Precipice: a long long way to fall

IF a precipice is a very steep cliff, then standing on the edge of one is not a good idea. I learned that back in the day when I was new to abseiling. Never stand peering over a cliff, the instructor said. Instead, lay on your belly and peer over. That’s not what the man who went missing on Kunanyi-Mt Wellington did back in that time.

The first I hear of it is in the morning. Someone has gone missing on the mountain and, as a member of the bushwalking club’s search and rescue unit, I drive up to the search base on the mountain. There I find the police search and rescue people and a few walkers returning from a reconnaissance search.

A reconnaissance search is what is done first. The idea is to follow the commonly used tracks and check out campsites as this is where someone injured will most likely be found. The search teams that morning has done that, but nothing has been found, no sign of the missing man.

Mystery passenger

The incident started not on daybreak this morning but earlier, around 2am. That was when a taxi driver drove the missing man to the summit of the mountain. Two in the morning is an odd time for anyone to want to visit the mountain. That’s what the taxi driver thought too. Concerned, he contacted the police.

Nothing is found by mid-morning. Now, it is time to follow the top of the precipice known as the Organ Pipes, a vertical cliffline of columnar, dark brown dolerite that reaches 120 metres and that is clearly visible from the city below.

The mountain

At 1,271 metres above sea level, Kunanyi-Mt Wellington dominates the city of Hobart and shelters it from the worse of the wet, cold weather that can blow in from the south-west. While tourists drive the 22km or so up the road from the city to the summit, Kunanyi is a mountain popular with bushwalkers. The most popular trails traverse the eucalypt forests below the treeline, however the summit plateau, above treeline, is popular with the more adventurous bushwalkers and the Organ Pipes popular with climbers. The odd BASE jumper has taken off from the top of the Organ Pipes, descending by parachute (although BASE jumping is not legal, though that’s just a detail when adventure calls).

The missing man was neither bushwalker nor climber and, anyway, neither of those venture out at two in the morning.

IMG_3193
Lyle Closs jumps to Albert’s Tomb, Organ Pipes Mt Wellington Tasmania 1974. Photo: Stefan Karpiniec. Wikipedia Commons.

Discovered

The news comes over the police radio. There he is, 50 or more metres down the sheer face of the Organ Pipes.

Two rescue paramedics prepare to descend. Ropes and a rescue winch are set up at the top of the cliff and down they go. Yes, he is alive… some broken bones, abrasion and mild hypothermia, but alive. The paramedics patch him up sufficiently to make the ascent. Slowly the rigid plastic stretcher is winched up the vertical precipice, a paramedic at either end. At the top, a team of four carries the stretcher to the waiting ambulance. By late morning, the day has ended in success.

Questions

I am assigned to talk to the media where they stand close to the precipice from where they can photograph the rescue, however none ask why the man was up here in the first place.

And that is the question this day. Why did he come here, and why did he do so at 2am? Clearly, he wasn’t here for a night bushwalk along the top of a high, sheer precipice. He must have had other reasons. Afterwards, we will speculate about suicide.

If that is the reason, then the missing man failed. The precipice is a vertical wall for the most part, but he went over just where a column has separated from the cliff. And that is where he landed — in the notch between column and cliff, 50 or so metres down a precipice perhaps twice that height.

I never did find out whether his fall was a suicide attempt or misadventure. The latter seems highly improbable.

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