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Australia: More will die on Mount Augustus if trails not closed in hot months, police officer tells climbing deaths inquest

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A senior police officer who investigated the deaths of four tourists while hiking on Mount Augustus in remote Western Australia has warned more people will perish unless the climb to the summit is banned for six months of the year.

Inspector Darryl Cox was giving evidence at an inquest into the deaths of Hans Buske, 69, Maree Pollard, 53, and married couple Thelma and Brian Green, aged 66 and 70 respectively.

Mr Buske, who had travelled from Germany with his wife, died in November 2019.

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Mrs Pollard, who was hiking with her husband, and the Greens died within a day of each other in September 2020.

All perished on the way back down from the summit after hours of hiking.

High temperatures, no medical help

Inspector Cox told the inquest the deaths occurred between September and March which were the hottest months of the year, when temperatures often rose greater than 40 degrees Celsius.

He said the the summit trail, which was not a defined track but followed using markers, had no shade and the air temperature was higher because of the radiant heat that came off the rocks.

Inspector Cox highlighted the remoteness of the location, testifying that the nearest first aid post was a 30–40 minute drive away. The nearest town, Meekatharra, was four hours away.

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"There is no medical help there. If someone is lost and needs a drip or liquids, we haven't got anyone around Mount Augustus who can put in a drip," Inspector Cox said.

"Even if you get to the car park, there's no help there."

Inspector Cox said that, while there was a sign-in book at the nearby tourist park, there was no-one officially monitoring who went up the the rock.

It was not known the Greens had been missing until the day after they disappeared, when Mr Green's body was found by other hikers.

Almost no mobile reception

The inquest was told the remoteness of the location also hampered the searches that were launched because crews had to drive hours to get there and, once they arrived, they needed to rest.

Inspector Cox said he believed the only mobile phone reception at the mountain was at the summit, with no reception "on the way or on the way down" and he described the satellite phone the police had used as working only "now and then".

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However, he said, the biggest challenge rescuers faced was recovering the body of Mrs Green, who died halfway up the rock.

"There was just no way we could get to her," Inspector Cox said.

"By the time we got back to the mountain — after recovering her husband — it was probably 9 or 10 o'clock at night.

"I had to make the very, very difficult decision to leave someone on the mountain [overnight]."

He said that, at one point, he considered calling in the Tactical Response Group from Perth to get "fitter officers" to help because of concerns for the safety of the people who were already working there.

Mrs Green's body was brought down the next day but it had to be carried on a stretcher, and the inquest heard those carrying it sometimes lost their footing because of the difficult terrain.

Mt Augustus climb increasingly popular

Inspector Cox recommended closing the climb to the summit of Mount Augustus from September to March.

"The only way is to close the mountain for six months of the year," he said.

"The smaller trails can be open, but the summit trail [needs to] be closed, otherwise you will have more deaths.

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"If we leave it to members of the public, they won't make the right decision," he told the inquest.

Inspector Cox said the climb had increased in popularity since the closure of Uluru to climbers.

"People put a lot of effort into getting there," he said.

"There's a lot of people who go, 'Yeah it's hot, but I want to go to the summit'.

"Normal people become a bit irrational.

"Even after we'd recovered Mr Green, I had people asking if they could climb the summit the next day."

He said many people had preconceived notions about the climb from viewing photographs online.

"When people look at the internet, the photos look nice, but it doesn't show the heat or how remote it is," he said.

"I think people from overseas have no idea."

'Red hot' with little shade

Ann Ansell went missing on the rock for about 26 hours after deciding to go for a 10-minute walk, six weeks after the deaths of the Greens and Maree Pollard.

She told the inquest the rock was "absolutely red hot."

"You could find little areas to sort of shelter in the shade to keep cool and that's what I did. I'd snooze, get up walk for a bit more, snooze," she said.

"One of the worst things is that there's virtually no cover. It's dry and the bushes actually become just like metal, you sort of bash into it. That was not very comfortable."

Ms Ansell said she lost her way while on a walking trail which was not properly marked.

"You immediately found you were off a nice bush track onto open rock, looking for signs, and most of the makers weren't there."

Ms Ansell said she supported the recommendation that the rock be closed during the hottest months.

"I totally support the idea, to be honest. Other places we've been to overseas where it's very clear that you do not do it at certain times of the year, because of the conditions and I think the conditions there are dangerous."

Family support safety recommendations

The family of Mr and Mrs Green said outside the court they were open to any recommendations that would make Mount Augustus safer so there would be no further deaths.

Son Brad Green said he had found the evidence confronting, because it had meant he was reliving what had happened.

He said his parents were well-travelled.

"Dad was pretty laid back, Mum was the glue of the family. They were really nice, easygoing people," he said.

"Anyone who wants to travel, even within Australia, just be careful, know the risks."

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