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Avalanche struck on milestone climb

Jo Morgan on Aoraki/Mt Cook

Jo Morgan was two summits away from climbing all of New Zealand’s 3000m peaks when she was caught in an avalanche which killed her two guides.

Morgan, wife of TOP Party founder Gareth Morgan and mother of TradeMe founder Sam Morgan, set off to climb Mt Hicks, 3198m, at 2am this morning but the party was caught in an avalanche at about 6am.

Police area commander inspector Dave Gaskin said Morgan managed to survive the avalanche and emerge close to the surface and set off a personal locator beacon.

“She was roped to the other two and she swam through the avalanche, a standard technique to keep close to the surface, and managed to have one or both arms above the snow and turn on the beacon,” Gaskin said.

A search and rescue team arrived at about 7am and did CPR on the two guides, but neither survived.

“One was killed pretty much instantly and the other probably perished before the team got to them,” Gaskin said.

He said Morgan was “extremely upset” by the time the search and rescue team arrived.

“It’s a terrible tragedy for her to be involved in.”

Police are attempting to inform the guides’ next of kin and are yet to name the pair. They are understood to be in their 50s and are both New Zealand residents living in Central Otago, but are from overseas.

“Locally, the guiding fraternity is a very small group of people and it is going to have a dramatic effect,” Gaskin said. “These guys are well known throughout Aoraki/Mt Cook and other climbing areas.”

Gaskin said the weather had recently been particularly bad in the Alps and there was significant avalanche risk.

“We’ve had a lot of really cold weather with a lot of ice and recent snow, and recent snow sitting on ice always makes avalanches even more frequent. They took a chance and unfortunately it didn’t work.”

But he said the climbers understood the risks and were well prepared.

“Climbing mountains is an extreme sport. There is an element of risk. These people were well equipped, they are really experienced and they know what they can do to minimise risk. On this occasion the mountain has beaten them.”

He said having a personal local beacon was “absolutely vital” to Morgan’s survival and she was incredibly luck.

“The fact two people have died indicates how lucky she is. She has obviously had a good presence of mind, she has followed her training and acted accordingly and really that is the only reason she is alive.”

Morgan first started climbing six years ago, at the age of 58 and soon set herself the goal of climbing all 24 of New Zealand’s 3000m peaks. 

She told Wilderness in 2014 that she loved the adrenalin rush of climbing. 

“I just love the ice,” she said. “I love the feeling that you can’t make a mistake. It’s hard to find anything legal that gives you so much adrenalin.”

But the grandmother of five’s family were a bit more apprehensive about her new pursuit.

“It’s funny – as a mother, you’re always asking kids to be careful,” Morgan said. “Now they’re worried about me.

“I’m always wondering whether, as I get older, I’ll get any better. It’s hard to know if you’re improving as a climber or your tolerance to risk has got higher.”