How a Mount Aspiring mystery was solved.
A PAIR OF BOOTS, COMPLETE WITH GAITERS, CRAMPONS, AND SOCKS. A FEW LONG BONES SCATTERED ACROSS THE ICE. THIS KIND OF THING MAY BE SO COMMON ON SAGARMATHA / MT. EVEREST THAT CLIMBERS ARE INURED TO IT, BUT THIS WASN’T NEPAL. IT WAS AOTEAROA. THE LAST THING I EXPECTED TO SEE ON MY WAY TO CLIMB A MOUNTAIN WAS EVIDENCE OF SOMEONE WHO HAD TRIED THE SAME THING BEFORE ME, BUT NEVER MADE IT BACK.
Nevertheless, I won’t pretend I was tempted to abandon my climb of Tititea / Mount Aspiring. I was actually more curious than horrified, fascinated by the age and preservation of the equipment. The gaiters were bright red with a blue zip. The socks were rough wool, the boots leather with Norwegian welt stitching, and the rusty crampons still had their fraying straps. But the thing that really caught my eye was the ice tool: a genuine Chouinard Alpine Hammer, first produced in 1967. Had I known my axes better, I’d have recognised the wooden handle and 5/4 tooth array as being a fifth-generation model from 1974, more than 40 years ago. Where had it been all this time?
The answer was right beneath my feet, for I was standing on the Bonar Glacier, a river of ice approximately 7.5 kilometres long and 70 metres deep that flows from the upper slopes of the cirque bordered by Mount Aspiring, the Popes Nose, Mount Avalanche and Mount French. I assumed the unlucky owner of the axe must have somehow met their end in a crevasse, their body sheared off at the knees as the ice moved unevenly forwards with inexorable power. The remainder must still be sealed in that icy vault.
The pristine flank of Aspiring’s North West Ridge loomed above us as I gazed towards Colin Todd Hut, where we’d rest the night before our summit attempt. It was no more than 700 metres away. This being February, our route headed up the ridge, a direct and mostly snow-free ascent from the hut. This was the ‘Coca Cola’ route – straightforward and not too technical, with some exposure thrown in for cheap thrills. As a not- particularly-accomplished climber who was attempting Aspiring for a magazine article, I was more than happy with this option. In fact, I’d chosen February specifically because, while still having more settled weather, it was too late in the season to use The Ramp.
Rising from the glacier steeply up to about halfway along the northeast ridge, The Ramp is the standard early-season route, but it scared the bejesus out of me. This 45- to 55-degree slope of ice and snow has seen numerous fatalities. A modest slip, if un-arrested, can end very badly indeed, by which I mean crashing headlong into rocks, huge ice blocks or a gaping crevasse. Worse, avalanches can sweep down from above, dooming unsuspecting climbers in their path. Maybe I had the skills and luck to survive The Ramp, but I didn’t have a burning desire to find out.
My guide Andy, from Adventure Consultants, recorded the location of the remains and radioed their position through to Wānaka Search and Rescue, and we continued on to the hut, summitting without incident the following day.
On my return home I started work on the magazine piece, in which I couldn’t help but refer to the mysterious bones strewn across the stony surface of the Bonar. I made numerous enquiries to ascertain whether or not they’d been identified, but my deadline arrived with no such convenient closure. It seemed a travesty, but a footnote was all I could afford them. As time passed, I thought of the incident less and less. The article clipping was filed away in my portfolio, and the episode slid into the inky blackness of my long-term memory.
On Sunday December 10, Terry Jordan and his climbing partner, Marc Weinstein, set off from French Ridge Hut, which perches on a rocky platform overlooking the Matukituki Valley. They ascended the ridge before cutting through Quarterdeck Pass and onto the Bonar where, directly across the glacier’s upper névé, the crooked summit of Aspiring towered above them. They were headed for the South West Ridge, a classic route up a classic peak.
Terry (30) and Marc (23), members of the Canberra Bushwalking Club, were in New Zealand for a month-long climbing holiday. According to the December 3 issue of the club’s newsletter, ‘Marc Weinstein & Terry Jordan are off for a month to do crazy things at high altitudes in NZ. Returning January 3.’ They had plenty of experience in the Australian Alps, which they were hoping to consolidate by tackling the more serious terrain and conditions of the Southern Alps.
Unfortunately, continual bad weather had plagued that year’s climbing season. A window had been forecast for the 10th, but overcast skies persisted, forcing the pair to lower their sights to a consolation climb, the Popes Nose. However, even this had proven inadvisable in such weather, and they’d returned to the hut. But then the storm abated, and they decided to make a late push for Aspiring. With their new intentions entered in the hut register, they tramped back up to the edge of the glacier. Ahead of them was a long, tough climb that might take anywhere between six and twelve hours. Scanning for crevasses, they struck out across the ice.
It was four days later, when the boys had still not returned to French Ridge Hut, that the alarm was raised. On December 17, volunteers from the Dunedin Search and Rescue squad found Marc lying among avalanche debris halfway up the West Face. Nearby lay Terry’s pack, but of his body there was no sign.
As much as I dislike using Facebook as a source of news, it was there on April 8, 2021, that a post from the Otago Daily Times caught my eye. It was about the identification, after five years, of human remains that had been found on Tititea / Mount Aspiring. It took a couple of seconds before the memory-dredging apparatus in my hippocampus scooped up an image: boots and gaiters scattered across the ice. I checked my dates. Sure enough, it had been five years since I wrote that piece.
I emailed Suze at Adventure Consultants in Wānaka, and she confirmed the bones I’d passed and those that had just been identified were one and the same. My first thought was: how had it taken so long? And when I thought more about it, I began to wonder how identification had even been possible.
