On Sunday 19th June 1966 four young men from Christchurch set off to climb the Otira Face of Mt Rolleston, an alpine route considered technically challenging and arduous for the era, and one the climbers approached with caution. When they hadn’t returned by Monday morning the alarm was raised and a search initiated. Because the team hadn’t recorded their intentions with the Arthurs Pass National Park, two groups of rescue climbers left the Arthurs Pass village on Tuesday morning in bad weather to search both Mt Philistine and Mt Rolleston. The group on Rolleston picked up the voices of the climbers and calculated they were somewhere in the middle section of the Otira Face. The rescuers were unable to reach them and retreated to Arthurs Pass to regroup, knowing that at least two of the young men were still alive.
The following day winter arrived with a vengeance, but the rescue party left to set up a camp on the Otira Slide, planning to ferry winches to the summit to hoist the climbers to safety, based on the assumption that they could not be rescued from below. By the end of the day they had established the camp and that evening were joined by skilled alpinists and friends Norman Hardie and John Harrison, who had so far not been involved because of work commitments. By now the rescue team was operating in a full blown southerly gale.
Sometime during the night Hardie and John Wilson (who were sharing a tent with Harrison) “woke to hear desperate noises coming from John.”
Hardie said, “I tried to move but from my hips down I was pinned by an incredible weight of snow. Clearly we were under a large avalanche, our tent flattened on our chests…I could not reach John and very quickly he fell silent. We shouted and got no response from the other tents.”
Hardie tore a hole in the tent for air, before both men slipped in unconsciousness.
All three of the camps tents were buried by the avalanche and it wasn’t until morning that two of the team was able to dig themselves out and affect a rescue on the others. Tragically, Harrison was found to have died in the night. The death of one of the nations most renown and accomplished climbers while on a rescue mission (and the imminent deaths of the four on the Otira Face) hit the close knit climbing community (which originated in the 1940’s and 50’s) hard, for as well as his prowess as a climber, Harrison was a modest man who held a “joy, simply to be in the mountains.” The death also shocked the nation, for during his career Harrison had made a name for himself as one of the leading alpinists of the day
John Wilson (a personal friend of Harrison’s who was also caught in the accident) has written a succinct and highly entertaining book on Harrison’s life, interspersed with excerpts and sketches from Harrison’s diaries. It’s a story that deserves to the told for the climber completed first ascents not only in the Southern Alps, but the Himalayas and in Antarctica. In 1955 he took part in a Canterbury Mountaineering Club expedition to Masherbrum (Pakistan), and an excerpt from his diary reads:
“The wildest night we have yet experienced on the mountain. The wind from the east kept up all night and buffeted the two tents which are pitched end to end almost on top of the Dome. I had quite a busy night as my lilo goes down three times per night regularly and I was showered with ice flung from the inside of the tent wall. I was up at 6am getting breakfast and we were away at 9.15am in clear, very cold conditions. Our target was the 1938 Camp 5 site which we hope to make our Camp 4 to save time- we reached this site in the upper basin at 1.10pm…”
Three years after the Masherbrum expedition Harrison spent a summer in Antarctica as a ‘mountaineers assistant’ member of a New Zealand Geological and Survey Expedition. The trip was not mountaineering focused, but Harrison made ascents of Erebus and Discovery. Of the Discovery ascent he wrote:
“Eventually at 5pm we pressed on for the summit, leaving down clothing and survey equipment to be picked up on the way down. We sidled across a couple of gullies and found a way through what appeared from below to be an icefall but we thing is the result of wind on ice. After threading our way between many humps and bumps we finally scrambled up the highest of them to find ourselves on the summit- what a relief! The view was widespread though cloud hid the country at the base of the Royal Society Range.”
Harrison’s final expedition was as part of the 1960-61 Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition to climb Mt Makalu in Nepal, led by Sir Edmund Hillary. Although the expedition fell just short of the summit, Harrison played a pivotal role in reaching the high point of 27,400ft.
Blew like hell all night-didn’t take a sleeping tablet in case the wind did more damage-consequently didn’t get much sleep. Its now 7.45am and we are waiting in the hope that the wind will die down a little before we get away for Camp VI. Feel sure that Tom, Peter and Anullu will not attempt the summit today but will wait at VII in the hope of better weather tomorrow. Feel certain that given the weather we can climb it…10am. Wind, wind, wind. We’ve delayed our departure until tomorrow as it would be madness to attempt to move today.”
A highlight of the book is the wonderful layout by Book Design Limited. The numerous photos from Harrison’s collection, plus the climber’s own sketches, pastel drawings and diary excerpts are beautifully presented to compliment John Wilson’s tidy editorial style. This is a volume anyone with an interest in the mountains will want to add to their collection. A fine book!