WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — It wasn’t quite dawn on the mountain when a wave of ice and snow tumbled down on them. Jo Morgan and the two guides she was roped together with had set out for the summit at 2 a.m. and she’d just messaged her husband “All is OK.”
But it wasn’t. Both guides died in the avalanche early Wednesday on Mount Hicks, while Morgan managed to survive after being almost completely buried in snow and then punching and wriggling her way free over the course of about an hour.
An adventurer and philanthropist from one of New Zealand’s most well-known families, Morgan described her ordeal in an interview with Radio New Zealand.
“It’s a terrifying thing,” she said. “It’s a bit like the surf coming down on you. Just a huge big wave of ice coming down the slopes toward you.”
She said she got lucky and landed with her face in a hollow at surface level and one hand free, while her body was buried.
“I could feel when I stuck my hand up that I was into air rather than into something solid,” she told RNZ. “So I was very lucky that my position allowed me to actually clear my face and take a big breath and think, ‘Wow. Let’s hope no more comes down.'”
She said she shouted out to her friends, and heard no reply. She then began the painstaking task of freeing herself. It took her 30 minutes to grab and trigger her locator beacon to alert rescuers, and another half hour or more to wriggle out of the snow. She said it was frustrating not being able to help her friends as the minutes ticked away.
“You know in your deepest heart that the chances of survival are not good,” she told RNZ.
New Zealand Police on Thursday identified the guides who died as Wolfgang Maier, 58, and Martin Klaus Hess, 50. Both were German nationals who were living in New Zealand.
Morgan is married to well-known businessman Gareth Morgan, who launched a political party that unsuccessfully contested New Zealand’s 2017 election. The couple’s son, Sam Morgan, is one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs and founded the online auction site TradeMe.
Jo Morgan was in her late 50s when she took up serious climbing a few years back and she had been ticking off a list of New Zealand’s peaks of over 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet). She only had a couple left to go. She said she had reached 23 summits with Maier by her side each time. The latest mountain they were climbing, located in a national park in the central South Island, was 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) tall.
Inspector Dave Gaskin told media that both guides were very experienced and well equipped.
Gaskin said there had been cold weather in the area that had created ice on the mountain. Then it had snowed.
“Recent snow sitting on ice always makes avalanches even more frequent,” he said. “They took a chance and, unfortunately, it didn’t work.”
Morgan told RNZ the guides were professionals and they had all made an assessment of the conditions.
“Maybe we got it wrong that time,” she said. “Who knows?”
Morgan had written about the days leading up to the summit attempt on Facebook. On Sunday, she wrote that they were having a rest day after making it to a hut on the Hooker Glacier.
“Mt Hicks lords over us as we hope for a weather window before our rations are done for,” she wrote. “Yes I wish I’d done more training, but have decided I excel in suffering.”
On Tuesday she wrote that it had been bleak at the hut but a break in the weather had them planning to start a summit attempt at about 2 a.m. the following day.
New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre said it got a notification from Morgan’s locator beacon at about 6:45 a.m. and that rescuers dispatched helicopters and climbing teams. Morgan said it took more than two hours for a helicopter to reach them, as it had to fly from the city of Christchurch to the remote location.
Gaskin said rescuers tried performing CPR on the guides after they found them but it was too late. One had died instantly while the other died before anyone could reach him, Gaskin said. He said Maier and Hess were well known in the guiding fraternity and their deaths would have a dramatic impact.
“I’m absolutely broken,” Morgan told Television New Zealand. “Two of my very dear friends lost their lives today, under tragic circumstances. I just got really lucky.”
She told RNZ that she had been able to say her goodbyes to the two men after their bodies had been brought down to the village of Mount Cook.
“They were great mates. I wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye to them,” she told RNZ. “They’re an amazing loss to the climbing community. They’re both just so cheerful and capable and competent.”
Morgan said she was being comforted by her family, and that it was nice to know that she was so loved. She said the experience had brought home to her how much of a high-risk activity climbing is, and that she did not plan to climb again.
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