Operation Ada- April 2022

Wanaka Search and Rescue canyon/swift water team 
Milford Sound area – April 28-31 – 2022

Mid-morning on Tuesday, April 29, Wanaka Search and Rescue canyon/swiftwater team coordinator Roy Bailey received a call from Wanaka Police asking him to place a team on standby for a SAROP being run in the Milford Sound area.

The search – Operation Ada – had been mounted the previous day for 21 year-old Hamish Attenborough, a Queenstown man currently living at Milford Sound working for a Milford Track guiding company. Attenborough had set out on the Sunday (April 27) on an extreme day trip involving kayaking across Milford Sound to the end of the Milford Track, climbing the 1627m Devil’s Armchair peak, and returning to Milford village by 2200 that night. When he failed to return, Police were contacted. Attenborough was known to be carrying both a radio and a personal locator beacon, and the failure to make contact initiated a rapid response by SAR police from Te Anau and Invercargill.

It quickly became clear to the Police IMT that specialist help would be required from Wanaka SAR to search the narrow canyon above the Giant Gate Falls – described by Police as ‘very challenging…a sheer-sided canyon with huge boulders throughout the water course.

Bailey knew the Giant Gate canyon by reputation, but not personally. Liaising with Wanaka Police SAR coordinator Alan Lee, he called around contacts for details of the canyon, and started putting together a team – himself (a 15 year Wanaka SAR veteran, former chair, and founder and current leader of the swift water team), Rachel Jones, David Lundin, and lastly Wanaka-based Frenchman Alain Rohr. Rohr is not a member of Wanaka SAR but is a pioneering Canyoner who runs a canyoning experience out of Wanaka and had volunteered his personal knowledge of the Gorge.
“I was pretty nervous about that canyon,” Bailey said. “I knew that it had high water volumes, and generally you don’t canyon in creeks you kayak.”

By early afternoon, when the Police call went from ‘standby’ to ‘active’, Bailey had assembled four big duffles of gear from the Wanaka SAR base – four canyoning ropes of between 50m and 100m length, drills and hardware for bolting anchors onto rocks, harnesses, technical canyoning hardware, underwater Go-Pro camera, waterproof packs, specialist wetsuits and helmets – plus a specialist canyoning stretcher.

Picked up by helicopter, the team landed at Milford Airport mid-afternoon and went straight to a briefing with the Police IMT. Too late to start searching the canyon, the team did a fly-over recce, landed below the canyon, and drew up a detailed plan for the next day – to drop-off at the top of the kilometre-long canyon and search to through to the Giant Gate Falls and the 30m drop to Lake Ada.

Early the next morning the team did a hover-unload about 500m above the canyon entrance – the closest they could get. As predicted, the going was exceptionally difficult.

The first drop going into the canyon involved rebolting anchors and a 30m abseil through a pounding, freezing waterfall. Making their way slowly down the torrents of water pouring through the dark, boulder-strewn canyon, the team searched each pool, using dive masks where the water was reasonably clear, and avalanche probes where the boiling water made visibility impossible.

“We searched anywhere a body could get caught up,” Bailey said.

About 200m down the canyon, they saw a flash of colour in rocks at the edge of another pool metres below them. It was a blue t-shirt which the team assessed had not been trapped in the rocks for very long. After radioing in the find, they started a detailed search of the 5m diameter, 2m deep white-water pool – a process akin to trying to find something the size of a can in an operating washing machine – using the avalanche probes to locate by feel, anything that wasn’t obviously rock.

Very soon they got a ‘hit’, followed by the discovery of a pack wedged into the rocks. After radioing a report to IMT, they continued trying to establish 100 pct certainty that they had in fact found Attenborough’s body.

“We dived several times with the Go-Pro, trying to get confirmation. But it was very difficult. The water was very churned up, very aerated, with a very powerful flow,” Bailey said.

With photographic evidence achieved, the team again reported their success and their assessment that actual body recovery would require specialist divers with breathing equipment.

“We were not at all sure we could do it, and certainly not with respect,” Bailey said. “I thought the only chance we would have would be to get a rope around a limb, and try and drag him out against the massive hydraulic forces wedging him against the rocks. We didn’t want to do that and we knew IMT had already put the Police dive squad on standby.” (he wasn’t so much pinned by the hydraulic forces but by a leg entrapment in rocks at the base of the drop)

Hemmed in by 100m cliffs there was no possibility of the team being stropped out by helicopter so they continued down the canyon, searching for any items which may have been flushed down the torrent. In the lower reaches of the canyon where they could be reached, they were stropped out and returned to Milford, where all other teams had been stood down and evacuated.

The Police dive team arrived from Wellington early afternoon the next day and after a quick briefing, the Wanaka team fitted the two divers out with canyoning gear and gave them a ‘Canyoning 101’ on harnesses, hardware and abseiling.

Helicoptering into Lake Ada, the Wanaka team, now down to the three SAR members and the two divers then stropped to near the top of the canyon. With anchors in place, the Police team – despite no previous experience of abseiling down a full torrent waterfall – was guided quite quickly to the recovery pool.

Once there, air tanks and other extra gear was long-lined in on a 120m cargo strop and the dive squad took over. “Recovery and evidence-gathering was their show,” Bailey said. But the volunteers’ decision not to attempt body recover was borne out by that fact that even with air-tanks and diving expertise, it took the Police divers 30 minutes and several attempts to free the body in the freezing, surging water.

Once complete, with the Police minimising the volunteers’ exposure to the body during the recovery. The body and equipment were lifted out on the cargo strop, while the Police team was guided to the pick-up point above Giant Gate Falls, arriving just before nightfall.

Bailey was later full of praise for the Police divers and the Wanaka team of Jones, Lundin and Rohr who were all on their first major SAROP. “I was stoked at how we all worked together as a team – first the four of us, and then with the Police divers who were excellent to work with.”

In an unsolicited letter to Wanaka SAR after the operation, Te Anau Police OIC Sergeant Tod Hellebon said the Wanaka canyon/swiftwater team had carried out their assignment ‘with distinction’.

“The work carried out by the Wanaka…team can only be described as outstanding,” Hellebon wrote. “They were highly professional throughout. To achieve a result of locating Hamish in what could be looked at as a ‘needle in a haystack’ scenario was testament to the teamwork, skill and commitment of all those involved.”

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