For almost 20 years Aaron Nicholson has been at the forefront of the Wānaka Search and Rescue [SAR] effort, firstly as the police officer in charge of rescue coordination, and then, once retired, as a volunteer. What's more, he has recently taken up a three-year tenure as the organisation's chairman.
Nicholson talks to the Wānaka Sun about what it is that has held his interest in Wānaka SAR all these years.
So how did you get involved with Wānaka SAR?
"My history with SAR? When I arrived in Wānaka in 2001 [as a policeman], part of my responsibility, as well as being officer in charge of the station, was search and rescue. So I became the SAR coordinator for Wānaka and continued that for 18 years.
"The police do all the land search coordination – that was one of my functions back then. That was the start of my SAR involvement, and I had to get up to speed reasonably quickly with how it worked.
"I had some cool heads as SAR advisors back then who helped facilitate that- Alan Gillespie, Stu Thorne, Geoff Wyatt. Then I picked up a lot off Garry Dickson who was alpine cliff rescue (ACR) leader.
"After my 31 years with the police, I decided to retire, which I did in 2018. I then took a year off without too much involvement in SAR. I needed the break because I'd been involved in over 600 operations over the years. Then I volunteered myself to come back as one of the team leaders on the bush team and also on the management team.
"Then last year Phil Day finished his three-year tenure as chairman, and they asked if I would do it– and I said yes. Hence my position as chairman of Wānaka SAR."
So how does the SAR team work?
"We have the ACR team, a subalpine/bush team and a canyon/ swift water rescue team. Then also an incidents management team (IMT) – which are all the people who coordinate the operation from our base. There is also the Hawea Marine Group (HMG) affiliated to us. We oversee the marine side of things with HMG.
"The ACR are amateur mountaineers, and there are about 15 of them. Mountain guide Gary Dickson has been the ACR coordinator off and on for 20 years. He is back doing it now.
"There are about 25 in the bush/ subalpine team, and I belong to this.This involves anything that doesn't require the technical rope skills the ACR guys have, in terrain that doesn't pose any high-risk hazards. We have lots of good people in this group with high-level backcountry skills – but not at the highest level that ACR demands.
"Subalpine will do anything in the bush and subalpine but not above the snow line. They are probably more search orientated – tracking, and different search methods - whereas the ACR are very much rescue focused.
"At ACR level we expect them to go anywhere – the top of Cook or the bottom of the gorge and be able to manage themselves."
So tell us about a search that involved all these groups.
"The search for Stepanie Simpson in the Mt Brewster area back in February went on for five days. Because it was carried out on the other side of the divide it meant the West Coast police managed the search and provided some resources. Because we had a lot of resources, they used us for much of that. Our incident management team supported the cop who was running the search, and we had a couple of people from the ACR, a big group from the bush team, and the river rescue team who searched the gorge and found her in the end. They found her body submerged underwater, and it was an outstanding effort to bring her home."
So what do the river SAR guys do then?
"What we have in the river SAR group is swift water rescue people (anything from grade 1 to grade 5 river rescues) and then a canyon specific team that specialises in deep canyon rescue which is a different skill set.
"To be on the river rescue team, it's about who has the experience and skill set in that area. They must be good kayakers, or rafters and canyoning recreators. And there are also some commercial canyon guides. We run exercises in canyon rescue, and we work closely with Wānaka Coastguard as well.
"But there is crossover right through the groups
"For instance, if we were going to search an area of the park looking for a lost person, we might get the river rescue guys to search the edges of the river where it's slippery or dangerous, or they might have to get in the river. Then the bush/subalpine people would be searching further out from the river and through the bush and subalpine terrain."
How do you become a member of the SAR team?
"The team leaders pick the people to be on the SAR team. If anyone wants to join SAR, they can apply- but because we have more volunteers than we need, we have to be a bit selective, so we don't get too many people. So we think- what is it that they bring to the table? It's not a club where you teach people skills- you must have the skills and utilise them in a SAR environment to save lives. As opposed to being taught stuff. You bring your experience and then we teach the SAR specific stuff. So a high level of personal experience plus SAR training and you get an outstanding SAR member."
What is required to be a member of the subalpine/ bush team?
"Subalpine team? They need to be solid backcountry trampers and hunters and comfortable on the steep-ish ground, in the bush. Essentially an extensive history of tramping and hunting."
And the ACR team?
"For ACR, they need a really solid background in mountaineering at a high level. And excellent personal skills to work in with a team. Mountaineers, in general, can be quite self-sufficient and not used to working in a group. They do things their way, look after their clients in a certain way and are the boss of their world. Guides have to be able to morph into a system that involves working with other people and using a different skill set. They have to work with SAR processes and protocols and with the police and what its expectations and desires are. They need a flexible mindset and an interest in learning about search and rescue and how the systems work and can apply these. You can have the best climbers in the world, but they can be no good to us if they don't have the right mindset."
What training does the team do?
"For in house training, every group has its own set of must-dos during the year; this is what we call our baseline training. The ACR team must do rope rescue training once a year and learn the new systems that come out. They have to do strop training from a helicopter and all the different methods for that. This includes strop rescue for people who are trapped on an overhanging face. There is also crevasse rescue, a pre-hospital emergency care course, and pre-winter avalanche response. The team coordinator will organise and facilitate this training."
And how does this all fit together on a national level?
"Wānaka SAR is an independent organisation. We affiliate ourselves with NZ LandSar, which is a partially government-funded organisation that supports LandSar groups all around New Zealand. There are about 60 of these. Above LandSar, there are two coordinating authorities – police and the Rescue Coordination Centre [RCC]. This works out of an office in Lower Hutt, and it tracks beacons. It can draw on LandSar people to help with a search and rescue and the police can also bring on the Wānaka SAR. So either the police or the RCC will be controlling a search and rescue, while Wānaka SAR provides all the manpower and equipment."
And how did you manage through the lockdown?
"Throughout lockdown, we organised a skeleton crew to respond to all search and rescue jobs. They had all the PPE and were versed in the safety protocols. We only had one call out, and that was the job on Sharks Tooth the other day. So everyone has had a break from SAR which has been good because often it is quite busy. "
Read edition 976 of the Wānaka Sun here.