Glen Hodges, Taranaki Search and Rescue recalls his first major search.
The call came at 3am. A 13-year-old boy and his uncle hadn’t returned from a climbing trip on Mt Taranaki.
Glen Hodges was 18 at the time.
“This search was in January 1988, so it sticks out in my mind as one of the first really large searches I was involved in. And the scale of the operation and the tragic outcome tends to stick in my mind.”
Hodges was teamed with another Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue team member and they headed on to the mountain. There was no clue as to where the missing climbers were, he says.
“This is 1988, so it’s before mobile phones, before GPS, so it was very much you’re searching with no information other than they had left the day before and left from the Stratford plateau.”
So, they had to check out all the locations where people usually go, he says.
“You have to search and check all huts on the mountain and without air or helicopter support that’s putting a lot of teams on the mountain to investigate or tick off all the huts.”
And the weather was “horrendous”.
“It was mid summer and I think they had climbed up in reasonable conditions, but that night some pretty horrible weather arrived. It was non-stop torrential rain.
“The wind was really high, between 60 and 100 kilometres an hour – very gusty, difficult to walk. We were getting blown around a lot and pounded by rain. We were going up heading straight into it. And really cold.”
Hodges and his team mate went up to Humphries Castle, traversed across the mountain to Tahurangi Lodge. They kept going around to about half way between Tahurangi Lodge and the Stratford ski lodge then dropped down through the bush and through the track system and eventually back to North Egmont Visitor Centre. They then returned to Tahurangi Lodge.
By that time Hodges felt the beginning of hypothermia, he says.
“It was that cold. A combination of the freezing cold, the rain and the cold, cold wind.”
Other teams were searching in locations known to offer a bit of shelter.
“Unfortunately the weather was so bad, I think the highest team on that first day got to the top of Fantoms Peak. That was as high as teams were able to go because of the atrocious conditions.”
The wind was so bad it pushed back an Air Force Iroquois helicopter that came to drop food and supplies off at the Tahurangi Lodge.
“It was going full power and it was stationary. It got very close, but hit some turbulence and had to go back down and have another go. Eventually dinner did arrive, which was good.”
By the next morning the wind had dropped, the rain had stopped and the cloud lifted.
It was a nice summer day, he says. That allowed teams to go to the top of the mountain.
Hodges set off for the summit and was going up through the Organ Pipes Valley when he was called back.
“The helicopter had found the pair – a 13 year old boy and his uncle. They were very high on the mountain in the location called Mackay Rocks on the south side of the mountain. They’d been there 36 hours.”
By the time they were found, Christopher Johnson, 13, from Perth, had died from hypothermia. His uncle was flown to Taranaki Base Hospital.
“I think it’s really sad. We went out, we tried our best. I wish we could have got higher on that first day, but when the weather is like that it’s impossible. It’s very, very hard. I guess it’s what happens up here.”
Hodges, 49, has now been mountain climbing for about 35 years. And not just on Mt Taranaki. He worked on the West Coast of the South Island and worked with the Alpine Cliff Rescue team down there for years.
Now he lives in Hamilton, where he works for Fonterra.
“But I spend a lot of my time here on the mountain. I talked to the local team and they said, ‘yes, it’s good to have you back.’ I’m down here a lot and the team are all friends. I’ve known them for a long time.”
He is part of the rescue team, because he has the skills, he says.
“I know the mountain very well. We know conditions. We know the locations. We have the abilities to do it.
“You are really going up not just to help people lost or injured, but also for their families and friends.”