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Coroner’s report findings: Tragedy in the Tararua Range

A coroner has concluded that a tramper missing for 12 days in the Tararua Range died from fatal head injuries after falling down a waterfall. PHOTO/FILE

‘Dangerous route choice’ was a factor in death

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A coroner has concluded, yet again, that inexperience and inadequate preparation can lead to death in the Tararua Range.

In a report, coroner Tracey Fitzgibbon found that Wellington man Darren Myers died in 2019 after falling down a waterfall in the Tararua Range.

“The cause of death was blunt force injuries of the head due to a fall,” the report said.

Myers had been attempting a solo tramp of the Northern Crossing when he died.

He was considered an experienced hiker, especially in Europe, having crossed the Pyrenees and Scottish Highlands. In the early winter of 2019, he set his sights on the Tararuas.

Police, Land Search and Rescue [LSAR], and the air force launched an extensive search and rescue operation when Myers failed to emerge from the bush in Wairarapa.

A helicopter spied Myers’ body on June 12, lying at the foot of a waterfall, 11 days after he was reported missing.

Fitzgibbon reviewed reports from the pathologist Dr Michael Handler and the Mountain Safety Council [MSC] at the inquiry into his death.

She found Myers’ unfamiliarity with the Tararua Range, lack of appropriate gear, and disastrous weather conditions contributed to his tragic death.

It was a cool, blustery day in Wellington on May 26, 2019.

Myers was at the computer in the Karori home he shared with his wife, Kimberley Shaw.

It was then he first mentioned a tramp in the Tararuas.

His chosen hike, the Northern Crossing – one of four classic tramps – took hikers from Levin, around Mt Tararua, into Wairarapa.

The route followed exposed ridgelines and famous peaks that were regularly under snow in winter.

Salmon trail runners laced, Myers set out from the Gladstone Rd end on Tuesday, May 28, requesting that Shaw meet him at the Mt Holdsworth campsite, June 1.

He left no formal intentions, planning to plot his route from hut to hut depending on the weather. He packed a tent just in case.

That first evening, Shaw sent Myers a text about the heavy rain pummelling Wellington.

She hoped he’d made it to the hut.

Myers responded the next afternoon that the weather in his vicinity had turned to “custard”, and he would stay at Arete Hut that night rather than push on to Tarn Hut.

MSC’s report into the tragedy said the crossing, an ‘expert route’, would have been at the upper limit of Myers’ experience and likely the most challenging tramp he had ever attempted.

Without knowing Myers’ intended route, MSC concluded he likely made for Waiopehu Hut on May 28 and spent the second night at Arete Hut, where he messaged Shaw.

Myers’ decisions at that hut were pivotal in the coroner’s report.

Fitzgibbon said MetService had correctly predicted the worsening weather, and the forecast galeforce winds rose to “severe gale” on the night of May 29.

Rain was forecast for the following days, with snow down to 1000 metres. Arete Hut was well within the snowline.

From the hut, Myers sent his last message to his wife at 8.05am on May 30. He said he had the hut to himself.

MSC said the safest option, bar delaying the entire hike, would have been to stay at Arete Hut until the weather improved.

Instead, Myers chose to continue to Tarn Hut via Tarn Ridge.

Footprints not far from Arete Hut suggested he quickly abandoned the exposed Tarn ridgeline, seeking shelter from the galeforce winds and driving rain in a steep valley.

MSC said following Arete Stream would have been gruelling and was a “dangerous route choice”.

But by this point, surrounded by dense bush, Myers had only one option: to keep going.

Clambering down the steep stream in running shoes, wet and exhausted, Myers slipped, and for nearly two weeks, his friends and family hoped he would be found alive.

In her report, Fitzgibbon said she was satisfied that Myers’ fatal fall happened on or about May 30, 2019.

She made no formal recommendations beyond those made by MSC, which she found consistent with proactive accident prevention.

MSC recommended trampers carefully consider solo expeditions, keep updated with the weather forecast, and plan alternative routes.

They did not consider Myers’ running shoes appropriate and said boots were essential on ‘expert routes’.

Finally, MSC recommended that trampers should “constantly evaluate the likelihood and severity of a fall in steep terrain”.

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