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.


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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Trip: Tapokopoko Kotumu Loop

Alistair in typical surroundings.

It’s easy to overlook the Orongorongo Valley and surrounding Rimutaka Range, especially with additional tramping options so nearby, notably the Tararuas. That’s something I’ve often been guilty of. Until relatively recently, my most common perception of the range has been from the parts which are easy to reach without much commitment like Mount McKerrow, Cattle Ridge and Turere Stream. Generally that corner of the range, up and down the Orongorongo River with its lolly scramble of locked private huts and batches hidden in the trees. It’s great for accessibility, but comes with a feeling of being less remote.

Last November was a wake-up call, when (mostly on Alistair’s inspiration to re-live his childhood) we didn’t just walk across to the Wairarapa coast so much as found an interesting way to do it. That time we climbed to Tapokopoko, then headed north before dropping into a less visited valley of the Tapokopoko Stream. More recently, in the effort I’m about to describe, we ventured into chapter two of Alistair’s inspiration, following the ridge line south of Tapokopoko.

Our exact plan wasn’t clear until close to starting, but with no significant rain for weeks and with fully clear, sunny days in the forecast the potential for being ambitious was encouraging.

Dates: 23rd – 25th January, 2015
Location: Rimutaka Forest Park, Catchpool Valley Road-end.
People: Alistair, Maarten, Bernie, WeiMin, Jessie and me.
Huts visited: Paua Hut (2 nights outside)
Route: In to Paua Hut for Friday Night, nav up to Tapokopoko (.843), south to .703, up The Peak (.864), further south to sidle under Kotomu (.786), down Red Rocks Stream back to the Orongorongo, and Paua Hut again for Saturday night.
Also see: Maarten wrote a trip report for the WTMC newsletter.
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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.

On a summer’s night, there was still plenty of daylight available when we began the easy walk at about 6.45pm on Friday evening, towards the club’s Paua Hut on the true left of the Orongorongo River. Along the way we kept an eye open for the junction with Browns Track, but I can never remember the details of where it begins. Expediency won out over attention to surroundings.
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What’s up with the Mountain Safety Council?

From this morning’s news, it sounds as if the Mountain Safety Council is going more professional, doing away with amateur instructors and, for the most part, even training people at all.

I’ve never been a direct member of the Mountain Safety Council, but I’ve attended some courses and read training material that’s published alongside those courses like the Bushcraft Manual, the Outdoor First Aid Manual, and the Alpine Skills Manual. I’ve also attended courses run through my local tramping club with MSC-accredited instructors and MSC course material.

From my limited exposure I’ve been impressed with how the system works. Once you get into the Mountain Safety Council beyond the lowest levels, it doesn’t just aim to teach you stuff. It encourages you to get involved in a progressive programme towards becoming an expert in the field, remaining updated with the latest research and techniques, and ultimately becoming an instructor who can train others at an expert level.

It’s sad to read, therefore, that there’s apparently now a plan to flatten this structure: no longer allowing volunteers to have training accreditation, and at best using amateurs as vassals to help out with relatively simplistic tasks like “deliver safety messages” instead of being a serious part of the process. Waikato Branch executive member, John Greenwood, seems to have a good point in the above-linked article that volunteers would have little reason to stay involved with the Mountain Safety Council. After all, what’s in it for them?
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Not my preferred form of agony

Here’s a quick pointer towards the Tararua Fastest-Known-Times site, which has been spread around social media in the last few days. It caters to a mentality which doesn’t so much appeal to me, but which has a good following. My own preferred form of back-country turture would be one of pushing through leatherwood at 100 metres an hour. :)

There’s at least a loose history of running in the Tararuas, going back at least as far as the likes of Sam “Big Mac” McIntosh, Bill Gibbs and friends in the 1940s, as documented by Chris Maclean’s Tararua history. More recently there are certain people around who have always looking at challenges like running an SK, or a Southern Main Range loop as a day-trip, or otherwise. It’s grown in the range as a sport in the past few years, however, with the influence of local running groups and relatively recent events like the Tararua Mountain Race and the Jumbo Holdsworth Race, as well as a growing community in nearby centres.

The increased interest naturally comes with new challenges, particularly where safety and skills are concerned, but hopefully the protocols around what’s acceptable in a new activity will become well established over time. And yes, I know there are plenty of people out there who already think carefully about this.

On the off-chance that you enjoy this type of thing, you might also like Taranaki Speed Records, which documents the speed records for such enlightening achievements as the most times ascending (and descending) Mount Taranaki in a 24 hour period.

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Trip: Waiaua Gorge to North Egmont

The Stony River catchment.

I visit Taranaki often these days, but rarely have lengthy amounts of time between commitments to devote to lengthy tramping efforts. I’m gradually working on visiting the different sides of Egmont National Park between other commitments, though.

Between Christmas and New Year of 2014, I manage to visit another small section of the park where I’ve not previously managed to see. This time I’ll be generally around the western side. The plan? To be dropped off at the end of Ihaia Road and hop up towards Waiaua Gorge Hut for a night, then make my way clockwise around the western side ending at Holly Hut for a second night, before finally sliding out via North Egmont and being collected.

Being all on fairly highly used tracks it’s not a complicated navigation route, unless you count repeated climbing up ladders and down ladders on typical Egmont sidling tracks to be complicated. My main concern is the potential rain, and a possibility of being blocked by side creeks, or (most annoying case) trapped between them.

