Rolleston Rescue 1968

In June 1968, a group of four Lincoln University friends comprising John Metherell, John Beresford,  Limbo Thompson and myself set off for a winter climb of Mt Rolleston, the best-known peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The weather was less than perfect, but we continued up through the snow in cloud and mist. On a rocky section about 250 metres below the Low Peak, John Beresford took a small fall on iced-up rock. It was only about three metres, but it was enough to break an ankle.

Back in those days there were no cell phones, and there were also no satellites to receive distress calls.  Bringing in a rescue team would have meant a 24-hour wait for their arrival and would have created a further set of risks. Just two years previously, four climbers and a rescuer all died just a few hundred metres from here in stormy conditions. The priority was to get off the mountain quickly.

So, we set about doing a self-rescue.  We fashioned a combined stretcher and sledge made from two Mountain Mule packs, lashed together with ice axes. With one of the team in front to guide the sledge and two acting as anchors, we slowly lowered John B down the upper mountain. John B helped at times, being keen to contribute to his own rescue, by pushing with his good leg while still sitting on the sledge. We then descended down into the Bealey Valley.

Building the stretcher on Mt Rolleston (click any image to enlarge)


Some heavy hauling by Limbo


The descent begins

The descent went reasonably well until the snow ran out. At that point the sledge became useless and so John was required to hop down through the valley and through the bush on one leg, self-supported by the long ice axes we used in those days, and also by his friends.

There was the odd cry of anguish, but John B was remarkably stoic.  (John B was built of strong stuff; his father Jack was an Olympic Gold medallist in rowing, winning three golds and two silvers for England over a remarkable five Olympics  His grandfather was also an Olympic silver medallist way back in 1912 at Stockholm.)  It took all day and well into the night before arriving at the road end. From there it was a car trip to Christchurch and the hospital.


This photo of Mt Rolleston (above) was taken in late autumn of the following year (1969) from Mt Philistine by John Metherell while on a subsequent mountain trip by the two Johns and me. The red dot shows the approximate location of the accident. On the day of the accident, we had climbed via the Otira Slide, which angles up to the left from the centre of the photo.  Our descent route to the Bealey Valley subsequent to the accident is largely out of sight further to the left of the photo, and obscured by the Goldney Ridge.  In those days, the Otira Slide had a couple of schrunds which could have been tricky to negotiate with a sledge and hence our choice of the Bealey as a safer route, and also with a shorter ‘valley hop’ for the injured John.

This additional photo (above) of Mt Rolleston was taken in September 2020 from the Waimakariri Valley by Annette Woodford. In this photo, the Goldney Ridge runs down to the right from the position of the accident (red dot).  The glacier on the left of the photo is the Crow Glacier. The ridge in the foreground connects Avalanche Peak to Mt Rolleston via the Rome Ridge.

 The team of four were not put off by the accident and were soon back into mountain adventures, plus other endeavours.  John Beresford even has multiple photos of skis plus crutches tied to the back of his VW, taken at Craigieburn and Amuri Ski Fields while he was in the recovery phase. 

John Beresford and crutches at Amuri Ski Field 1968

Subsequently, Limbo Thompson became well known for many adventures in the Southern Alps including multiple first ascents and then adventured  to Mt Jannu in the Himalayas, before eventually becoming a lecturer in animal production back at Lincoln University and also an ostrich farmer.

John Metherell became a well-known Otago sheep farmer and later a dairy farmer, but two of his great passions beyond family were rally driving and skiing. His style was typified by the phrase ‘all thrust and not much rudder’.  He became a well-known member of the Coronet Peak Masters Racing Team, taking the shortest possible route through the flags, followed by coffee at the on-field Heidi’s.  Alas, John M succumbed to cancer back in 2018, but was still skiing two months before his death.

As for John B, he eventually headed back to England.  But I do recall an epic ski mountaineering trip he and I undertook in November 1969 immediately after finishing our Lincoln studies. First, we based ourselves for several days upon the Neish Ice Plateau at the head of the Godley Glacier, where we built an ice cave for shelter, and climbed surrounding peaks on our skis. Then, we traversed for several more days on our skis to the Tasman Glacier via the Classen and Murchison Glaciers, including an accidental swim with all our gear in the boisterous Godley River.  The theory had been that early in the morning, after an overnight freeze, the river would be wadable. So much for theory!

 I think we might have been the first people to make that journey from the head of the Godley  to the Tasman on skis but I cannot be sure of that.

More than 50 years later, John Beresford still skis with great skill.  In 2018, when he and I were skiing together in Canada, and after a particularly fast run, we would look at each other and say ‘that was for John Metherell’.

On that same Canadian trip, John Beresford managed to ski over a small cliff which broke his skis but not his body. Tough man!

Apart from the photo of John Beresford’s car with skis and crutches and the 2020 photo of Mt Rolleston,  the photos shown here were taken as slides by John Metherell and have recently been digitised by Annette Woodford.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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3 Responses to Rolleston Rescue 1968

  1. Alan Stuart says:

    Great experience Keith, those Mts are very challenging . Been tramping and hunting SI Alps back in my most memorable Lincoln days [late 60’s]. Will never forget the nightime cold in wet sleeping bag and frozen rifle, and early starts from the bushline. No accidents tho.
    Thankyou for sharing.

  2. Rod McKenzie says:

    Nice to hear the story again and see some further photos of the those mountains. I was a flatmate of John Metherell and Keith that year.

  3. Nigel Taylor says:

    Thanks for this Keith,

    I can attest to Pom’s power to put up with pain – but not in a mountaineering environment – when he suffered a broken jaw when we were playing rugby near, or on,  Burwood Park one Saturday.

    Janey and I took him to hospital amidst strangled protests from John about his immediate prospects about his future inability in regards to any oral love!

    In the end he displayed, for some weeks, a somewhat clipped English vernacular with his jaws wired together!

    John, I am sure I speak on behalf of all of us when we sympathise with the UKs current pandemic issues.

    You and Jane keep safe!

    Thank goodness the NZ Government is starting to react to the risk we now face with worrying increase of the “new” virus variants being detected at the border.

    Kind regards


    Nigel & Jilly Taylor

    Mill Stream

    217 Hawkesbury Road


    Blenheim 7272

    New Zealand

    03 572 8969

    027 243 0205

    03 572 8969

    027 472 0593

    From: Posts from Keith Woodford Reply to: Posts from Keith Woodford Date: Tuesday, 12 January 2021 at 8:40 AM To: Subject: [New post] Rolleston Rescue 1968

    Keith Woodford posted: ” In June 1968, a group of four Lincoln University friends comprising John Metherell, John Beresford, Limbo Thompson and myself set off for a winter climb of Mt Rolleston, the best-known peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The weather was less than “

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