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Cause of fatal fall to be investigated

Conor Smith and Sarwan Chand fell to their deaths whilst rock climbing in Fiordland. Photo: New Zealand Alpine Team

The climbing community is shocked by the deaths of New Zealand Alpine Team members Conor Smith and Sarwan Chand, who fell during a climb on April 24 in the Darran Mountains of Fiordland.

Both experienced and competent climbers, Smith, 22, and Chand, 27, were attempting a rock climbing route on the south face of Marian Peak. Their intended route was Barrier Knob to Barrier Peak, with a descent into Marian Valley and then to ascend Marian Peak. It’s believed they sustained a factor-two lead fall, which means the lead climber fell below the belay, effectively pulling out the traditional protection set for the belay anchor.

The climbers were reported missing after failing to return to Homer Hut, a New Zealand Alpine Club hut just before the entrance to Homer tunnel. A helicopter search the following day found the pair.

Smith, originally from Greymouth, was a former Tai Poutini Polytechnic student, and was living in Queenstown. His alpine team bio says he was into all types of climbing, but excelled at rock climbing.

Chand, from Canterbury, studied at Lincoln University and was living in Wanaka. His team bio says he was an avid climber, runner, mountain biker and snowboarder, who from a young age spent time tramping and doing transalpine trips in Arthur’s Pass and Westland. Chand had climbed widely in the Southern Alps, with ascents of La Perouse, Mt Cook, and Sabre.

The NZAT consists of a group of eight mentors who train young alpinists in mountain climbing skills. The team travels around the world, scaling peaks in the Canadian Rockies, South America, and big-wall rock climbing in Yosemite. Both men joined the alpine team in 2015 as mentees.

NZAT mentor Steve Fortune says it was a rare accident. “They were experienced guys, they weren’t doing anything silly, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often,” Fortune said. “It’s all a bit of a shock.”

Police are doing an investigation into their equipment, but Fortune believes they were two to three pitches into their climb when the leader fell, causing the anchor failure. “As to what caused the fall, or what caused the anchor pieces to come out, we don’t really know.”

We will probably make a report once we know more and see if there are any lessons for the wider climbing community, but I think it’s a bit early for that at this stage.”

The NZAT also lost a team member in August 2014; Ari Kingan, 21, fell whilst climbing Mt Aspiring.