DOC cleared of any blame in the death of US student in Mount Aspiring National Park

THE CONSERVATION Department has been cleared of any blame in the death of an American student who perished after becoming separated from her two flat mates while tramping earlier this year near Wanaka.

Allison ‘Ally’ Willen from Akron, Ohio, was on an expedition with her two flatmates on the Gillespie Pass in Mount Aspiring National Park when they were suddenly hit by bad weather on April 25.

The 20-year-old, who was taking a semester abroad at the University of Otago in Dunedin, then became separated from the pair who managed to walk to safety.

Willen’s body was discovered a week later high up in the Young Valley at Makarora near a backpack and raincoat that had been found earlier in the week.

This month Otago/Southland Coroner David Crerar released his findings into Willen’s untimely death. He confirmed the student had drowned.

He cleared DOC of any blame, saying there was no evidence to suggest advice given by department staff to the trampers, or any warning signage and information was insufficient.   

He also did not attribute blame or responsibility for the death to Willen’s flatmates, Kirsten Kampmeier and Ellen Stone.

Crerar said that most likely scenario for how Willen died is that she was either following the flooded track or making her way along steep ground to avoid the flooding. It was likely that she lost her footing, slipped and fell into the water of the flooded Young River.

A post-mortem revealed a head injury likely caused by hitting her head on a rock when she slipped.

Crerar said Willen and her companions were relatively inexperienced trampers. They had completed “Great Walks” – which were walks of lesser difficulty on better-formed tracks. DOC described the Gillespie Pass area as suitable for experienced trampers.

He said given the circumstances the women had found themselves in best practice would have been to stay together. This would have led to improved morale and less anxiety, better decision-making and provided some immediate assistance to a member of the party if there was be an unexpected accident or incident.”

The Coroner forwarded a copy of the finding to Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand in order that a synopsis of the circumstances of the death receive publicity through the Federation Mountain Clubs bulletin.

cookStephen Cook is a multi award winning journalist and former news editor and assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday.

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