Rescue Helicopter at 7:04am. He orbited the mountain but never saw it. They tried again briefly at 1:46pm, but met heavy turbulence. At 3pm a mechanical warning light grounded the chopper for the rest of the search.

The Iroquois tried too, but pilot Lachie Johnston reported some of the worst downdrafts he'd ever experienced. He realised later there was no way he could have winched his non-alpine-trained medic into such extreme conditions.

Ground searchers also fanned out from Tahurangi Lodge - two alpine teams, including the three RARO members who made it across in the Iroquois - and three land search and rescue teams to search for the beacon John had left on his pack. It was an old type and the location fix was lousy - they thought it was coming from Holly Hut, miles from where Kirsten and John had stopped.

There was no let up in the weather. Even in daylight, the mountain rescuers were getting "pulverised". As during the night, the teams got agonisingly close to the couple’s 2318m dugout - 2230m; 2270m. But each time wind and self-preservation beat them back.

By 5pm they were back in the lodge, and Nicole was becoming increasingly desperate.

"Please get a heli asap," she texted at 5.56pm. "Hiroki won't get through tonight. Same location, no one came today after txts saying sar would. No food water. F..."

It was 5pm by the time all the RARO rescuers made it to Tahurangi Lodge. There was confusion - some were sent to the police incident command centre in New Plymouth and some went straight up the mountain.

They were antsy and frustrated by the delay and lack of information from the police base. There was no police liaison at the lodge, so they began formulating their own scheme.

Andy Hoyle hatched a plan to fix a succession of ropes, to make it quicker and easier for a final team to push through to Hiroki and Nicole. He asked police for an updated weather report. We're running this operation down here, they responded.

It was tense enough that the rescue medic stationed at the lodge requested police presence at the lodge to rein them in.

When the police representative arrived, there was more confusion. The RARO teams expected an incident controller, but Vaughan Smith was just there as a search team leader.

They eventually agreed a plan, and that they needed to sleep to muster energy for the search.

The first two teams left the lodge about 12:30am, loaded up with ropes and determination. For the ski patrollers, the conditions weren't unfamiliar. It was like a bad day up Ruapehu - storm force winds and heavy ice.

They fixed ropes as they went, sheltering wherever possible. By the crater valley, they were down on all fours and climbers were visibly shaking from the cold. They huddled like penguins - the only way to hear above the wind. The ropes were set and at 2am they turned for the lodge.

Being the most experienced wilderness medic, Paul Andreassend was allocated to the third team, whose task was to do what everyone had so far failed to achieve - to reach the freezing pair.

He wasn't worried, as it wasn't above his skill level. That's the joy of the mountains - the constant danger means everything you do is thoughtful. And he's a brutal realist - it's not his emergency, he reasons. It's not his decisions that have caused this. Yes, he will go out of his way to help, but if it doesn't work out, it's not on him.

It wasn’t the worst conditions he'd encountered. Minus 48 in Canada was pretty cold - hair-snapping, frostbitten nose kind of cold. But the conditions were ropey - 100+kmh wind, -17 to -20 wind chill, 15cm of ice on the windward side of your helmet, sheet ice so hard your top-grade ice axe just bounces off "pah-ding". And 11mm ropes expanded to 3cm or 4cm, encased in ice sheaths.

The team's Taranaki guide, Phill Davies, was carrying an emergency stretcher but had to ditch it part way as it acted as a sail - every gust threatening to blow him off the mountain.

The fixed ropes were a godsend - speeding progress, past Drinking Rock and up to the Lizard. When the fixed lines ran out, they played out their extra two short ropes. Gear was in short supply - some of the fixed ropes were marked "training".

On the numbers, they knew they were close. Dawn had pierced the dark. The Iroquois growled overhead and a female voice called out. By that stage they were plodding - riven with cold and fatigue. But that was a shot straight to the veins. "You beauty," Paul thought - there they are. And they're alive. It was 6:30am.

He surged ahead, finding the pair side by side in a shallow snow trench. It was a steep bank, with a treacherous run-out. Hiroki was exposed on the windward side, and showed no signs of life. He would have got hot and sweaty digging the shallow trench, that sweat then turned to bone-chilling damp by the wind.

Nicole was conscious, lying on her front, one frosted, ungloved hand tucked beneath her. She was coherent but groggy. "My hand is cold, and is it Monday today?," she asked. She asked Paul if her partner was still alive. He said: Sorry, no. It was the first time he realised they were partners - critical information for predicting lost person behaviour.

