20 Sep 2017

Rescue from 'Middle Peak Hotel'

From Eyewitness, 3:30 pm on 20 September 2017

In November 1982, for about two weeks, time stood still - not just for two climbers, stranded in an ice cave on Mt Cook's inhospitable middle peak - but for New Zealand too, gripped by the prospect of a dramatic and potentially dangerous rescue in atrocious conditions.

Subscribe to Eyewitness for free on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

A photo of Don Bogie handing from the helicopter with Phil Doole attached to him after rescuing him from the ice cave known as 'Middle Peak Hotel'

Don Bogie lifts Phil Doole from the 'Middle Peak Hotel' Photo: D Bogie slide collection

Mark Inglis and Phil Doole, both members of the Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team, had failed to return from a climb.

For close to a week, as a storm prevented any kind of search, no one could say if the men were safe.

For the nation's media, it was a story that had all the elements; lost climbers, challenging weather conditions and New Zealand's highest peak.

It needed only a rescuer.

Enter Don Bogie: one of the most important figures in the drama but one whose name is less commonly heard.

He was the senior mountaineer and the most experienced at strop rescues (in which an alpine rescuer is lowered on a line to uplift an injured or stranded climber using a harness or stretcher.)

And he was to play a major role in the men's rescue.

A photo of the Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team members the summer before, including Mark Inglis (second from left) and Don Bogie (third from left)

The Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team members the summer before, including Mark Inglis (second from left) and Don Bogie (third from left) Photo: D Bogie slide collection

When Don Bogie first heard of his colleagues' plight he wasn't too concerned.  The weather was poor but he was confident the experienced climbers could endure a night out on Mt Cook, as he had done himself on a previous climb.

"As long as you've managed to find some shelter, you can survive."

But several days later, he wasn't quite so sure.

"We knew the weather was atrocious. It was gale force north westerlies. You couldn't even really see Mt Cook."

Rescuers were beginning to get worried.

As soon the weather allowed, Don Bogie and his helicopter pilot Ron Small began flying reconnaissance flights. Gradually they eliminated huts and other possible locations where they believed the men might shelter.

But there were risks.

"Some things didn't go right. We pushed some of that searching too hard."

There was a serious near-miss when the helicopter nearly crashed into a ridge.

Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Aoraki/Mt Cook. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Don Bogie said the rescuers' instinct to help needed to be held in check by the conditions.

"In hindsight we should have gone 'no, no, we're the wrong side of the line now. We should back off a bit'."

Then, almost a week into the men's ordeal, a break in the weather allowed another flight over an area known as the middle peak.

"It was incredibly windy up there and so we flew straight up to the most likely place and, well, there they were really."

Don Bogie dropped food, supplies and a radio to the men, allowing them to communicate with the search leaders. The pair announced they'd settled in to what they'd dubbed "Middle Peak Hotel", indicating they were still in good shape (and humour).

This tale of survival was closely followed by the media who began arriving at Mt Cook, hungry for information.

"They were wanting to know what was happening, wanting to know what we were doing.

"There was commentary out there in the wider climbing community by other people saying, "You should do this, you should do that, we would have done this by now."

Then the radio battery died, severing communications with the trapped climbers and the pressure mounted even higher.

Mr Bogie said rescuers had to consider the risks to the whole rescue team.

And it turned out there were plenty.

A break in the weather - the first in days - allowed an Air Force Iroquois helicopter to fly up to the peak.

However, the aircraft crashed on the Upper Empress Shelf, a few hours climb below the stranded men.

A photo of Don Bogie with the crashed Iroquois helicopter at the Upper Empress Shelf on Mt Cook

Don Bogie with the crashed Iroquois helicopter at the Upper Empress Shelf Photo: D Bogie slide collection

"Flipped upside down and landed there with its tail hanging over a very large drop with four of our staff and three Air Force crew on board."

No one was seriously injured but, in the time it took to rescue the Air Force staff, the weather window closed and the opportunity to rescue the stranded pair was lost.

"It was a long time ago but I do remember it was very intense. All those pressures and expectations from people but at the same time you've got to try and stay focused on what you want to achieve."

By the following day, with the weather holding, Don Bogie was more than ready to get the two men off the mountain.

Attached to a strop, Don Bogie was flown high up above the mountain and then landed outside the men's ice cave. Mark Inglis was still inside the cave and would require stretchering out. 

"This was probably the riskiest point of the rescue in that I had to go inside the cave - three or four or five metres - to get Mark. So I had to tell (the pilot) Ron I need five metres of slack rope so I could go inside this cave."

If the pilot had to leave quickly, Don Bogie risked being dragged out through the cave.

A photo of the rescue helicopter hovering above the mountain while Don Bogie is inside the ice cave known as 'Middle Peak Hotel'

The rescue helicopter hovering while Don Bogie is inside 'Middle Peak Hotel'caption Photo: D Bogie slide collection

He quickly pulled Mark Inglis out of the cave in his sleeping bag and secured him in a soft stretcher known as a Bauman Bag, attaching that to his harness to lift him to safety.

Don Bogie admitted the experience of flying over the mountains on a strop was "pretty neat" but was balanced against the need to look out for any hazards

"You're focused on your job but you're still trying to remain situationally aware, you know 'I've got to get up there, got to get the guys down'."

There was a quick turnaround on the ground and he returned immediately to Phil Doole.

"Phil, because he was walking around, and had his harness on. I just clipped into his harness and we just flew straight back down."

In the end after weeks of worry, planning and poor weather it was a straight forward rescue.

"It is a relatively simple thing to do: just hang on a rope. The pilot lands you, you pick someone up, you fly away again but it's incredibly serious. You've got to be aware of anything that could cause problems."

A photo of Don Bogie hanging from the helicopter with Mark Inglis attached to him in a soft stretcher known as a Bauman Bag

Mark Inglis being lowered from 'Middle Peak Hotel' in a Bauman Bag Photo: D Bogie slide collection

Don Bogie spent eight years at Mt Cook and by the end found he was not climbing at the same intensity.

In 2013, Mr Bogie was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Land Search and Rescue and alpine safety.

While it was nice to be recognised, he said mountain rescue was not about being "some sort of hero".

A photo of Don Bogie with his wife, Peg Gosden, on Mount Whitney in the United States, with other mountains behind them.

Don Bogie with his wife, Peg Gosden, on Mount Whitney in the United States Photo: D Bogie Collection

Instead he said the reward came from helping others and the pleasure of being in an alpine environment.

"I just have a sense of awe with the mountains. I don't go and do hard climbs these days but I do like spending a lot of time in the mountains ... it's just a really neat place to be."

As for the famous rescue, it was seldom spoken of these days.

"It was a very simple rescue at the end of the day but I guess it will remain a pretty significant event."

Ngā Taonga kōrero

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Eyewitness

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)