Christchurch climber Lauren Smith shares her death-defying escape from a 600m fall near Arthur’s Pass.
“I don’t trust this rock.”
Those were the last words I said before tumbling 600m from the ridge leading to the low peak of Mt Rolleston.
There had been nothing to suggest the climb would end in disaster. We had started out on a beautiful, clear morning. The freezing level was higher than we would have liked but apart from that, conditions were good.
I’d wanted to climb the Rome Ridge route to Mt Rolleston for the past year and had been building up my mountaineering experience to attempt it.
I felt I had the necessary skill and when my climbing mate Chris arrived in town for a couple of days, we took the opportunity.
Near 2000m, we reached an exposed traverse of mixed rock and snow.
Chris looked down into the Bealy Valley and said: “If we fall, we die.”
It was a warning to be careful, but perhaps he was predicting what was about to happen.
To reach the ridge we had to ascend a section of rock. I chose a route to the left as it looked more stable. It wasn’t.
A moment after expressing my concern at the state of the rock, I grabbed a ledge. Without warning, it gave way and I was falling.
I don’t remember the initial 10m drop down a steep section of rock and snow.
According to Chris, I attempted to self-arrest but lost my ice axe around the time of impact and I then lost consciousness.
I woke further down, as my body was thrown around like a rag doll, and I hit my head several more times. I thought I was going to die.
Each time I hit my head, I expected to lose consciousness, and I did all I could to protect myself with my arms – unbelievably, this was the first climbing trip of my life where I’d forgotten my helmet.
Towards the bottom, I gained more awareness and control and was able to self-arrest by digging my elbows into the snow.
When I finally came to a stop, I felt like I was dreaming – partly because of my woozy head but also because I couldn’t believe I was alive.
When I looked around and saw the rock bluffs I had just fallen down, the cliffs on either side of me, and the drop to the river below, I felt I had been given a second chance.
At first, I was too dizzy to move and I was scared I might tumble further down the mountain. I don't know how long I waited there, but eventually, I forced myself to stand.
I managed to get around 20m when I heard the helicopter, signalled by Chris’ PLB. It was only then that I let myself believe I was going to survive and the immense relief and shock came out in hysterical tears.
Thinking back on the fall, it was interesting what ran through my head. In the space of a few seconds, I had thought of my parents, of not being able to graduate as a doctor, and this climb not being worth my life.
I also had a remarkably clear head to think through how I would survive, as though those thoughts propelled me towards rationality because my life depended on it.
I was flown to Christchurch Hospital where I spent five days. Somehow, my injuries were limited to a fractured ankle, ligament tears and concussion.
Someone commented that it looked like I’d been dragged behind a car due to the bruises, friction burns and lacerations all over my body. But this didn’t matter – my injuries were minor compared to the alternative of death.
A month on and I’m still struggling with concentration, headaches, poor memory and the physical limitations of crutches.
My accident has made me appreciate the small things like watching my friends climb at the local crag, or sitting by the river, but it has also left me grappling with the reality of life and death.
It’s made me question what my priorities are, whether mountaineering is worth the risk, and why I even climb.
When I stared death in the face, I realised the climb wasn’t worth my life.
But now I am left with the question, what is?