The Central App

NZ's first avalanche fatality marked at Mt Nobbler

The Central App

04 July 2024, 5:30 PM

NZ's first avalanche fatality marked at Mt NobblerThe restoration of the gravesite honouring four men who died on Mt Nobbler 133 years ago. PHOTO: David Crutchley

Restoration of a burial site honouring four young men who perished on Mt Nobbler in 1891 has now been completed by the Kyeburn Diggings Cemetery Trust.

The burial site is also significant as it marks New Zealand’s first recorded avalanche fatality.

Kyeburn Diggings is located on the Naseby side of Danseys Pass and is one of the many goldmining sites that have sprung up in the Maniototo from the 1860s.

On July 30, 1891, James and Thomas Meikle left their home at Kyeburn Diggings to hunt rabbits in the Kakanui Ranges on Mr. W. J. McCready’s property.

It was a beautiful morning when the 19-year-old and his 12-year-old brother set out with their hunting dogs for a day’s rabbiting.

Despite their father’s wise counsel to always stick together, the brothers separated when on their return, laden with rabbit skins, they became separated when the younger brother, Thomas, went back to retrieve a skinning knife.

James continued on thinking his brother would catch up.

He waited at the summit for a short time before thick cloud started to roll in.

He continued on to a musterer’s hut, thinking his brother might have returned via another route.

Finding his brother not there he gathered a blanket and food and went back to look for him crossing the summit in thick driving snow.

He located his brother after following the smell of a tussock fire, which his younger brother had lit to keep warm.

The following morning Thomas was too weak to travel, so James left him in the shelter of a rock with a blanket and some dogs and set off back over the mountain for help. 

By mid-afternoon James had arrived home to get his father and a neighbour and headed back up the mountain, James’ third ascent in 30 hours.

Halfway over they were forced to take shelter from another snowstorm.

James was now suffering from frostbite to his hands and feet and his father, seeing the situation as hopeless, decided they needed to return home.

Early the next morning James and eight other local settlers and miners went back up the mountain knowing they would be lucky to find Thomas alive after the previous night’s storm.

The newly constructed gravestone honouring the four men who died on Mt Nobbler in the winter of 1891. PHOTO: David Crutchley

The following morning, on August 1, James led a search party up the mountain to rescue Thomas.

While traversing a steep gully at the head of Shepherd’s Creek, the entire snow slope suddenly gave way.

James, Robert Blanchard, and Alphonso Beer were carried 400 yards down the gully and over two waterfalls into the creek bed.

It was an avalanche that none could survive.

The remaining search party members briefly continued their search before returning to the diggings to raise the alarm.

At first light on August 2, a rescue team set off, and after a monumental effort, they recovered the bodies of Blanchard, Beer, and James Meikle, taking them to the Danseys Pass Hotel.

It was too late in the day to continue their search for Thomas.

Early the following day, the team ascended Mt Nobbler once more.

The barking dogs guided them to where Thomas’ body lay. 

Tragically, one dog lay protectively over Thomas’s body and was only reluctantly persuaded to let the search party take the body to join the others at the Danseys Pass Hotel.

A jury found that Thomas (12) had died from exposure, while James (19), Alphonso (28) and Robert (23) had perished from injuries sustained in the avalanche. 

All the bodies were interred in the same grave, overlooking the valley to Mt Nobbler on the Kakanui Range.