The 2016 recovery was undertaken by police and Wānaka SAR volunteers, who spent days combing the area for further evidence. Their search turned up a few more items of equipment and a human pelvis, clad in a distinctive pair of swimming trunks. Locally-trained Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) officers led the initial identification, but they had very little to go on. In the seventies, record keeping of missing persons, especially for visiting Australians, was not what it is today. There was no easily-indexed database to provide the answer, and they hit a dead end.
A few years passed before Gaye Robinson of the Coroner’s Office, determined to put a name to the victim, passed the case on to
Sergeant Phil Simmonds, Canterbury Police Emergency Management Coordinator and DVI veteran of more than 25 years. Although a keen tramper, Phil was conscious of his limited mountaineering knowledge and enlisted Paul Rogers of Land Search and Rescue to help.
Originally from the UK, Paul had 30 years’ experience in outdoor education and guiding in the Southern Alps and, importantly, had inside knowledge of mountaineering culture and its quirks.
“In the 80s, a lot of us wore Speedos because they were quick drying,” Paul tells me. “New Zealand mountaineering involves a lot of river crossings, and quick-dry, synthetic tramping underwear had yet to be invented. The pattern on these trunks was quite distinctive, and pointed to them belonging to an Australian.”
Paul decided to turn to the Australian mountaineering community, and one name immediately came to mind. Tim Macartney- Snape was, and still is, one of Australia’s most famous climbers. “I got in touch with Tim via Facebook Messenger,” Paul says, “and boom, got a breakthrough.”
It turned out Tim was well aware of an Australian mountaineer who’d gone missing in the circumstances Paul described. In 1978, Tim had been studying Biological Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra, when the course librarian had failed to return from a Christmas climbing trip in NZ. The librarian’s name? Terry Jordan. Marc Weinstein, who used to work at Tim’s favourite outdoor store, had been an even closer acquaintance.
“It was quite a shock when I heard about the accident,” Tim remembers, “and sure enough, when we returned to uni from the summer break, Terry wasn’t there.” After Paul got in touch, Tim sent out feelers, “asking friends, and friends-of-friends, if anyone knew Terry’s family, and eventually managed to make contact.” A family member recognised the distinctive swimming trunks and other items of equipment, and the first part of the mystery was solved. “It was an interesting series of coincidences,” Tim says, with typical understatement. Paul is less circumspect. “It was an absolute needle in a haystack,” he recalls.
Now armed with Terry and Marc’s movements from hut records and other anecdotal evidence, the team tried to determine the circumstances of the accident. The young men’s route would have descended from the edge of the glacier and crossed to the toe of the South West Ridge, normally climbed from its western flank. Just before the summit, the ridge hits an almost vertical couloir, followed by a couple of steep pitches of snow and ice with significant exposure. The climb is graded III, 3+ on the New Zealand Alpine Grading system, the former variable denoting seriousness (I to VII) and the latter, technical difficulty (1 to 8).
From the summit, climbers would normally descend The Ramp rather than reverse the ridge. Back in 1978, the West Face of Aspiring was much more heavily glaciated than it is now, and a large bergschrund, a type of crevasse that forms on steep slopes as the weight of the ice peels it away from the rock, would open up at around 2300 metres. On the first clear day after a significant storm cycle, the snow would be unstable and vulnerable to human triggering, especially late in the day after being exposed to the afternoon sun. The team decided the pair had come to grief somewhere above the bergschrund. Marc had been carried over the crevasse by the force of the avalanche, but Terry had gone in.
Taking into account the flowing courseof the ice, approximately 2500 metres separates the spot where Marc’s body was found in 1978 to where we encountered the fragmented remains 37 years later. The resultant speed of just under 20 centimetres per day is well within the normal bounds of glacier travel, and while there wasn’t enough usable DNA in the remains to confirm the ID, this circumstantial evidence, along with that of the clothing and equipment, was sufficient to satisfy the Christchurch coroner, Marcus Elliot. “There is enough evidence to show that the human remains are likely to be that of Terry Arthur Jordan,” he decided.
At the base of The Ramp sits another bergschrund, waiting to swallow anyone unlucky enough to slip up and fail to self-arrest. This usually happens on the descent, when it’s late in the day, climbers are tired, and the sun has been on the ice for hours. Our ascent of Aspiring took us twelve hours and left me exhausted. I would have been prime fodder for that hungry ‘schrund, and while it wasn’t actually The Ramp that did for Terry and Marc, the formula was the same. It still gives me the shivers.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Coupled with the newspaper piece on the identification was a brief mention of another grim discovery on the Bonar. “We were about to put the whole thing to rest last February when more remains were found,” Paul explains. Again, it was mountaineers crossing from Bevan Col to Colin Todd hut who made the find, and again DNA evidence was insufficient, but it was binoculars and other items of equipment that confirmed the ID. Terry had made one last appearance.
At its core, this is a success story, one that would not have been possible without the collaborative effort between the police, the coroner’s office, a mountain guide, the SAR volunteers, and the climbing community. The key was in their persistence, and in having the right people asking the right questions. It was about Phil using his skills in DVI to create a strong enough case to convince the coroner, and it was their collective, dogged effort over half a decade that finally drew a line under an almost 50-year mystery, bringing the relief and closure so important to Terry’s family.
As Paul points out, “a few more years and Terry’s remains would have reached the ice cliffs at the end of the glacier, where nobody ever goes.
“It was only because they were travelling past a well-trodden route that the discoveries were made. Otherwise, Terry would just have continued his peaceful journey from glacier to river, and eventually to the ocean.”