The forecast suggests a big drop of rain today (Monday), followed by a Tuesday without much happening, probably meaning the typical murky overcast sometimes-light-rain type of weather, and then a Wednesday with more rain and high winds starting to kick in. Also, the predictions have been changing lots over the last few days, which is often a sign that meteorologists aren’t very confident about what a system’s going to do, exactly where it’ll go and when it’ll go there. I’m arranging things so that the most uncertain and lengthiest part of the trip, with multiple big side creeks, will be on Tuesday. Hopefully that’ll work out.

Dates: 29th – 31st December, 2014
Location: Egmont National Park, Ihaia Road to North Egmont Visitor Centre.
People: Just me.
Huts visited: Waiaua Gorge Hut (1 night), Kahui Hut (0 nights), Holly Hut (1 night).
Route: Up from Ihaia Road to Waiaua Gorge Hut for the night. Then clockwise around Eggie, via Kahui Hut, ending at Holly Hut, then out via North Egmont.
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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.


For logistic reasons we leave New Plymouth much earlier than I’d planned. Before lunch. The end of Ihaia Road is not much, but a couple of other cars are still crunched up against the grass-covered ditch. From here it’s a short walk over farm land, along a marked fence-line, then a surprisingly gentle walk up the 240 or so vertical metres towards Waiaua Gorge Hut, named after the nearby Waiaua Gorge and River.
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Trespassing from public land

A story hit the news not long ago, based on a DOC media release (alternative Stuff rendition), where a group of people (labelled ‘hunters’ but better described as a group of dope smoking idiots with guns) have been trespassed from Kaweka Forest Park. It sounds as if they’ve been going in, acting like obnoxious morons and between that breaking a variety of laws and rules in ways that ruin other people’s experience, such as discharging weapons after dark, burying caches of illegal stuff (weapons, cannabis), and so on.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to deal with people like this, and the behaviour described isn’t something I want anyone to have to put up with, but one thing that confused me was the reference to Trespass Law.

The Conservation Act and the National Parks Act essentially guarantee public access to public land, unless it’s closed or access is restricted for a variety of specific reasons that are specified in law. I won’t get into the detail, but a couple of years back I wrote about it all. The result is that DOC can’t simply tell you to get out, at least without certain paperwork which isn’t common: its role is typically one of a caretaker and not a gatekeeper or an owner.
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Condensing the back-country into Wellington

2014-12-06 14.50.09
Steve checks out Robin Hut, battered by
wind on Wellington’s South Coast.

Earlier today, Eamonn and Steve and I checked out some of the Miniature Hikes huts that have popped up around Wellington, and which should be around until the end of March, with a parallel display in the Courtenay Place Light Boxes. It’s a very cool idea.

The project has recently received some media attention, both in mainstream publications and also in some tramping and outdoor channels. The exhibition’s main website gives a better idea of what it’s about, as does a short YouTube clip in which the artists explain what they’re on about.

The idea is to “shrink the back-country into just Wellington”, giving people excuses to get out and find parts of Wellington’s back-yard away from the roads (but not too far away) which they might not otherwise have seen.

Personally I hope that March won’t be the last we see of it.
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Trip: Rimutaka Mukamuka Runaway

The mighty Mukamuka River trickles through the lower parts of its catchment.

It’s Friday evening, and seven of us arrived at Catchpool Valley carpark at about 6.30pm. It’s quite a nice change to visit a place so near to Wellington, and getting into summer it’s quite light. After some brief orientation at the car-park, we’re walking towards the Orongoronga River: destination Paua Hut…. but outside, because nobody’s bothered to collect a key. Conditions are calm, but from the forecast I’m anticipating rain.

Dates: 14th – 16th November, 2014
Location: Rimutaka Forest Park, Catchpool Valley Road-end.
People: Alistair, Maarten, Bernie, Dan, WeiMin, Mister X and me. (I’m obscuring the name of Mister X for reasons that’ll become apparent.)
Huts visited: Paua Hut (1 night outside)
Planned route: In to Paua Hut for Friday Night, nav up to .797, then 1km NE to sidle across slip and SSE down ridge to west of Mukamuka, over .385 and down to confluence. Out to coast via Mukamuka, turn east and Corner Creek Campsite for Saturday night. Out via Mukamuka and South Saddle, main route to Orongorongo River and Catchpool Valley carpark on Sunday.
Actual route: From Paua Hut up to .843, then 800m NE and down scree gut into Tapokopoko Stream, then to confluence with Mukamuka.
Also see: Alistair wrote a trip report for the WTMC newsletter.
[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.

Dan and WeiMin on Friday night.

We reach the Turere Bridge at about 7.50pm, then continue south-west along the main river bed in low flow to reach Paua Hut, looking for places to fly-camp outside. I hate trying to identify good places for fly-camping, but Dan and I eventually settle on a spot further down from the hut in the trees. In the end we have three 2-person flies, while Mister X sets up a tent some distance away.

It was soon dark, and with nothing much to do we drift off to sleep, listening to nearby Moreporks hooting. I’m anticipating rain to begin, and not really stop until midday Saturday, but that never happens. Instead there were some big gusts of wind overnight, showering leaves on the fly, but the structure itself barely rippled. It turns out not everyone’s been so lucky, though. Apparently the other guys have been up fixing tent pegs all night. I guess we got lucky…. I don’t even think ours was pitched very well.
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