At 7:20am, he recorded Nicole as status two - unstable. But sometimes, when help arrives, the fighter lets go.

The searchers set up a safety line - it was a 45-degree ice rink. They dropped the emergency shelter - gone. One group hacked through the 20cm ice to enlarge the snow slot to give them more working space. Another rolled Nicole onto a sleeping bag and coddled her in heat pads and an emergency thermal blanket.

But Paul wasn't satisfied. Her breathing was faltering - 20 seconds of nothing, then a deep drag for oxygen. They were losing her. There was still no helicopter window so no chance of imminent rescue. They needed to warm Nicole from the inside out. Paul knelt on the snow and pulled out his emergency resuscitation mask. For 45 minutes, knees groaning, feet dangling off the ledge, he breathed warm air into her lungs. Others took turns helping.

They waited for reinforcements, but only a stretcher-bearer came. They had neither the means nor the energy left to lower Nicole safely.

Three sets of freezing fingers checked for vital signs, and found none. She was gone, and they needed to move. It was 9:45am and they'd been bleeding warmth for more than six hours. They were digging holes just to keep warm.

On the way down, there was a call on the radio. A paramedic told Paul he couldn’t declare them dead without a CO2 monitor, because hypothermia could disguise life signs. Paul was incredulous. It showed the complete disconnect between the command centre in New Plymouth and those on the hill. We’re not going back, he said. We're shot and we need to descend, he said. And either way, we can't get her out.

When he got back to Tahurangi Lodge, he dropped his gear, sat outside and smoked a cigarette. He was gutted. They all were. He'd knelt face to face with her until the end. You don't forget that.

Why be a rescue volunteer? Visuals: Andy Jackson and Chris McKeen

In an empty classroom at AUT, Kirsten Spencer shows the implacable calm and toughness that must have anchored her to life that night on the mountain.

She still climbs, but it's always been about being there, rather than reaching the top. There are scars - one finger has lost all feeling, from the frostbite. And there's residual anxiety - whiteouts harbour new fear.

She and John went back to the mountain in the summer, to see where Hiroki and Nicole were stuck, and where they had slept that awful night. It was sunny, glorious - an altogether different mountain. She can't imagine what it would have been like that night so close to the summit.

"I must have been sleeping in a hot tub compared to what they were in."

John Salisbury

John Salisbury

At the inquest, John credited his survival to Hiroki’s technical skill. He, too, has kept climbing. The psychologist he met for 10 sessions doubted most of those involved would, but he was soon back out running the winter taster courses that earned him the Alpine Club's inaugural ice axe for Volunteer of the Year, in 2008.

Going back was a salve - “It was just good to do it, laid the ghost - that you couldn’t get up it, or that it was an awful place. It was just a mountain being a mountain.”

He climbed 6000m Bolivian peak Huayna Potosi in 2015 and it was the most miserable experience ever. Apart from being married, he jokes.

But he's not unscarred - during our interview, his climbing partner sat in for moral support, in case he got emotional. At the inquest, he couldn't bear to read out his statement.

At one point, the 68-year-old in a Boddington's t-shirt calls time out. He's right there on that mountain, reliving the hell. The experience has made him more cautious and more willing to speak up when uncomfortable. He can no longer walk down snow slopes forwards, and wind puts the willies up him.

Things have changed since he learned snow skills, when climbing was an apprenticeship. You learnt from veterans, then went out with your mates, got into horrendous messes, and learnt from the experience. But better gear gives the ability for bigger messes. And the "Red Bull approach" fosters extremes - hanging off things, skiing off cliffs.

"If things go wrong, they've not had the build-up of experience. And this went wronger than I've seen in 50 years."

John defends the decision to go over the top - believing there was as much potential for disaster descending the East Ridge. Both decisions were right, both decisions were wrong, he says.

But there were plenty of lessons to be learnt - better preparation and communication; a whistle to call time; and new snowcraft graduates should be restricted to grade one climbs for a year, he suggests.

Investigators talk about swiss cheese; Paul Andreassend talks about lemons lining up - the idea that disasters result from a series of mistakes or misfortunes that add up to more than the sum of their parts. The Alpine Club's review of the tragedy identified a parade of sour citrus: a lack of gear checklists and briefing procedures; lack of experience; failure to check equipment and fix turnaround times; a poor decision to continue climbing; bivouacking too high on the mountain; inadequate food and emergency equipment.

