When a young tramper died last year, search and rescue crews undertook an “exceptional operation” to bring his body, found 1.8 metres underwater and wedge between rocks, home.
Hamish Attenborough, a fit 21-year-old, was reported missing on March 28, 2022 after failing to return from a solo hike near Milford Sound the previous day.
He planned to climb the Devil’s Armchair, a 1627-metre peak near the northern end of the Milford Track.
He had a radio from work and personal locator beacon (PLB).
* Hunter rescued after two nights stranded in central North Island back country
* Christchurch man drowns after jumping into dangerous West Coast gorge
* Search and rescue: What it takes to bring someone home
Attenborough paddled to Sandfly Point in a borrowed kayak and set off along the Milford Track toward Giant Gate Falls, which is the access point for the ridge. He was not seen again, and his boss at Ultimate Hikes, Noel Saxon, called police shortly after midnight.
On-call police search and rescue co-ordinator, sergeant Ian Martin at Invercargill, ascertained from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCCNZ) that no activation from a PLB had been received.
He contacted the Milford Emergency Response Team (FENZ) and two members headed to Sandfly Point by boat, where they found the kayak and paddle at around 2am.
A helicopter from Southern Lakes Helicopters, conducting a medivac in the Milford area, flew in. The pilot – local SAR stalwart Sir Richard Hayes – used night-vision goggles as he followed Hamish’s proposed route, looking for a light source which might indicate his location. No light source was seen.
Martin prepared Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) teams to prepare to deploy at daybreak, and a search base was set up at Milford Sound Fire Station.
In the morning Sergeant Tod Hollebon, of Te Anau and a SAR veteran, with 20-plus years’ experience, headed to Milford to take the role of incident controller.
”It’s important to stress that we always search on the basis that we’re going to try and locate the person alive and never give up hope of that,’’ Hollebon said.
“We’ve had situations in the past where – even after several days – we’ve had some incredible results. But we’re always also realistic about what we’re dealing with.”
Alan Mortimore reflects on four days being lost in the Fiordland bush with son Danny,14, before they walked out.
The search was conducted by air and land, day and night.
The aerial search followed Attenborough’s proposed route and possible alternatives, with trained air observers using night vision and thermal imaging equipment as necessary to reduce the size of the area where he might be.
On the ground, teams of LandSAR volunteers and Police SAR members undertook a coordinated search, aided by good weather in an area where sudden changes are nothing unusual.
“The weather was very kind to us,’’ Hollebon said.
“We were lucky – it was nice and clear throughout, which isn’t always the case. The water courses were flowing at their lowest levels for a long time.’’
Highly skilled trackers and a SAR dog followed the ridge to the peak, finding signs that Hamish had been there.
High on the Devil’s Armchair there were fresh boot prints heading up to the peak and down again.
Scratches showed where a boot had scuffed a stone against a larger rock. There was dislodged moss – tiny clues of huge significance, which disappeared on the way down the ridge, below the bush line.
The steepness of the slopes dropping from the ridge called for specialist skills. Alpine Cliff Rescue (ACR) teams roped up to scour the faces. They are more used to searching bare slopes, but they painstakingly looked for clues in the dense and otherwise inaccessible bush.
On the morning of Tuesday 29 March, Southern Lakes helicopter pilot Snow Mullally picked up a weak radio signal on frequency 121.5, which seemed to be the secondary signal from a PLB.
It lasted only a short time but gave an area of interest for further searching – a steep and barely accessible gorge above the Giant Gate Falls.
On the Tuesday afternoon a four-strong volunteer canyoning team from Queenstown and Wanaka, led by veteran Roy Bailey, arrived in Milford.
The following morning, on Wednesday 30 March, the team was lowered in by helicopter on a 125-metre line.
They made their way carefully down the gorge, probing and searching any area where a body might be concealed. After around 300 metres they spotted a blue T-shirt in a pool below a waterfall.
They explored the pool and found what appeared to be a submerged body, snagged in rocks metres below the surface. Elsewhere in the pool they found a black bag, also wedged in rocks below the surface.
The Police National Dive Squad were contacted at around 11am on March 30.
Squad OC senior sergeant Bruce Adams and team member detective Ben Pye were approved to deploy – but even getting to the scene was a 24-hour challenge in itself.
With the canyoning team in the lead, they and their gear were lifted by helicopter on the 125-metre lines and lowered into the gorge. The nearest spot where they could be landed safely was around 90 minutes’ slog upstream of the pool.
The way in for people and gear was at the end of a 125-metre line.
“The gorge was certainly a challenge,” says Bruce. “Walls 100 metres high, slippery rocks, narrow and dark. The water temperature was no more than 5C.
“Abseiling is part of our training but without the canyon team we just couldn’t have done it without injury. They were fantastic.”
They arrived at the pool around 3.30pm and the canyoning team showed them where they had found Hamish and his gear.
They found Hamish was wedged by his left leg between rocks about 1.8 metres below the surface. It took around 30 minutes for Bruce and Ben to free him, taking turns to work in the turmoil beneath the waterfall.
“It was like being in a washing machine,” says Bruce. “It was 30 minutes of pounding from the waterfall.”
It is unlikely the exact nature of the disaster which befell Hamish will be known, though the investigation found nothing to suggest it was anything other than a terrible accident.
For the Police SAR team, the divers and the volunteer searchers, it was an exceptionally challenging operation. While it was clear from early on that it was unlikely Hamish could be saved, there was satisfaction in being able to return him to his grieving family.
“At the end of the day, we were able to get Hamish home,” says Bruce. “While it wasn’t the outcome anyone wanted, there is satisfaction in knowing we helped achieve that.”