This coming weekend

I’ve been struggling to get out lately due to other commitments, and it’s likely to continue for a while longer. This weekend, though, I’m anticipating a short jaunt in the Tararuas with Tongue and Meats, in the vicinity of Mitre and Girdlestone if the weather plays nicely. Last time I visited Mid-King Biv was ages ago. The weather’s uncertain and I’m not sure if that will actually happen, but am looking forward to it regardless. Otherwise it might involve some navigation around Blue Range. I’ll write about it more properly afterwards.

As some consolation for less tramping I’ve been exploring around Ngaio and Crofton Downs, where I’ve been living since the beginning of this year. Whilst I’m working from a home office lately it’s become a very accessible starting point for quickly escaping suburbia during my lunch break. There are frequent and steep hills available and plenty of native bush and reserves nearby, whether it’s Trelissick Park or Te Ahumairangi Hill (aka the Tinakori Hill), or Otari-Wiltons Bush or the Skyline Walkway, which is up behind where I now live, and noisy gangs of Kaka making themselves known every morning and evening. There have been good opportunities to explore and discover much of what’s around here beyond what I was familiar with last time I lived nearby.

With the Skyline Walkway I’ve come across several [cough] unofficial but more direct routes up to the ridge, which must nevertheless be frequented by at least a few people given how well defined they are. It’s tempting to go up and trim back some of the gorse, of someone else doesn’t beat me to it. The accessibility’s paying off, too. Several weeks back on July 9th, I was able to hop up immediately when Wellington had one of its colder days for which the western hills received a rare dusting of snow, despite being very near the sea and only 300 metres above sea level.

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Anyway, tramping this weekend!

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Positive News for Cone Hut

Some have probably already seen this, but following my earlier post regarding the vandalism of Cone Hut, Stuff reports that there’s been a positive and concerted effort to repair and restore it to a state better than what it was in previously. Most of the thanks goes to DOC staff and volunteers from the Tararua Tramping Club, and a more direct source of info than Stuff’s report can be found in DOC’s blog.

This is great, and thanks to everyone involved. The only sadness here is that there was vandalism in the first place. Cone Hut’s unfortunately not the only back-country facility to have suffered vandalism, although its historic status and the way it stands out to many visitors, moreso than some surrounding facilities, seemed to garner a higher than usual amount of attention and discussion.

Hopefully it’ll be around for another 70 years, with the help of everyone who values it.

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Cone Hut trashed by vandals

I’ve only just written about what a great deal we’re probably getting on looking after our back-country huts for minimal cost given what’s available, but then this is reported:

A historic hut in the Tararua Range, three hours’ walk from the nearest road, has been trashed, baffling trampers and conservationists.

“They left it a pig-sty really, we’re really upset,” said Tararua Tramping Club member Barry Durrant, who discovered the “scene of utter vandalism” when arriving at Cone Hut on the Tauherenikau River, west of Greytown, with fellow club member Grant Timlin on Friday.

A 10-litre can of white acrylic paint, left over from a working bee, had been tipped on the floor, mattresses had been slashed and one dumped in the pool of paint. The hut was strewn with rubbish and the hut book, a vital safety tool, was missing and its case smashed and burnt.

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Arriving and boiling a billy
at Cone Hut. (November 2007.)
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How disappointing.

Cone Hut, with its unique character and its history, is one of the neatest back-country huts to visit in the Tararua Range. It’s well looked after, both by committed Tararua Tramping Club members and by DOC, on behalf of the public and the hut’s users.

This is the type of cost that nobody wants to have to pay for, but worse than that is that it’ll be a kick in the guts for many of those people who donated time, effort and expertise so that any others can enjoy and take advantage of the facility.

I suppose there will always be an element of society who sees this as some kind of victimless crime, or simply doesn’t care. It’s not victimless.

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Updated Hut Maintenance Figures

When back-country hut fees increased several years ago, I wrote with some disappointment about how I saw hut fees as being the price of being honest. I still think that, but it’s not something up for negotiation right now.

Back then, I also tried to compare the expenditure on maintenance of back-country huts with the revenue from back-country hut tickets. This wasn’t fully possible because a DOC accountant told me that spending between regular back-country huts and Great Walk huts couldn’t be separated, despite the user-pays component of the latter not actually coming from back-country ticket and pass sales.

In other words, the $16.5 million figure for expenditure on “huts” in DOC’s 2009 Annual Report couldn’t be split between two classes of hut which are treated radically differently where maintenance is concerned, and so couldn’t be nicely compared with the user pays revenue streams for those classes of huts. Comparing hut ticket revenue with $16.5 million of expenditure wasn’t very meaningful when the bulk of that spending is probably going to maintenance of huts with user-pays fees sourced elsewhere.

