Finding Hamish: A search team’s exceptional fight to bring tramper’s body home


Hamish Attenborough, 21, was an experienced tramper. He set out on his conquest of the 1627-metre Devil’s Armchair peak near the northern end of the Milford Track early on March 27 last year. Photos / Supplied

A young tramper vanished without a trace – but an extraordinary search operation reunited his body with his family.

Hamish Attenborough, 21, was an experienced tramper; he worked for Queenstown company Ultimate Hikes, had completed many challenging climbs in Fiordland and was fit and active outdoors.

He set out on his conquest of the 1627-metre Devil’s Armchair peak near the northern end of the Milford Track early on March 27 last year.

He was going to climb with a friend, but the friend pulled out.

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Attenborough left a note on the Mitre Peak Lodge’s intentions board, saying he planned to climb the Devil’s Armchair, via Giant Gate Ridge and would be back by 10pm. He had a radio from work and a personal locator beacon (PLB).

Hamish Attenborough set out to climb the Devil's Armchair.
Hamish Attenborough set out to climb the Devil’s Armchair.

He paddled to Sandfly Pt in a borrowed kayak and set off along the Milford Track towards Giant Gate Falls, an access point for the ridge.

This would be the last time he was seen alive.

Attenborough’s boss at Ultimate Hikes, Noel Saxon, phoned the police shortly after midnight on March 28 after Hamish had failed to return and had not been contactable by radio.

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Police contacted the on-call Police SAR coordinator, Sergeant Ian Martin at Invercargill. Martin confirmed with the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) that no PLB activation had occurred.

Despite the time of night, Ian was able to coordinate a fast response. He alerted the Milford Emergency Response Team (FENZ), and two members arrived by boat at Sandfly Pt.

They discovered the kayak and paddle at 2am, but there was still no sign of Attenborough.

The search and rescue team is briefed.
The search and rescue team is briefed.

A helicopter was flown in from Southern Lakes Helicopters. The pilot, local SAR stalwart Sir Richard Hayes, tried, without success, to find a light source using night vision goggles along Attenborough’s proposed route.

Martin called up Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) teams to prepare to deploy at daybreak, and a search base was set up at Milford Sound Fire Station.

Te Anau Sergeant Tod Hollebon, a SAR veteran with more than 20 years of experience, travelled to Milford in the morning to assume the role of incident controller.

“We always search on the basis that we’re going to try to locate the person alive and never give up hope of that,” said Hollebon.

“We were well aware of what we were dealing with, what the possibilities were, but we always carry out searches in the hope of finding the missing person alive.

The search was conducted by air and land, day and night. Photo / Supplied
The search was conducted by air and land, day and night. Photo / Supplied

“We’ve had situations in the past where – even after several days – we’ve had some incredible results. But we’re always also realistic about what we’re dealing with.”

They began their ruthless and tiresome search, land and air, day and night.

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The airborne search followed Attenborough’s suggested route and any alternatives, with trained air observers employing night vision and infrared imaging equipment as needed to narrow the search area.

Teams of LandSAR volunteers and Police SAR members conducted a coordinated search on the ground, supported by good weather in an area where rapid shifts are common.

“The weather was very kind to us,” says Hallebon. “We were lucky – it was nice and clear throughout, which isn’t always the case. The water courses were flowing at their lowest levels for a long time.”

Then came their first clue: fresh boot prints heading up to the peak and down again found by highly skilled trackers and a SAR dog.

Tiny but hugely significant pieces of evidence of where Hamish Attenborough had been were found on one of the routes search teams suspected he took.
Tiny but hugely significant pieces of evidence of where Hamish Attenborough had been were found on one of the routes search teams suspected he took.

Scratches indicated where a boot had brushed up against a larger boulder. There was disturbed moss – little indications of enormous importance that vanished on the way down the ridge, behind the bush line.

The steepness of the slopes descending from the ridge demanded specialised skills. Alpine Cliff Rescue (ACR) teams climbed the cliffs to scour the faces.

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They are more accustomed to hunting for clues on barren slopes, but they searched for clues in the dense and normally inaccessible undergrowth.

Back at the search base they were trying to piece together Attenborough’s final journey.

Climbers who had previously completed Devil’s Armchair submitted their routes up and down, describing the most difficult and dangerous aspects as well as places where a climber might deviate from the path.

On the morning of Tuesday March 29, another clue came.

Southern Lakes helicopter pilot Snow Mullally picked up a weak radio signal on frequency 121.5, which seemed to be the second signal from a PLB.

A weak PLB secondary signal identified a remote and inhospitable gorge as a location of interest.
A weak PLB secondary signal identified a remote and inhospitable gorge as a location of interest.