Coroner Christopher Devonport picked out just two - the failure to monitor time and the failure to turn back in the face of threatening weather. He quotes climbing veteran Geoff Wayatt's mountain safety manual Alpine Skills: "Turning back early is wiser than risking being caught in a storm and coping with an exposed bivouac."

The search, too, copped criticism. The SAR debrief faulted communication, the lack of a police liaison at Tahurangi Lodge, the lack of previous joint training, and the delay caused by RARO members having to drive.

Devonport concluded the RARO rescuers would have reached Hiroki and Nicole earlier, had the Taupo-based commercial helicopter ferried them to Taranaki. Whether that would have changed the outcome, however, remains unknown.

At the inquest, police blamed the failure to call in the Taupo helicopter on a misunderstanding - a message that flying conditions were unsuitable for a fixed wing plane was taken to extend to helicopters too. However, both the Air Force Iroquois and the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter were still flying at that time.

In a 90-minute interview, Paul Andreassend never once uses Hiroki and Nicole's names. As an emergency department nurse you learn to numb yourself to death. But since that gutted cigarette outside Tahurangi Lodge, he has replayed again and again his hours on the mountain, wondering if it could have ended differently.

"You get there and they're alive - you can't help think 'What the hell else could I have done?'."

The only thing that might have made a difference, was getting to them earlier, before advanced hypothermia set in. But without clear air for a helicopter evacuation, there's no telling whether that would have changed anything.

Paul is warm and frank and uncompromising. It's his job to tell movie bosses like Sir Peter Jackson what they can and can't safely do. He criticised the police's management, but says what's important is that everyone learns - which he believes they have.

His knees still ache from those hours on the ice but it hasn't put him off. He still gets out in the mountains - walking, climbing, just being there.

"It's not about getting to the top. That's when people die."

Mike Johns

Mike Johns

It's becoming more common, says Mike Johns, that searchers are not searching at all, but trying to reach a known point where victims are. That massively increases expectations. And sometimes you can't win. When he rescued a group of Chinese climbers last year, and a searcher copped an ice boulder to the head, some said they should never have been up there, others gave him an award.

"There's a bit of a growing trend, publicly, that we're seen to be semi-professional rescuers. That we should be able to do the job every time. It doesn't always work out like that."

Jeremy Beckers

Jeremy Beckers

It doesn't make them think twice the next time the SAR phone rings, but the criticism does sting, says Jeremy Beckers.

"It annoys me - that so many armchair experts, who have no idea what they're talking about, are more than happy to talk in the media and give their two cents worth. Each job we do is quite a dynamic situation. What may start off as a fairly basic, straight forward search, can turn into something quite substantial. And whenever we start a search, it's usually with very limited information. As the information comes through and is built upon, the taskings change, the plans change, and people are making the best decisions they can at the time."

Still, he'll be out there again, trying to make the best of horrid weather, joking with the builder, the vet, the butcher, the retired 70-something, who have all dropped everything to tool up and search for free. As well as the lost time and income, there have been close calls.

"You really are putting your life on the line."

Hiroki and Nicole

Hiroki and Nicole

Why did they stay there - Hiroki and Nicole - so high on the mountain? Kirsten has been asked the question again and again, by the inquest lawyers, by police, by the coroner, by the alpine club. But there's no knowing. Nicole was tired. She thought she'd just killed someone. And while they dug in before calling for help, maybe, once they thought rescuers were coming, they didn't want to move.

They asked too - every which way - about that fateful decision to go over the top. Kirsten says it wasn't her voice that several climbers heard yell: "Are you kidding, the summit is just there". And she still thinks the decision was reasonable under the circumstances.

"I don't think you can pinpoint one thing - I think it's a series. If Hiroki and Nicole had come a bit down the mountain, would that have changed anything? If we'd turned around and not gone over the Shark's Tooth, would that have changed anything? If is a very small word, but incredibly powerful."

Extensive interviews with John Salisbury, Kirsten Spencer, Paul Andreassend, Mike Johns and Jeremy Beckers; Witness statements to police; Coronial files; New Zealand Alpine Club review; Cellphone text logs; Alpine Skills, by Geoff Wyatt; Classic Peaks, by Hugh Logan
WORDS: Nikki Macdonald
VISUALS: Chris McKeen and Andy Jackson
GRAPHICS: John Cowie