Mountain Rescuers

Rescuers working on one of the world’s most treacherous mountains answer an emergency call which turns out to be their worst nightmare.

Produced by NHNZ

Imagine the elation of reaching the summit of one of the world’s most challenging mountains and looking down on the range covered in blazing sunshine against clear blue skies.

But within minutes you are in a white-out, clinging on to the narrow ridge in howling gale-force winds, driving snow and dense cloud which has swallowed the rest of the mountain.

New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook, attracts thousands of adrenaline-pumped climbers each year, desperate to tackle the 22 peaks which offer some of the most technically challenging climbs in the world. Many of the visitors can’t imagine the potential dangers of this attractive playground for the adventurous and daring.

Yet the unpredictable and ever-changing weather conditions which predominate in this island nation have so far claimed the lives of 137 climbers, and if it wasn’t for a dedicated, professional and extremely brave search and rescue team (SAR), the number would be far greater.

On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the SAR team is well rehearsed and ready to react at a drop of a hat. The moment a panic call is received at the headquarters at the base of the mountain, the team kicks into action a system oiled by years of practice, and within twenty minutes they jump into the chopper and disappear into the clouds shrouding the mountain.

Mountain Rescuers joins the SAR team as they carry out their everyday lives in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and is there to witness their rapid transformation in response to desperate emergency calls.

The first rescue we experience is when an off-duty SAR helicopter pilot spots a couple of climbers stranded on a narrow ridge of unstable ice, which could slip at any moment.

The conditions are too dangerous for him to land so he relays the call to HQ and requests help. Within minutes, the helicopter, loaded with the SAR team and their equipment, arrives at the scene and lowers a rescuer onto the ridge. Once the victims are secured to the winch, the rescuers help them into the chopper.

In these extreme windy conditions it’s essential for the pilots to manoeuvre the helicopter with pinpoint accuracy. One small mistake could cost many lives.

This rescue was a success and the team is relieved and happy with the way it went. But not all of the rescues go as smoothly as this and that’s why the SAR team undergoes intense training.

High up on one of most dangerous peaks, the team’s skills are put to the test. They rehearse getting a team member out of a narrow crevasse at the most hazardous and fragile part of the ridge. In order for the team to carry out their rescue missions, whether in rehearsals or real life, they must trust each other 100% and always work solidly as a team.

The challenging rescue is completed successfully, but the team doesn’t realise how soon the practised skills will be critical to a real-life situation.

At 3pm on a quiet Friday afternoon, they face their worst nightmare. A call is received from one of the huts reporting an Australian man has fallen more than 800ft and lies unconscious at the bottom of a 70ft crevasse.

Having descended to the crevasse, the climbing partner found he was unable to help, so made his way to the nearest hut to request help.

With the weather deteriorating quickly, the SAR team has to act fast. Loaded with all their gear, they are taken to the peak in the chopper, only to find that the conditions are against them and the area is riddled with crevasses and an unstable ice base.

The assessment of the situation is not optimistic. The victim is trapped in a T-shaped crevasse that is too narrow for the rescuers ¾ apart from one ¾ to get through.

The smallest rescuer lowers himself through the tight crack and is overwhelmed to find that, although the man is buried under five feet of snow, he is still conscious.

The team work hard utilising their skills recently rehearsed during training, as they battle against the elements to release the victim and load him into the helicopter.

Seven hours after the accident, the situation becomes increasingly tense and the victim starts to lose consciousness. It is crucial for the team to keep the man alive until they get back to base where paramedics are waiting.

Back on the ground, the SAR team are exhausted and relieved as they watch paramedics load the man into another helicopter, taking him to Christchurch hospital where he will receive a blood transfusion to warm his blood.

Mountain Rescuers not only follows the committed and loyal SAR team members as they risk their lives to save others, but also looks at how these incredible individuals support each other when facing extreme conditions in the one of the most treacherous environments in the world.

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