Feather-weight safety protocols

As I was writing that previous post about how PLBs aren’t automatically everything that they’re sometimes made out to be, an incident was unfolding in the Tararua Range where a PLB would probably have been really really useful. Fortunately things worked out well, with a high portion of luck, as reported by TVNZ (including a video), via Stuff, and the NZ Herald. Wellington LandSAR, one of several LandSAR groups to be called in to help, also put out a press release.

In short, a mountain runner entered the range at Holdsworth Lodge on Saturday with the reported intent of running around the Holdsworth/Jumbo circuit. He didn’t, instead changing his mind to run up the Baldy Track to South King, and presumably then around the Broken Axe Pinnacles, back past McGregor and Angle Knob, and back to the original circuit. This is a significantly longer and more remote route by comparison, on which he’d have been likely to meet fewer (if any) people depending on the conditions. If you want to check this all on a map, start about here and then scroll around.

As it happened, he became completely disoriented on South King. When standing on a high point with cloud in all directions, he probably thought he’d turned around to go back the way from which he’d come. Instead, however, he was following the complete opposite direction into Dorset Creek on the other side, and into an even more remote part of the range. He sheltered for Saturday night under an improvised rock bivy, somehow then made his way along Dorset Creek into the Waiohine River, breaking a toe in the process and “having a particularly nasty experience in the river where he went under”. Upon noticing an orange track marker he eventually found Mid-Waiohine Hut some time after 2pm on Sunday after much hunting around in heavy rain, at which point he was finally able to determine where he was.

He left a note for possible searchers, started a fire and ate half a jar of peanut butter that had been fortuitously left behind by someone. By now it was Monday and the first helicopter had finally been able to fly in, having previously been restricted by weather. The note was discovered, and soon after the man was spotted and collected, climbing up the track towards Isabelle and back to Mt Holdsworth. Meanwhile, multiple teams of searchers had started by scouring other parts of the range, based on information that he’d intended to run the Holdsworth/Jumbo circuit. With his decision to deviate from the route, it’s no wonder that the man wasn’t found on Sunday.

It was a relief for family, friends, searchers, the chap himself, and everyone else concerned when he was finally located. In media interviews that followed, he was one of the first to admit that he’d made a really stupid mistake when he hit low cloud and didn’t turn around immediately. The media doesn’t seem to have picked up that there also seems to have also been that other issue of changing his mind about where he’d be without informing anyone. If it’d been known that he’d planned to run to a more remote location, SAR planners would likely have zoned in on the possibility of the error he eventually made, and treated its likeliness with a higher priority. As is, rather than stay where he was which is the standard recommendation when a search is likely to be underway, he probably felt extra pressure to try and get himself out of his problem because he’d have known that nobody knew where to look for him.

I don’t wish to be too judgemental, because everyone screws up and I do too. Most people get away with mistakes without being noticed, but occasionally with some bad luck it turns into something like this. The whole incident does bring some thoughts to mind, though. Congratulations should go to everyone involved in the search for locating the man. Hopefully this incident works as an example or a reminder to everyone on how critically important it is to be clear about your intended plan for a trusted contact, and then to stick to the plan, to know what your limits are and not surpass them, and to take adequate emergency supplies including shelter and food that’ll get you through an unexpected situation until rescuers can arrive.

This man has been repeatedly described in media as an “experienced mountain runner”, whether he’d agree with that by his own assessment or not. He probably was experienced, but as I’ve commented on recently, reporters in popular media often seem to incorrectly correlate claims of “experience” with presumptions that someone will make logical and safe decisions about what they’re doing and will cope rationally when the unexpected happens, even though isn’t always the case. Taken literally, an “experienced” person could just as easily be someone who’s done something rather unsafely over and over again, and merely been lucky until they suddenly aren’t. This was another 2009 case in the Tararuas where one of the people who sadly died was repeatedly reported as “experienced”, yet it was his own terrible judgement and decisions, apparently reinforced by previous occasions where he’d been lucky, which led to their downfall. I’ve never been one for mountain/trail running and don’t know much about its organisational aspects and how safety advice propagates. I suppose there are protocols to get out running in remote areas safely, but with an initial web search I couldn’t find anything clear. Can anyone out there fill me in on this? Does mountain/trail running even have some kind of central body, which people look to, that advises on how to be safe when running in remote areas?

I’m curious if propagation of how to be safe is rather ad-hoc, with people learning protocols informally from friends without means to verify what they learn. It might be that this chap in question was slightly better prepared than some, but I still can’t get my head around some of the apparently skeleton gear that I’ve seen some runners with in fairly remote places, at least compared with what’s generally recommended for someone out tramping in the same place and subject to the same uncontrollable risks (weather change, injury, etc). It’s almost as if there’s an heuristic trap thing going on (see Heuristic Traps of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing), whereby some people decide that it’s okay to shun basic safety advice, not because it’s unnecessary in the circumstances, but because it’s inconvenient for what they’re attempting.

Ad-hoc learning also happens a lot in the tramping and mountaineering circles with which I’m more familiar, but at least in those cases there’s a well established structure of safety protocols, these days focused around publications and practical courses of the Mountain Safety Council, against which to compare people’s actions and debate ideas. The relatively new Adventure Smart website, however, which is designed to help people act safely outdoors, has 20 categories for “land” adventures, but doesn’t specify mountain or trail running amongst them at all. If some runners aren’t attracted to advice about remote spaces from the Mountain Safety Council and related sources, it might be because they can’t see how it relates to what they’re keen to do.

I don’t think that carrying a PLB should ever be an excuse to take risks that one wouldn’t take without it, which sadly is what seems to be happening in some circles if unofficial word is anything to go by, but if people are intent on carrying minimal safety gear, it occurs that at least taking a 130 gram PLB could save a lot of everyone’s time when things go all screwy. In this instance, it still would not have meant an immediate rescue because helicopters were unable to enter the range, but it would have at least given a specific location where rescuers could walk into, in torchlight if necessary, instead of spending much of their initial focus in ruling out all the completely wrong places.

Another thought which occurs is that this is a definite case of a back-country hut working as a clear safety device. Mid-Waiohine Hut wasn’t acting as a recreation or a tourism attraction, as seems to be the way some people exclusively see back-country huts these days. On this occasion, its presence very likely saved the man’s life. The hut provided shelter to someone who desperately needed it, it provided the means to generate warmth and a cache of food, and it provided a means by which he could identify his location. If Mid-Waiohine Hut hadn’t been there, he’d have continued to be unaware of where he was, may never have discovered how to find his way out, and kept wandering to his death.

Many of New Zealand’s back-country huts were originally built for this reason, to provide shelter in the hills for those who become trapped unexpectedly, often as a reaction to people who died when they needn’t have. Many other huts were built for wide varieties of other reasons, but they’ve saved lives in their spare time all the same. While technology has changed since the early days and people are strongly advised to only visit the hills in fundamentally self-sufficient ways, this is a clear example of how huts continue to remain an important safety feature of New Zealand’s back-country. If Mid-Waiohine Hut had ever been removed due to top-down departmental asset consolidation which tends to be occurring in the Department of Conservation at present, things may well have been different.

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