An architect plunged 800ft to his death from a mountain while being guided by a group of climbers who were so risky they called themselves – the ‘A TEAM’, an inquest heard.
Paul McLauchlan, 34, originally from Harpenden, Herts., had moved to New Zealand in 2008 and was working for CCM Architects in the capital city Wellington.
He had signed up to an alpine instruction course for beginners with the New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC), who led him onto treacherous Mount Ruapehu, one of three volcanos in the Tongariro National Park.
During the climb his rope became tangled by a knot so he unclipped himself from his partner to try and loosen it.
As he attempted the manoeuvre his spiked shoes became locked together, making him lose his grip.
The novice mountaineer was seen sliding over a large rock before plummeting 250m onto a frozen river bed below – killing him instantly.
A coroner has now slammed the atmosphere of competition among the climbing group – who referred to themselves as the “A-team” – as a “recipe for disaster”.
At an inquest held in New Zealand, in July, Palmerston North Coroner Tim Scott said: “Some of the evidence was that a certain level of competition is to be expected, especially in a group of active young men, and is healthy and to be encouraged within parameters.
“I do not agree. I think that competition is a potential recipe for disaster in respect of a group of beginner climbers.”
Coroner Scott also said that the group’s decision to only have six hours sleep before starting the climb was “unwise and potentially dangerous.”
The inquest heard the group, who were with the Wellington section of the New Zealand Alpine Club, went to sleep between 1.30am and 2am the night before the accident.
Coroner Scott told the hearing: “They were then expected to sleep for six hours – although [I] … do not think this was achieved – then get up, eat breakfast and proceed to the day’s activities. Frankly I think this was unwise and potentially dangerous.”
“What concerned me more was that I got the very clear impression from hearing the evidence that there was probably a prevailing culture – or at least an undercurrent – wherein fatigue was acceptable, even to be encouraged on the course.”
The snow was slippery that day and if the climbers fell they would stop only if they came to the bottom of the slope or “self-arrested”.
Coroner Scott said this hazard was recognised by instructors, but it was minimised and “put into the memory bank”.
He added: “In fact the sliding hazard – as witnesses conceded at the hearing – was a major hazard faced by the party on the mountain that day and should have been maximised not minimised.”
He added: “[The area] should have been so well chosen that while there was a chance you could fall and not walk away the probability was that you would be safe.”
Criticisms of the tragic expedition emerged as a second inquest was held at Hertfordshire Coroner’s Court, on September 11.
Deputy Coroner Graham Danbury recorded a narrative verdict and ruled that Mr McLauchlan had died accidentally.
The inquest heard Mr McLauchlan had discovered a love of trekking, diving and climbing after moving out to New Zealand and joined the NZAC.
On the morning of the climb the group got up between 7.30am and 8am and set off to climb the mountain, which was described as easy to moderate, but which was still subject to a real sliding hazard.
Mr McLauchlan and his partner secured themselves to the slope with a snow stake and ice screw but their rope became tangled and they spent about 25 minutes trying to untangle it.
Mr McLauchlan decided to to unclip himself so he could got to a more level area to undo the knot.
His climbing companion told the New Zealand inquest he heard something and saw Mr McLauchlan on his side, his ice axe in the snow above his head.
Mr McLauchlan’s crampons – traction devices used to improve mobility on snow and ice – had become locked together and were no longer engaging the snow and he began to slide.
He slid over one large rock and appeared to have hit another rock at the bottom of the slope before coming to a stop on a frozen creek bed.
A post mortem later confirmed he died from major head injuries.
Mr McLauchlan’s body was brought back to the UK and his funeral was held at West Hertfordshire Crematorium in Garston on August 24, 2010.
The inquest in New Zealand heard the area had been too dangerous for the climb which was being attempted.
In a statement posted on their website following the New Zealand inquest the NZAC said it accepted the findings.
The club’s president, Stu Gray, said the tragic death had been “the catalyst for a period of analysis.”
He said: “In response to the accident, NZAC commissioned an independent report into the incident.
“The report was conducted by professional guides. A subsequent review of the incident by NZAC accepted the key findings of that report and its recommendations have largely been implemented.
“NZAC was pleased to note that the Coroner’s report made no recommendations. The report stated that, ‘None are necessary as the club has already taken steps to modify the instruction process and programme to minimise the likelihood of a similar tragedy occurring in the future.’
“Paul’s death was a tragedy that we wish had never happened we have focussed on learning from this incident.
“The outcome has been a refined and enhanced National Instruction programme, which delivers a high-quality and safe learning experience to dozens of participants, each year.
“We appreciate the Coroner’s sympathies and condolences to our members who have been greatly affected.
“But today, our thoughts are with the family and friends of Paul, who have suffered a terrible loss.”
NZAC, which was formed in 1891, has over 3000 members and five full-time staff, based at its headquarters in Christchurch.
Tragic Mr McLauchlan’s parents John, 69, and Carol, 67, Mclauchlan yesterday (Weds) said they were too upset to speak about the accident.
VERDICT: ACCIDENTAL DEATH
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