A sad Tararua tale of the usual sorts of reasons

I’ve held off writing about the November 2016 accident in the Tararua, near Alpha Hut, where two people died. There hasn’t seemed to have been much new to write about which I haven’t already covered previously in this forum.

Last week I received a copy of the final Coroner’s report, which has now been released. Flick me an email if you’d like a copy.

Background

There’s not much new in the coroner’s findings that has not already been reported. It makes for some depressing reading. The findings describe that both men were fit, and that one had “significant tramping experience in New Zealand”. Neither had ever visited the Tararua, however, and “experience” is often a subjective metric. It’s not a word that always correlates with ability in all circumstances.

The two men appear to have made plans to attempt what’s commonly known as the Neill-Winchcombe circuit after a work conference in Wellington. The trip was a last minute decision. Clear intentions had seemingly not been left with anyone, except that they intended to stay at a hut, probably Alpha Hut.

There’s a relatively direct route to Alpha Hut from their starting point, but they instead opted to follow a much longer, circular route. Maybe this decision was made if they thought the direct route appeared to short and boring, but exactly why this decision was made is unknown.

Without clear intentions being available, the main sequence of events has been reconstructed from other evidence.

Here’s a map of the area.

The pair left the Waiohine Gorge carpark, inland from Greytown, in the early morning of Saturday 19th November. From there they tramped west to Cone Saddle, climbed to Cone, then north-west to Neill Saddle and around to Winchcombe. After Winchcombe, the route crosses to the west and eventually meets the more popular Southern Crossing track at the peak of Mt Hector. Hector is a relatively short distance south of Kime Hut, but they instead walked south-west, around the Dress Circle and eventually towards Alpha Hut where they most likely meant to stay the night.

They never reached Alpha Hut.
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Daywalk: Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit

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Friday was the beginning of a long weekend, but circumstances meant I could only negotiate a single day out. I chose to spend it the the Tararuas, visiting the Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit. I walked this in a day back in 2010, but that was with a group. Then it took around 9 hours including about an hour’s stop. This time I thought I’d just go ahead and do it by myself.

Driving up from Wellington and turning left just before Masterton, I arrived at the road-end a little before 9am. The place was already buzzing with holiday-makers, and families emerging from large tents which I guess had been put up the night before. There was still some parking left in the main area, but it was a popular place.

Date: 30th March, 2018 (Good Friday).
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Holdsworth Road End.
Route: Start at Holdsworth road-end, around Donnelly Flat to the base of the River Ridge Track, up to Mountain House, then to Mt Holdsworth (.1470) via Powell Hut. North to Jumbo (.1405), Jumbo Hut, down Raingauge to Atiwhakatu Hut, and back to Holdsworth road-end via the main valley track.
[Photos]
[Download GPX] [Show map] [Display in new window][LINZ Topographic Map in new window]

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

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Despite the stirring buzz around the campgrounds, there were fewer people around soon after I started moving beyond Holdsworth Lodge and across the bridge over the Atiwhakatu River. The previous evening I’d noticed the River Ridge Track marked on the LINZ Topo50, which I’d seen previously but never with a name. Some brief asking around had suggested it was steep and muddy, with lots of slippery tree roots. I decided to check it out as an alternative to climbing via Rocky Lookout, which I’ve already been past a few times. The base of the track is a short set of very steep, narrow steps, but it rapidly levels out slightly.
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Another two too many in the Tararua Range

Two deaths occurred near Alpha Hut in the Tararua, in late 2016. I didn’t write about them at the time, but today Stuff published an article regarding the Coroner’s investigation.

The men were attempting to walk the standard Neill-Winchcombe circuit. It starts at Waiohine Gorge, into Cone Saddle and up to Cone (.1080). Then there’s a steep dip into Neill Saddle before climbing up to Neill (.1158), across the ridge to Winchcombe Peak (.1261), then to the junction of Mt Hector (.1529) before continuing along the main Southern Crossing route back to Alpha Hut. From there, there’s a route via Bull Mound and Cone Hut back to the starting point. Here’s a topo map of the region.

The route is a good fit trip, but it’s also very exposed to the worst sorts of conditions which the Tararua Range is capable of throwing at people. The route is notorious because there are very few good places to bail out if something goes wrong. For much of the route along the tops, the only practical directions to take are either forwards or backwards.

The two men were found about 900 metres short of Alpha Hut, sparking confusion about how they managed to get so close without reaching comparative safety.

I’ve read this article a few times, and each time I’m finding it more and more incredible about what these people were trying to do compared with how badly they seem to have been prepared. On one hand, I’m sure people have gotten away with worse than this and, hopefully, learned something. But still…..

These distances could be misleading, because the exposed ridges could be demanding and difficult, Rix said. In his opinion, the two men were not wearing adequate protection from the weather, which they may have struggled through for a while.

Neither had a maps, compass, GPS or light source.

The idea of this seems almost unfathomable to me, considering what they were attempting. Maybe they’d planned to do all their navigation with a smartphone? Maybe they’d committed the route, and everything around it, to memory?
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Thoughts on another Tararua rescue

The Southern Crossing of the Tararuas has been in the news a few times lately. Shaun Barnett wrote this nifty description of the Southern Crossing for the April 2018 edition of Wilderness Magazine, although a feature on the Tararua Range in NZ Geographic from around mid 2016, by the same author, is much more comprehensive.

Meanwhile the RCCNZ stated that last Sunday night, 25th March, and leading into Monday morning, a man’s life was undoubtedly saved by a group he met at Kime Hut after he arrived in a hypothermic state. A Stuff report provides further information, adding that he’d been with a companion.

