Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton climbing on Mt Ruapehu in August.
Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton climbing on Mt Ruapehu in August.

Farewell text to father before couple die on mountain

NICOLE Sutton and Hiroki Ogawa were a young couple in love - and expected to marry.

But they died side-by-side huddled in a waist-high trench at the weekend, more than a day after Ms Sutton sent a text to say she feared she would not survive the ordeal.

The last contact Keith Sutton had with his 29-year-old daughter was a text message on Saturday night, several hours after she and Dr Ogawa, 31, had burrowed into the snow near the summit of Mt Taranaki to shelter from gale-force winds.

Her father replied to the message, and never heard from her again.

"We knew that Nicole didn't think she'd survive the night based on the texts the night before, and based on her assessment I had no reason to think I knew any better.

"So this morning [yesterday], I faced the reality that our daughter wasn't with us ... only to find out she was, and then she wasn't."

Rescuers were this morning on Mt Taranaki, trying to secure the bodies of Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa.

Inspector Blair Telford said the weather had improved sufficiently for rescuers to get up to where the bodies were.

"Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue and the Air Force are up on the mountain as we speak," he told TV3's Firstline about 7.35am.

"The recovery team are with the bodies and are beginning the process to get them off the mountain."

Weather was "pretty" good and Mr Telford hoped it would not be a factor in the recovery operation.

Searches for the pair were initially hampered by the weather, which drove helicopters back from the mountain and made it impossible for rescuers to approach on foot.

Read more: Rescuers battle harsh conditions in vain

They knew where the couple were, with Ms Sutton communicating their position to police through a series of text messages. But the conditions made it too treacherous to reach them.

At dawn yesterday, teams set off on foot up the mountain, "gravely concerned" but still hopeful for a positive outcome.

They reached the pair at 7.30am, discovering them close together in waist-deep snow. Dr Ogawa was dead but Ms Sutton, whom they had heard crying out for help, was conscious.

Initially she was speaking to them, but she then slipped into unconsciousness and after several hours of medical treatment she showed no signs of life.

Her father cherished the fact that she had been able to speak to the searchers.

"Anybody who's a parent will know what that's like. But the circumstances in which that occurred, they were good circumstances, with people doing their job and doing the best they could, and we respect the people who have given us information about those brief moments that they had with Nicole," he said.

"The fact she knew that Hiroki had died was important to me because for a moment, I thought maybe she didn't know what had happened, so that was a relief for me."

Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa met two years ago, and by all accounts were the love of each other's life. Ms Sutton's parents saw wedding bells in their future, and photos on their Facebook pages show their happiness.

Ms Sutton grew up in the Marton area and attended Chilton St James School in Lower Hutt before obtaining a degree in accounting and commercial law. She later studied earth sciences and began working as a geospatial analyst.

In 2010, she took a job with environmental planning and design consultancy firm Boffa Miskell.

Dr Ogawa was born in Japan and lived near Tokyo.

He graduated from the University of Wollongong in Australia with a bachelor of science and earth sciences/geosciences in 2005, before enrolling at the University of Auckland to complete his PhD.

Dr Ogawa worked as a tutor and lecturer in geography and earth science, and last June began a research fellowship, investigating the physical impact of sea-level rise on coral reef islands.

Not long after he settled in Auckland, the avid mountain climber joined the New Zealand Alpine Club.

Ms Sutton, an accomplished skier, joined the club recently and while not experienced, put her trust in her boyfriend, who was skilled and respected in the climbing community.

Labour weekend was supposed to be a dream weekend away for the couple. They arrived in Taranaki, got their gear ready at the Tahurangi Alpine Lodge and set off towards the summit of the 2500m-high mountain.

While it was a weekend-long trip, the climbs were all-day jaunts and not overnighters. They had good gear and they were prepared for the day.

On Saturday afternoon, the weather turned. Thick cloud swallowed the mountain and the wind howled - up to 100km/h.

Realising they could not make a safe descent in the horrendous conditions, the couple dug a trench in the snow, climbed in and huddled together.

Yesterday, police explained how the couple became separated from their climbing companions.

There were two parties of four, with one reaching the summit and returning to the base straight away while the second went up and abseiled over the Shark's Tooth and began their descent about 7pm.

Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa fell behind others in their group, so decided to hunker down.

The others set off their emergency beacon, alerting authorities.

The bodies of Ms Sutton and Dr Ogawa will remain on the mountain until the weather clears enough for a safe recovery.

Inspector Blair Telford said police had worked with Interpol to contact Dr Ogawa's parents. It was too early for them to have made any arrangements in terms of their son.

Last night, tributes were flowing for the couple. "Apart from his own personal achievements in climbing, which were considerable, [Dr Ogawa] will be remembered by the climbing community as someone who gave back to the grassroots," said NZ Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton.

Ms Sutton's cousin Jan said: "Way too young to die, but she died doing something she loved, and alongside the one she loved. It breaks my heart as Anna [Nicole's mother] has only just come through chemotherapy. Nicole is now up in heaven with her brother Jeremy, who passed away at age 2 of cancer."


Saturday, daylight

The Auckland section of the NZ Alpine Club head off for their annual trip to Mt Taranaki, a popular Labour weekend tradition. A team of eight head up the mountain - there are two parties of four. One reaches the summit and returns. The second, including Nicole Sutton and Dr Hiroki Ogawa, reaches the crater and abseils over the Shark's Tooth. They begin descending about 7pm.

Saturday, after 7pm

Dr Ogawa and Ms Sutton are slower to descend and get separated from the other two, who set off their emergency beacon around 10pm and bunker down for the night.

Dr Ogawa and Ms Sutton, who are further up the mountain, dig an ice trench and spend the night in it.

Ms Sutton texts her family about 10.30pm saying she didn't think they would make it. Her father replies.


The other two climbers from the group of four walk off the mountain Sunday morning.

Ms Sutton texts police but not her family, because she is worried her battery will die.

Numerous attempts to reach the climbers fail due to bad weather. Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter flies up to around 1800m but visibility and poor conditions force it back down.

Police receive their last text from Ms Sutton late Sunday night. Dr Ogawa is believed to be still alive at this stage.

Dr Ogawa dies in the ice trench during the night.


12.30am - Search teams head off, but they are forced to turn back due to the conditions.

3.30am - New search team is deployed.

7.30am - Search team gets to the ice trench. Ms Sutton is found still alive. The team spends several hours with her but she dies mid-morning. The team heads back down as the conditions deteriorate.

The bodies have remained on the mountain until they can be airlifted out.

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