The road to Angelus Hut which sits 1650 meters above Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa in the Travers Range. Photo/Tracy Neal
A report into the tragic death of a tramp has highlighted the consequences of critical decisions made in mountainous terrain, a coroner has found.
A report released today into the death of Takaka’s wife, Tracey Smith, revealed she died of hypothermia while hiking with her son in Nelson Lakes National Park over the weekend of Queens birthday in 2019.
The 55-year-old woman and her teenage son, who were experienced hikers, intended to go to Angelus Hut but ran into difficulty in adverse winter weather conditions.
The Angelus Lake Basin was a popular site in the Nelson Lakes hinterland
National Park. Angelus Hut sat 1650m above Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa in the Travers Range.
Smith suffered from hypothermia and did not reach the cabin. Her body was found in Speargrass Valley on June 2.
The Mountain Safety Council of New Zealand said the recommendations adopted by Coroner Meenal Duggal highlighted many common factors that trampers face.
The council submitted documents in support of the coroner’s inquest and provided recommendations to prevent similar future tragedies.
The coroner’s report highlighted critical decisions, including choosing to drive to Angelus Hut, rather than return once conditions became impassable. Open Justice approached the family for comment, but they declined.
Low temperatures, deep snow and poor visibility made things more difficult. Aggravating factors were the lack of quality food and rest, and the cotton clothing Smith wore directly over his legs.
Mountain Safety Council chief executive Mike Daisley said the tragedy showed how small, seemingly unrelated decisions can often turn into a series of mistakes, each escalating the situation until it becomes fatal.
“Had any of these critical decisions been different, Tracey might have survived.
“It’s often easy to underestimate the importance of seemingly small decisions. There are a lot of little things that can be easily overlooked, and when combined, each of these things will make the situation worse.”
The coroner noted “traps” that vagabonds sometimes made that influenced Smith’s decision-making.
Daisley said these were serious but common pitfalls for trampers, including the tendency to think a situation was safe because others were doing it, and the risk-taking that happened when trampers were under pressure.
The coroner said Smith spoke with the manager of the lodge where they were staying before leaving. She was told that Angelus was not a safe option in the deteriorating weather conditions, including strong winds and minus 16C temperatures.
Smith decided to hike Paddy’s Track to Mount Robert and stay at the lower Bushline Hut place.
Smith and his son drove to the St Arnaud Department of Conservation Visitor Center where they spoke with staff about the weather and told them of the change in hiking plan to Bushline Hut.
Smith had rented personal locator beacons for previous tramps, but did not do so on this occasion, for reasons that were unclear, the coroner said.
The couple then drove to the Mount Robert parking lot, where they saw a large group of people walking to Angelus Hut and made a “spot decision” to walk to Angelus Hut via the Speargrass Track – a more sheltered route than along Robert Ridge.
After a stop at Speargrass Hut, Smith considered staying, but decided to continue on an overcast, but not windy day on a lightly dusted trail.
After an hour’s walk to Angelus Hut, the snow was thickening and the
the hill was getting steeper. It was cold, it was snowing lightly, but there was no wind or visibility
it was good.
Three-quarters of the way up, then in deeper snow, Smith’s son noticed his mother had fallen behind. As he waited for her to catch up to her, the other group continued and they eventually broke up.
At that time, her mother took small steps and told her that she felt
lots of leg cramps. She started falling over and over. They were making little progress and Smith’s son tried to pull her with a walking stick and make the trail
easier by moving the snow, but the depth of the snow made it very difficult.
At 5 p.m. visibility was limited to about 200m, the temperature dropped again,
and the wind increased. The other group reported seeing ice blowing and water bottles attached to backpacks freezing.
Given the reduced visibility, they were unsure if Smith and his son were still following or had turned back.
By nightfall, the wind was strong enough to blow their headlamps. Smith was tired, hungry and thirsty. Their water bottles had frozen. She continued to eat snow to quench her thirst, although her son told her it would make her colder. Smith was crawling and his hands started to freeze from being in the snow.
Near the top of the ridge, Smith’s son realized she was suffering from hypothermia. He tried to warm her up and help her in various ways, including trying to lift her up and remove her bag. He realized that her vision had deteriorated significantly as she could not see the track posts. He wanted to feed her some scroggin but his hands were too cold and stiff to open the bag.
Realizing that he too was in danger of suffering from hypothermia, he made the decision
continue to the hut, but In the dark, the cold and the wind, his progress was
He reached the ridge but could not find the way to the hut, got lost and circled around his mother, who by then was not moving at all.
He made his way back to the cabin, and despite the challenges, he slipped on the snow and headed straight for the lights he could see. At this point his legs had cramps so he resorted to crawling to the hut which he reached at 11:15 p.m.
Confusion in the cabin about emergency procedure, between the manager and the group, resulted in the emergency locator beacons not being activated, as had been discussed. It was not until just before 9 a.m. the next morning that the warden radioed Rotoiti base camp, where staff informed the police and a rescue helicopter was dispatched to find Smith.
She was found after a brief search and a doctor on board pronounced her dead at the scene.
The DoC conducted a full investigation after Smith’s death, and while it did not identify any issues with his management practices that contributed to his death, it made several recommendations for improving the system.
The coroner noted that Smith and her then 15-year-old son had often walked together. In New Zealand they had driven the Heaphy Track, Old Ghost Road and the Abel Tasman Track several times.
Abroad, they hiked a crater in Hawaii. They were used to high altitudes, but Smith
was not used to hiking in deep snow.