It lasted only a short time but gave an area of interest for further searching – a steep and barely accessible gorge above the Giant Gate Falls.

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The gorge is not for the faint-hearted. It is on no one’s holiday itinerary – it doesn’t even have a name, experts said.

It’s breathtakingly gorgeous, yet virtually impassable; extremely deep and narrow in places, covered with massive stones. There are perilous waterfalls, rapids and extremely deep pools. The water is crystal clear and extremely cool.

Hallebon knew just who to call for such a daunting task: a four-strong volunteer canyoning team from Queenstown and Wanaka, led by veteran Roy Bailey.

The following morning, on Wednesday March 30, the team was lowered in by helicopter on a 125-metre line.

They made their way carefully down the gorge, leaving no space unchecked where a body may be concealed.

The gorge is not for the faint-hearted. It is on no one’s holiday itinerary, but it is breathtakingly beautiful.
The gorge is not for the faint-hearted. It is on no one’s holiday itinerary, but it is breathtakingly beautiful.

A sign came 300 metres in: a blue T-shirt in a pool below a waterfall. Elsewhere in the pool, a black bag was spotted, also wedged in rocks below the surface.

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Then finally, they saw what appeared to be a submerged body, snagged in rocks metres below the surface.

However, they could not reach it. It was time for another team of specialists to take over.

The 300-metre journey was full of hazards - including massive slippery boulders requiring abseil skills.
The 300-metre journey was full of hazards – including massive slippery boulders requiring abseil skills.

Invercargill SAR member Detective Dougall Henderson contacted the Police National Dive Squad (PNDS) at Seaview, Wellington, at 11am the same day.

PNDS OC Senior Sergeant Bruce Adams and team member Detective Ben Pye were authorised to deploy, but even getting to the area was a 24-hour challenge.

There were no flights south from Palmerston North because Wellington was engulfed in fog. They pondered driving to Hamilton or Auckland to catch a flight – but they found space on an Interislander freight sailing for them and their gear.

They arrived at Milford around lunchtime on Thursday, March 31 after driving from Picton to Christchurch, taking a commercial airline to Queenstown, and then a helicopter trip.

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With the canyoning team in the lead, the dive team and their equipment were lifted by helicopter on the 125m lines and lowered into the gorge. The closest place where they could land safely was about 90 minutes upstream of the pool.

“The gorge was certainly a challenge,” said Adams.

“Walls 100m high, slippery rocks, narrow and dark. The water temperature was no more than 5C.”

Like being in a washing machine - Senior Sergeant Bruce Adams and team member Detective Ben Pye search the pool.
Like being in a washing machine – Senior Sergeant Bruce Adams and team member Detective Ben Pye search the pool.

“Abseiling is part of our training but without the canyon team, we just couldn’t have done it without injury. They were fantastic.”

Finally, after arriving at the pool and diving in, they confirmed it was Attenborough’s body, trapped 1.8m under the water.

It took around 30 minutes for Adams and Pye to free him, taking turns to work in the turmoil beneath the waterfall.

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“It was like being in a washing machine,” says Bruce. “It was 30 minutes of pounding from the waterfall.”

Water in the deep where Hamish was found, the cold pool was no more than 5C.
Water in the deep where Hamish was found, the cold pool was no more than 5C.

When Attenborough’s body was released, he was placed on a recovery stretcher, and the chopper carefully lifted him out of the small ravine, transporting him towards waiting DVI personnel on the first leg of his journey home. The time was 5.09pm.

The actual nature of Attenborough’s disaster is unlikely to be known, though the investigation found nothing to suggest it was anything other than a horrible accident.

He may have fallen into the canyon while descending the mountain after deviating from the usual route, or he may have previously been in the valley and lost his footing on the hazardous boulders, falling into the pool where he was stuck.

It was a very difficult mission for the Police SAR team, the divers, and the volunteer searchers.

While it was evident from the start that Attenborough would likely not be saved, it was gratifying to be able to return him to his bereaved family.

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“We were able to get Hamish home,” said Adams.

“While it wasn’t the outcome anyone wanted, there is satisfaction in knowing we helped achieve that.”

Despite the tragic outcome, Dougall Henderson said, the search and recovery was an amazing team effort.

“Obviously this is a tragic and sad result, and we weren’t able to control what happened to Hamish, but we were able to control an operation to return him to his family very swiftly,” said Henderson.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of searches – to make this find, in this terrain, in just three days is an amazing team effort and a testament to how we all worked together with our partner organisations. Everyone involved pulled together.”

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