Helen Clark: How I will honour my incredible friend

By SUSAN PEPPERILL - Sunday Star Times | Wednesday, 20 August 2008

"You always felt in very safe hands with Gottlieb.
He would push you, but you trusted his judgement.
And at breakfast and lunch you would talk."

On Thursday afternoon, when Helen Clark was skiing inland from Tekapo with her longtime friend and mountain guide Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, he pointed out a peak in the distance.

It was, he said, the mountain he and some fellow guides were trying to have named after Erica Beuzenberg, an acclaimed climber who died on Mt Cook in 2005.

Yesterday the prime minister was contemplating the same kind of honour for Braun-Elwert, 59, who collapsed and died in front of her, shortly after they arrived at the Rex Simpson Hut in the Two Thumb Range about 3.30pm on Thursday.

"It is something his family will need to consider, but it strikes me that the greatest way to honour Gottlieb would be to have a mountain named after him."

Clark and her husband, Peter Davis, are spending the weekend with her parents at their Waihi Beach home. Yesterday they went for a long walk along the beach where they talked about their friend and reflected on what happened on Thursday.

"Obviously it's a sad and distressing time," she told the Sunday Star-Times.

Clark and Davis met Braun-Elwert in 1991 when they first took up cross-country skiing.

"We love the area and we liked Gottlieb very much. He was someone with tremendous intellectual ability who loved the outdoors, being out with the elements."

The couple have been on 13 trips with him, several in the area around Tekapo.

On Thursday, the second day of their trip, the snow was heavy and the going "pretty slow".

The party of five had set out at 10am, stopped for lunch about 1.20pm at the top of a valley and then began to make their way back to the hut.

Already at the hut were cabinet minister David Parker and a guide who had both walked in from Tekapo. Clark and Braun-Elwert were the first skiers to arrive about 3.30pm.

Clark said Braun-Elwert walked on to the verandah to greet Parker and turned to the prime minister and said: "Just stand your skis up in the snow, Helen."

"He then went to go into the guide's area of the hut and doubled up in front of me. He never said anything. I said 'Are you all right Gottlieb?' but he didn't answer me. He fell over in the snow in front of me.

"I called out to the two others: 'Come out, come out, Gottlieb's collapsed,' and from then on it was into a full-on emergency."

Clark's niece was not far behind her and had seen Braun-Elwert fall. A short distance back was Davis and another cabinet minister, Damien O'Connor.

"We had to get him inside and then made a decision to phone for help. He was still breathing when he collapsed. I spoke to Gottlieb's wife at 3.45pm within about six minutes of his collapse and said we urgently needed help.

"But the helicopters couldn't get in and we realised we were on our own."

Clark said her own knowledge of first aid was not extensive but they were fortunate her niece had had some training, as had O'Connor and Parker.

"All in all we were very lucky that people knew the basics."

The prime minister took over co-ordinating the phones, which were ringing constantly with ambulance, police and paramedics all offering expertise.

She also relayed instructions to those administering CPR. "I was saying things like 'Keep his arms straight for the CPR'."

After two hours they were instructed by ambulance staff to stop because there was no likelihood of saving him.

Clark said the time passed "quite fast because we were so busy".

She then made the decision to leave the hut to be with Braun-Elwert's wife Anne in Tekapo.

She and O'Connor negotiated thick snow with a skidoo and truck.

It was, said Clark, something she felt she had to do.

"I wanted to assure his wife that he wouldn't have known anything," she said.

Yesterday Clark said the thought had been running through her mind about what might have happened if "it had just been Peter and myself with him".

"I guess we would have switched into auto pilot."

Clark also spoke of the beautiful day she had had skiing with her friend, the heavy snow on the ground, and the delight of spending time outdoors.

"You always felt in very safe hands with Gottlieb. He would push you, but you trusted his judgement. And at breakfast and lunch you would talk."

On Thursday they had skiied up a valley rather than across a high ridge because Braun-Elwert was worried about the risk of avalanche.

"It was a very cold day but a sunny one. A great day to be in the mountains. It's one of those things that turns to tragedy.

"What can you say? I've lost an incredible friend."


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