Cat Shand was home schooled. This was her second time to reach the summit of Mt Cook. There was an article about her first climb in the January 2011 copy of Keystone Magazine.
Memorial climb: Cat Shand, pictured, nears the top of Aoraki-Mt Cook on an expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first woman to climb the peak. Miss Shand and fellow climber Heather Rhodes reached the top on December 2.
Cat Shand desperately dug through snow with her bare hands to save her friend Sarah Wilson after an avalanche smothered them on Mt Cook.
Her actions likely saved the lives of the Marlborough-raised pair who had been climbing Mt Cook as part of a fundraiser for the Melanoma Foundation.
The pair reached the summit ridge early Wednesday afternoon after climbing the isolated Hooker Valley route. The weather had deteriorated to the point they couldn’t see each other and were communicating by tugging on the rope that joined them.
After a quick photo, the friends decided to start their descent down to Linda Glacier on the more popular eastern side route.
”It’s got a lot of avalanche risk and very deep crevices. We really needed to be able to see where we were going, but we couldn’t so we decided to just go down a little bit and dig a hole in the snow where we could shelter.
”We took a good look around and thought we had positioned it so if there was an avalanche we wouldn’t get caught in it but sadly that wasn’t the case,” Mrs Wilson said.
About 9pm, while huddled in their sleeping bags and bivy bags, Ms Shand kneeling and Mrs Wilson lying, they heard the rumbling of the avalanche.
”We heard this ‘omph’ noise above us and I said ‘Oh no’ and within seconds the snow hole we were sleeping in was full of snow.”
Ms Shand quickly stood up, waist high in snow and desperately looked for her friend. Meanwhile, buried deep within the snow, Mrs Wilson was thinking the worst.
”Once the snow stops moving it sets like concrete. It was very bad, I couldn’t believe it because we thought we had taken great care but we didn’t get it right.
”I was trying to cover my mouth and tried to get some sort of airhole around my mouth because in an avalanche you can suffocate quickly if you can’t get enough air,” she said.
She had no idea where Ms Shand was, or if she was even alive.
”I was panicking quite a lot. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t breathe. The snow felt like it was starting to fill my mouth and I was beginning to think, this is my last breath.”
Seeing Ms Shand’s bare hand carving through the snow and eventually clearing the way for her to breathe properly is a moment Mrs Wilson will never forget.
”That was a great breath. I realised then it was going to be okay.”
Ms Shand continued digging until she found her snow shovel and could make a real attempt at rescuing her friend and salvage their gear.
”Cat was a real hero. She dug me out and I was not in a good space at all. I was hypothermic, I had no dry clothes. It took me half an hour just to get the snow out of one boot,” Ms Wilson said.
They knew they had to get out of the area and started heading further down the mountain to find shelter
”We’d already had one brush with death and it wasn’t over.”
As they were walking, Ms Shand’s foot went through a crevice hole which amazingly turned out to be the perfect place to sleep.
Unlike their snow hole where it was so cold their water had frozen and their stove was too wet to use, the crevice was dry enough they could get their portable stove going and warm up.
”When I pushed the lighter and there was a small spark I thought ‘yes, the tide was turning, we will be okay’,” Ms Wilson said.
When they finally made it to Mt Cook Village on Thursday, they were met by their support crew and conservation department rangers who were completely oblivious to what had happened.
Both had damaged the skin on their hands, with Ms Shand’s particularly bad because of her rescue effort.
”The price of her digging me out was her hands.
”I don’t think she will lose anything but we don’t know yet. It’s just a waiting game,” Mrs Wilson said.
The friends still intend on finishing the Cook to Cook fundraiser but have delayed the cycle and kayak lengths for at least a month.
Ms Shand grew up in Port Ligar, in the Marlborough Sounds, and now lives in Mana. Ms Wilson grew up in Blenheim and now lives in Waikanae.
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