Lately, in April we had a forum conversation on the NZ Tramper website, and this question of comparison came up again. Trying my luck a second time I fired off an Official Information Act request, and this time it seems to have gone to someone much more helpful. I received the exact figures I asked for. I didn’t bother to ask specifically about expenses on Great Walk and similar huts because they don’t interest me as much, but here are the comparisons for regular back-country hut revenue and expenditure for the last few years.
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Unofficial Tracks in Egmont National Park

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Track Closed signs in Egmont National Park.
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I hope that some of the quotes in Wednesday’s article via the Taranaki Daily News have been printed incorrectly or out of context.

In it, a senior DOC ranger, referring to Egmont National Park, comments about people unofficially marking and maintaining old tracks, which DOC no longer officially maintains. Sometimes people even mark new tracks of their own making!

The problem? Other people might follow them. They might get lost or distracted from DOC’s official tracks. The unofficial routes might not have been routed or maintained to the same safety standards as DOC would have ensured. It might be harder to find people if they get lost, because they’ll be away from the main tracks.

I have mixed thoughts about this, but mostly dismay with DOC’s apparent stance. There may be issues where people are causing significant damage to the surrounding environment by marking and maintaining their tracks. If people are placing giant markers that are damaging or out of character, or are themselves creating a hazard in ways which rival what the nearby outdoor creates all by itself, then fair enough to raise those specific instances. But beyond this I’m struggling to see an issue with people using and marking alternative routes.
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Browsing Historic Topo Maps with MapsPast

If you like topo maps, and especially trawling through historic topo maps of New Zealand, then check out the new MapsPast website, thrown together by Matt Briggs.

Maps are great. For me, looking at maps and understanding what’s around is a fundamental aspect of tramping and getting outdoors to explore. Maps change over time, though. Whilst terrain doesn’t change rapidly, representation of features on maps often do. Locations of huts, campsites, tracks and common routes is often a fluid thing, and so looking at older maps can open windows to the past.

In New Zealand we’re very fortunate that good quality survey information is surveyed, produced and made freely and easily available by the government, most recently handled by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). The current flagship map series that’s most popular in tramping circles is the 1:50000 Topo50 series, which replaced NZMS260 a few years ago. But as new series’ and new editions of series’ are published, historic information can sometimes become obscured or lost.
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Good LandSAR Publicity

This morning’s Dominion Post has some fab publicity for New Zealand’s LandSAR organisation, derived from a couple of recent high profile incidents in the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges in the lower North Island.

The first article profiles a couple of people who volunteer their time and expertise to work with Police who usually coordinate their types of searches. The second article describes some of the mechanisms and processes of a systematic LandSAR operation in New Zealand, and a summarised history of how it came to be this way.

Both make worthwhile reading.

Various other links of relevance: New Zealand Land Search and Rescue, LandSAR Wellington, Police dog Thames found on High Ridge in the Tararuas, and Runner found in the Rimutaka Range.

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Ordering of Priorities

I recently attended a great talk, courtesy of a person whose group of four was rescued from the Tararuas less than a year ago. The incident was not reported by media. If it had been then it probably would have attracted much criticism.

They had made a series of bad decisions, then become stuck in a situation where, due to exhaustion there was nowhere they could go. They activated a Personal Locator Beacon, which at first mis-represented their position as being safely in a hut. To its credit, the RCCNZ made no assumptions about the safety of the group. Weather prevented a helicopter from reaching them immediately, and so a small fast-moving LandSAR team was sent on foot towards the hut where they were initially believed to be. The helicopter finally made it through. Based on hut book comments they were eventually found some distance away, having endured 170 mm of rain overnight with no adequate shelter, and with a dire outlook for the near future had help not arrived.

It’s uncommon to hear people speak so openly in front of audiences about such an experience, knowing mistakes were made. The speaker was perfectly humble about the group’s mistakes, and I really appreciate the attitude with which the talk was presented.

I asked about what might have happened if they’d not had the PLB. He treated the question as theoretical on the grounds that he’d never go out without a PLB, but otherwise guessed that there could easily have been deaths had they not had it. This philosophy about never venturing out without a PLB is consistent with a recent media push of promoting Personal Locator Beacons above all other aspects of back-country safety, at least as far as I can tell. I think this struck a chord for me, because for as useful and important as I see PLBs, I struggle to justify carrying one without carrying the type of portable shelter which would not only have kept them warm and dry until help arrived, and probably prevented deaths if rescue had taken an extra day, but very possibly could have prevented the entire emergency to begin with.

