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Rabbit Pass death a ‘genuine accident’

The steep Waterfall Face at the head of the Wilkin Valley leaves little margin for error. Photo: Matthew Pike

An Alaskan tourist who fell to her death on the Rabbit Pass route in Mt Aspiring National Park was well prepared and experienced, the coroner has found.

Nicole Leman died after falling on the Waterfall Face in December 2015, three days into the challenging tramp. The coroner’s report into the incident, released on August 3, said Leman lost her footing at a crucial point above a steep drop and fell about 200m. She suffered multiple injuries and died at the scene.

A report, produced by Mountain Safety Council (MSC) at the request of coroner A J Tutton, said it was a “genuine accident” and found Leman was adequately prepared and cautious. 

Leman, who was 24, was a keen tramper and was doing the pass with fellow traveller Bernhard Mueller, who she had met in Takaka a month earlier. 

They tramped together in challenging terrain in Arthur’s Pass National Park before heading to Wanaka to do the Rabbit Pass route, which links the Wilkin Valley to the East Matukituki.

When they visited the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka, staff advised the pair not to do the tramp, as there was likely to be snow on the pass, but they decided to give it a go.

They started on the Gillespie Pass en route to Rabbit Pass and Mueller said the conditions were good and they were coping well.

Three days into the tramp, they left Top Forks Hut and continued to Rabbit Pass in fine weather and there was no snow on the path. They headed up the steep Waterfall Face, Leman in the lead, and Mueller said they found the climb was easier than the Arthur’s Pass trips they had done.

But about 30m from the top of the pass, Mueller said Leman paused briefly and turned to her right side, as if to say something to him. 

“She stood still, then lost her footing on the grass and fell onto her stomach, slipping down the bank feet first,” the report said.

He tried to reach out to her with his walking pole, but Leman was unable to grab hold of it and continued to slide, grasping at the grassy slope in an attempt to stop.

“Towards the end of the slope, she approached the drop-off and started to tumble, then went over the edge.”

He said it all happened in seconds, and he was “completely in shock”.

Aspiring Guides’ Whitney Thurlow was with a group of three guides at Rabbit Pass at the time and was just ahead of the couple when Leman fell. He said once Leman lost her footing there was little chance of her self-arresting on the steep terrain.

Thurlow called for a rescue helicopter but when they reached Leman she was unresponsive. They performed CPR until paramedics arrived, but she was declared dead when the rescue helicopter arrived.

He told police that his company usually installs fixed ropes when descending the Waterfall Face as there is no path and people have to shuffle along on all fours.