Death plunge: Mt Aspiring climbing accident marked 50 years on

Fifty years after watching his friends plummet to their deaths on Mt Aspiring, a climber has returned to pay his respects.

Graham Batchelor, 72, of Burkes Pass, last week walked to a spot beneath the mountain where he could view the “Breakaway” on the edge of the Bonar Glacier where his climbing companions — Ruth Trotter, 20, of Woodlands, Southland, and Ralph Lucas, 22, of Dunedin — died in a fall on November 12, 1970.

Lucas’ body has never been recovered.

Batchelor said there were five in the climbing party, all having finished their University of Otago studies for the year.

They had climbed as far as the Colin Todd Hut, but “an incredible norwest storm” struck and they were forced to shelter in the hut for three days.

That left them no time to climb Mt Aspiring/Tititea, so they headed for home in perfect weather.

While they were descending to the French Ridge bivvy about 6am, Trotter and Lucas, who were roped together, fell “a long, long, long way”.

“Ruth sort of slipped … caught Ralph off balance … dropped his ice axe, and once you’ve dropped your ice axe there’s no way of stopping.”

Batchelor said their deaths had affected him hugely and made him much more cautious.

He completed his physics and surveying degrees, went on to teach in Christchurch, and continued to climb.

“It was difficult for a start but I had a few good mates.

“They dragged me up the southwest ridge of Aspiring three years later.”

Lucas was the son of Dunedin town clerk (1950-68) Colin Lucas.

Dunedin lawyer Garth Lucas said yesterday his father died in 1969 soon after retiring; Ralph’s death the next year was traumatic for his late mother Hazel.

She funded a hut at French Ridge on Mt Aspiring, which had since been replaced.

Batchelor was accompanied on last week’s trip by his wife Jane and friends Caroline Thomson, of Christchurch, and Morris Hall, of Dunedin.

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