A PLB was triggered, and a LandSAR team walked up to Kime overnight. Low cloud meant a helicopter couldn’t safely reach Kime at the time. He was eventually assisted to Field Hut, at a lower elevation, and air-lifted out. His condition meant he stayed overnight at hospital. It’s good news in the sense that things could have been much worse, but weren’t.

This case is interesting because the Stuff report suggests that the man mightn’t have been well equipped for the conditions in which he found himself. It reports that he’d previously competed in the Tararua Mountain Race, and it reads as if some of the gear he carried might have been more consistent with that sort of event.
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An interesting case of concessions in parks

The Taranaki Daily News has an interesting story about happenings in Egmont National Park. One of the guides there is concerned about fitness groups and personal trainers arranging summit walks up the mountain, allegedly illegally if they don’t have concessions and are effectively acting as guides.

At least one of the accused guides has responded by saying she stresses that she’s not guiding, and the walk is open to anybody.

Much of the article focuses on the safety aspects of guiding on the mountain without necessarily having the type of experience and background that a concession holder might be required to have. That’s a fair enough point because it’s the main concern the guide has. I do, however, find the legal side of this to be at least as interesting.

The part of the law in question isn’t strictly about safety, and guiding has nothing directly to do with it. It’s about commercial activities in parks, and whether a concession is required from the Department of Conservation.
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Good insight on river safety

Earlier today Toni Burgess (aka AntNZ) posted an excellent article about river safety in New Zealand. I’ve written about river safety on this blog in the past, yet Toni’s article, which also draws on expertise from Heather Grady of Outdoor Training NZ, really manages to put some of the less intuitive aspects in perspective.

For example, on braided rivers:

…a recent Te Araroa group took the decision to cross the Rangitata River, it took them 2 hours and this river is known to be in full flood with no channels showing within an hour. So essentially you could be half way across the river, finding yourself on a shrinking island of shifting river bed.

If you spend any time around rivers, or suspect you might in the future, it’s a highly worthwhile read.

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The Commodification of Wild Places

Tourism and commercial enterprise have been part of New Zealand’s outdoors for at least the last century. The Milford Track spent much of its history as a relatively high grade tourist attraction. For a time it was largely exclusive, and that only changed after an act of civil disobedience which asserted the public right to explore a National Park. Closer to my own home, the popularly known Southern Crossing route across the Tararua Range had its modern beginnings with an intent to attract tourists to the region by creating a tramping route, and providing huts for accommodation.

DOC’s mandate recognises this. Section 6 of the Conservation Act, which defines DOC’s responsibilities, states that DOC should foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, as long as it’s consistent with other requirements, and allow their use for tourism.

The distinction between recreation and tourism has become more important recently, though.
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Daywalk: Dobson Loop and Lower Marchant Ridge

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Thursday and Friday were remarkably sunny days. This made the browsing of the surface pressure and rain forecast maps more annoying: they showed rain approaching for the weekend. Not that I mind walking through wind and rain, but it can complicate plans, and my free time’s been limited lately. I had a day of free time, nevertheless, and with that free time I resolved to visit the Kaitoke end of the Tararuas. Saturday looked like the better day.

I’d not been there for a while. The most recent occasion was whilst walking out from a moonlight Southern Crossing. Earlier than that I’d been for a walk around the Dobson loop. This time I thought I’d try something similar, but would try to leave earlier and get a bit further than I had previously.

Date: 7th October, 2017
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Kaitoke Road End.
Route: Start at Kaitoke, walk to Smith Creek Shelter (via Puffer Saddle), then check out the Tauherenikau. Back to Smith Creek Shelter, up to spot-height 656, hover around Marchant Ridge for a while, then back to Kaitoke via the main Southern Crossing track.
[Photos]
[Download GPX] [Show map] [Display in new window][LINZ Topographic Map in new window]

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

It rained. Not torrential. Just steady. The forecast had it getting worse later in the day.

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The base of the track from the current car-park.

DOC has created a better car-park since I last visited. Previously the Kaitoke road-end was an isolated dead-end, and subject to repeated vandalism. The new car-park is directly outside the gate of the YMCA campground. I’m unclear on whether it gets much vandalism, but it doesn’t feel as isolated. It’s behind a gate, but not a locked gate.

There’s always been an informal track from the campground up to the main Marchant Ridge track. With its replacement car-park, DOC has connected into it and formalised it.
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A fuller narrative of the Taranaki alpine tragedy

In 2013 I wrote briefly about the (then) recent alpine tragedy on Taranaki.

A very detailed, and interactive, report about that event has now been published by Stuff.

The article is sourced from multiple in-depth interviews with people directly involved. It covers both the accident and the rescue operation, and its narrative flows from the beginnings of decisions which combined to cause things to unravel into a disastrous situation, through the attempts to plan and deploy rescuers, and eventually to the eventual musings and hindsight of what people wished had happened differently.
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Pest Control and Social Licence

Lately I’ve had some issues with getting out tramping, mostly with life having been usurped by a couple of bundles of life experience. I expect the hiatus will end in time.

Last Thursday 28th September, however, I went to a Royal Society hosted expert panel discussion on the topic of gene editing and potential applications for New Zealand’s predator free 2050 goals. The resulting discussion isn’t up yet, but was being recorded by Radio NZ. It will be available sooner or later.

It was a fab discussion to attend. It inevitably steered towards the realisation that getting a social licence from NZ’s population is very important if the predator free goals are to be met. Enough people who live in New Zealand need to be comfortable with what’s done, why it’s done and how it’s done, or it’ll never happen.
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