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.]