Mt Augustus inquest: New call to close popular tourist, hiking spot to prevent further tragedies

It has fast become a popular destination for travelers after the closure of Uluru, but the future of Mt Augustus in WA’s north as a tourist attraction remains uncertain after a senior police officer called for it to be closed for at least half the year in a bid to prevent further tragedies at the site.

Inspector Darryl Cox made the drastic recommendation during an inquest into the deaths of four people who perished hiking at the site over the past two years.

German tourist Hans-Juergen Buske, 53-year-old Maree Pollard and husband and wife Brian and Thelma Green all died after they attempted to hike to the summit of Mt Augustus, which is considered to be the biggest rock on the world.

The inquest is being held not only to examine the circumstances surrounding their deaths but also what measures can be put in place to increase the safety for future visitors after it emerged three of those deaths took place within a day.

Inspector Cox was the officer in charge of the rescue efforts concerning the Pollards and Greens as well as hiker Ann Ansell, who became lost after embarking on a 10 minute walk along the rugged terrain at Mt Augustus in October last year.

Survivor Ann Ansell and her husband Geoff outside court.
Camera IconSurvivor Ann Ansell and her husband Geoff outside court. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

He told the hearing in each of those operations, emergency services encountered numerous difficulties because of the remote location such as being unable to get search and rescue crews there in time, being unable to use the police air wing helicopter because of lack of refueling options, no landing strip or medical facilities nearby and being unable to use the thermal imaging radar plane because there was too much heat coming from Mt Augustus itself.

I think the only way to stop that is to close Mt Augustus and that summit trail for six months of the year.

When asked by Coroner Sarah Linton what was his key recommendation was after he compiled a report into all four deaths, Inspector Cox replied by shutting it down was the best way to prevent further deaths.

“I think the only way to stop that is to close Mt Augustus and that summit trail for six months of the year,” Inspector Cox said.

“I think it needs to be closed to prevent further deaths otherwise we will have more deaths.

“If we leave it to members of the public, they won’t make the right decision,” he added.

Inspector Darryl Cox outside court.
Camera IconInspector Darryl Cox outside court. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian
Mount Augustus
Camera IconMount Augustus Credit: Tourism WA/Tourism WA

During his evidence, Inspector Cox revealed how the harsh conditions and terrain made it extremely difficult for rescuers and revealed during the operation concerning Mrs Green, they had to make the hard decision to leave her body at the summit overnight.

“The biggest challenge we had with Mrs Green was that we had to leave her on the mountain,” he said. “That was difficult for us.”

Hiking couple Anne Maree Pollard and husband Lance Pollard.
Camera IconHiking couple Anne Maree Pollard and husband Lance Pollard. Credit: Facebook/Facebook
Maree Pollard passed away whilst hiking in the Mt Augusta National Park.
Camera IconMaree Pollard passed away whilst hiking in the Mt Augusta National Park. Credit: WA Police/WA Police

He also revealed at one stage during the recovery operation for Mrs Green that WA Police considered drafting in members of the TRG because they felt they needed their fittest officers explaining those involved in her recovery were already exhausted because of the extreme conditions.

In the end, Inspector Cox’s team managed to recover Mrs Green’s body from the summit but he said it was not an easy exercise. The body had to be brought down by stretcher, and those tasked with carrying it sometimes lost their footing because of the terrain.

Among the other recommendations Inspector Cox made was for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservations and Attractions – which manages the site – to include on its website that several people have died trying to hike the summit.

During her opening address, counsel assisting the coroner, Rachel Collins revealed there have been seven deaths at Mt Augustus since 2004, four of which have occurred over a two year period, and all of which took place between the months of September and February.

Brian and Thelma Green.
Camera IconBrian and Thelma Green. Credit: Supplied/Supplied
Brad Green, the son of Brian and Thelma Green who died at the rock.
Camera IconBrad Green, the son of Brian and Thelma Green who died at the rock. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

Mrs Linton told the hearing she had already considered such a proposal and would be suggesting the department consider including a more personal reference to those who had lost their lives at Mt Augustus such as a memorial.

Inspector Cox also called for more signage to be placed warning of the dangers of hiking the 12 km trail and for more markers to be installed on the trek after it emerged those that died had become lost very quickly yet were recovered not too far from the car park.

Mrs Pollard had gone hiking with her husband Lance around noon on September 14 last year when the couple were forced to turn back after Mr Pollard suffered a medical emergency. Mrs Pollard decided to head back to the car but never made it. She was found just meters from the couple’s car later that evening by fellow trekkers. A forensic pathologist found she died from heat stroke due to environmental exposure at high temperatures as well as dehydration.

Mr Buske, whose body was found three days after he went missing, was found 300 meters from the carpark, fully clothed, with a half full 600ml water bottle still in arms reach. A post-mortem found he died from atherosclerotic heart disease in a man with environmental exposure.

Mr Green’s body was first found by hikers the following morning. Those same hikers then found Mrs Green a few hours later. It took search crews two days to get both bodies down from the summit due to the severe conditions and lack of sufficient resources. A forensic pathologist found the couple both died from heat stroke.

In her evidence, Ms Ansell, who was missing for 27 hours before she was found by police using a drone, said the lack of signage along the trails and the extreme heat was what led to her becoming lost.

She explained she never intended to climb the summit and was only going on a short ten minute walk with her husband Geoff to take photographs when he had to head back.

She said she told him she would just be another ten minutes, but after two hours she still hadn’t returned.

He raised the alarm but it would take another day before they found her.

Mrs Ansell told the inquest the couple had done their research on Mt Augustus beforehand and ruled out hiking the summit trail but added there was very little information about just how difficult the terrain is or the fact people had died attempting to complete the trail.

The quest continues.