Any rescue is useless, as is a PLB, if you can’t stay alive long enough for that help to arrive. Requested help can often take hours or days, depending on circumstances. As recently as two years ago, two people with perfectly adequate communications could not be reached by rescuers before it was too late. Until help arrives, self reliance is all you have. To me, thinking of a typical tramping scenario combined with the NZ weather’s high tendency for precipitation, good portable shelter is a very important component for heightening chances of survival if something goes wrong.

PLBs are also not essential in every rescue which involves them. Help will still arrive, without doing anything, if you’ve followed a few habits like telling a reliable person of your intentions, then sticking to them, so that search coordinators can make efficient estimates of where they’re likely to find you once you’re reported overdue. Having a PLB in these situations can obviously result in much less stressful time and be extremely convenient for all concerned, but it’s not as essential if you’re likely to be quickly found and rescued anyway…. after being reported overdue.

In this post I’m not trying to argue about whether PLBs should or shouldn’t be carried. I still think they’re a good idea, even moreso under certain circumstances, and I carry one myself. Here, however, it’s more the ordering of priorities which I’m finding interesting.

With so much recurring media discussion about how people are automatically idiots when they don’t carry PLBs (check out the colourful comments thread), I do struggle to see the logic of how we still see many people apparently not carrying reliable portable shelter for staying warm and dry, let alone some of the other basics of the Outdoor Safety Code, like telling someone where you’re going. We barely even talk about preventative stuff like portable shelter in the media, compared with the amount of talk about reactive stuff like PLBs. Personally, however, I’d rate reliable portable shelter as being more important than a PLB for most circumstances, if it were necessary to choose between them.

…and now to try something…

All of this reminded me of an old NASA-sourced exercise from many years ago. The exercise, happily still around on the internet, posits a scenario of leaving a crashed spaceship on the daytime side of the Moon, needing to reach a mother ship, 200 miles away. Participants are given a list of equipment they can take, and must prioritise items in order of importance.

[Stop reading here if you want to try the exercise without seeing a discussion of answers.]
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A New Era for Outdoor Safety Training

In February I wrote about the structural changes in the Mountain Safety Council, with an expression of concern. A reference which I’d included if I’d known of it was the the MSC’s own explanation of the changes, which is buried in the depths of its website.

The bubble diagram towards the end of that page represents what’s happening quite well. The MSC is removing nearly all of its outdoor safety training, will no longer be setting any safety standards, and instead will shift to a more hands-off model of producing safety messages and collecting information. Reasoning is provided, but the end result is that most of the excellent training programmes and material which the MSC produced, for amateurs and by amateurs, will no longer be available through the Mountain Safety Council in future.

This has caused concern in many circles, which I’m inclined to agree with. For roughly five decades now, the Mountain Safety Council has been synonymous in New Zealand with research, setting of standards, training and expertise for bushcraft, river safety, alpine and climbing skills, avalanche safety, firearms safety, outdoor leadership and outdoor first aid. It’s impressive that the sustained activity in these has mostly come from volunteers, not just to help around the edges but to be fundamentally involved, become experts and to train others up to a high level.

As linked in February, the upcoming move to do away with most training programmes, and then sideline volunteers from the organisation as newly superfluous to requirements (unless they want to simply help with token tasks around the edges) has not gone down well with some of those volunteers.
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Tramping – A New Zealand History, by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean (my thoughts)

Until now there’s been a major omission in publications about tramping. So far all we’ve seen are route guides, narratives or yarns, tourism guides, diaries, local histories, blogs and other websites, biographies and autobiographies, newspaper articles, safety manuals, fiction, club newsletters and journals, “best of” publications of journals, hut book rants about others leaving rubbish behind, histories of topics which are associated with tramping, collections of scenic photographs, dramatic re-creations for television, archived descriptions of accidents, poetry, commercial magazines, calendars, promotional material, and personal accounts illustrated with humorous comic imagery.

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It’s no wonder that someone has finally attempted to exploit the seriously under-represented genre of comprehensive authoritative histories about tramping in the form of large coffee table books. The result is Chris Maclean’s and Shaun Barnett’s Tramping – A New Zealand History.

I first heard of this book shortly before a seminar given by the authors in September 2013. I attended the seminar, and left with optimism. A year later, the book was released. It displays a Mountain Mule and a pair of old boots on the cover. The book weighs 2.5 kg.

Below are my thoughts, and I’ve tried really hard to keep these thoughts shorter than the book itself. If you’re interested, some alternative sources of info are the book’s official Facebook page, an interview by Kim Hill with the authors that was broadcast on Radio NZ, a book extract published in the NZ Herald, or brief reviews on NZ Bush Adventures, Beatties Book Blog, the Otago Daily Times, and Wild Magazine.
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