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Tragedy near Kime Hut, part 2

Also see Tragedy near Kime Hut [1] and Tragedy near Kime Hut, part 3 [2].

Last winter there was a tragedy when two trampers died of hypothermia in blizzard conditions near Kime Hut in the Tararuas. One was particularly high profile, which is possibly why the story has gotten so much attention. I wrote some thoughts about it [3] at the time, but reserved comment with the lack of information. The coroners’ inquest began a few days ago, and is now being reported on by the DomPost:

It’s interesting reading, especially the latter articles, and seems to developing into some good examples of things they might have done better, but more importantly the presence of a culture that wasn’t a safe one to mix with the outdoors, yet also one which is very prevalent (in my opinion at least).

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Tragedy near Kime Hut, part 2"

#1 Comment By Robb On 18 February, 2010 @ 10:52 am

Kia ora Mike,
I’m not quite sure what to make of some of this. That ol’ she’ll be right attitude seems to be at play here which is quite prevelant in New Zealand really. I have a fair stack of old hunting and culler books where route finding and conditions are often understated, and part of the allure of the wild in doing it hard. And I have seen a few examples myself in hut talk and capabilities taken for granted in my view. If an individual wants to play fast and loose that is his or her choice, but to risk someone else whom has put their trust in that person and getting into preventable trouble does smack of negligence.
Personally I don’t even go on a day walk without a map and compass, I mean how much weight that does that add? Much less without getting a detailed weather forecast. But also to suggest that a cell phone would have saved his life is a bit of a reach. They may have tested the range afterwards, but not in those conditions, and even had he made a call, they very well may have still beyond help. Even a flash gps can falter, or a compass be of little help if you have already made the big mistake. Decision making with hypothermia would not be easy.
In any case I hope we all learn a little bit, and the deconstruction stops short of starting to delve into some sort of character flaws of the guy. May they rest in peace.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 February, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

Hi Robb.

I’m with you regarding the map and compass, even on most day-walks. Even in situations when I don’t think I’ll need it, I’m often surprised. And besides, it’s good practice.

I’ll be interested to eventually see the final coroners’ report without the filter of the media, and I might see if I can get hold of it when it comes out. The way the DomPost reports read so far, though, it certainly seems that one of them was relying a lot on the other’s experience and good judgement, and that judgement must have been unreliable at the critical time, for whatever reason.

For me it’s difficult to fault any specific thing in the preparation or the decisions, simply because everyone makes mistakes from time to time. On the other hand, as [14] commented to me this morning, many serious outdoor accidents aren’t a consequence of a single shortcoming. They’re the result of many things added together, and that’s why it’s so critically important to over-prepare and to be very cautious about putting yourself or a group into an uncertain situation. When mistakes and accidents do occur, you need as much preparation and good judgement available as possible to be available to kick in and compensate.

The outcome could have been completely different if they’d had a map and compass (and skills to use them), or if they’d had a tent or bivy bags, or if they’d checked the forecast, or if they’d had better clothing and sleeping bags, or if they’d better judged and listened to the advice of people they met along the way, or if the more experienced person had been on their own and not had to look after the other one, or if they’d taken cellphones (which are never guaranteed to work as you’ve said), or if they’d carried EPIRBs, or if they’d left the “never give up” and “she’ll be right” attitudes at home, or, ultimately, if they’d looked at and understood what was happening in the environment, assessed their next point of safety and then decided to stay where they were at a perfect opportunity.

All of these things are about preperation and judgement. If handled differently then any one of them might have changed things, but the apparent fact that none of them was handled well probably meant that when they finally made that decision and walked into a blizzard exposed to gale force winds and (probably) walking in circles in white-out conditions, it was quite a gamble and had tragic consequences.

On the one hand it’s a very sad and sensitive thing to discuss, and as you’ve said I hope people don’t dive too much into the character of those involved. It’s certainly not unique and there are plenty of people who go outdoors with similar attitudes, for whatever reason. By that measure these two were unlucky. On another hand I find it hard to understand how people come to treat the back-country this way in the first place.

Is it just that I’ve had a good fortune to have been introduced to the outdoors by people who are mostly very responsible and cautious about all the above-mentioned preparation and judgement? I don’t know… I grew up being more or less afraid of visiting the back-country, and it took me quite a long time to make myself learn how to get out and appreciate it. I still don’t back myself in a lot of situations where others just waltz on in, but it’s much easier when I’m out with people whom I’ve learned to trust, and it feels good that some people whom I trust have also come to trust me to the extent that we can confidently bounce ideas and thoughts off each other. Obviously you can’t let caution and paranoia overrule the experience and enjoyment, but it’s not quite the same as respect for and understanding of the environment. I just have trouble understanding how others seem to take it all so lightly.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 March, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

I’ve just added a link to an [7].

The final paragraph states that the key issues were lack of equipment and preparation, although the reporter seems to have zeroed in on a suggestion that decisions about launching Search and Rescue operations shouldn’t necessarily be made by a single person.

#4 Comment By Simon Hathaway On 17 March, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

Hi Mike,
no map? no compass? in a blizzard, finding a hut by instinct,then no chance, only luck, and that ran out on a bitterly cold windswept mountain top, quite sad really.

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 March, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

Yes I know what you mean. I gave them the benefit of the doubt early on when it was being reported that at least one of them was an “experienced tramper”, but I suppose experience alone doesn’t automatically imply that someone will make well considered decisions (either on the day or in general).

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 March, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

I should add that one of the more sad points (to me) is that I think it’s a common attitude.

#7 Comment By Simon Hathaway On 19 March, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

Hi Mike,
having weathered quite a few nasty Scottish blizzards before I moved to Wellington I can’t believe people take such risks, but I know they do, however it surprised me, the New Zealand trampers I have met seem quite safety concious and protected with the way marking on the popular tracks, I would admit to being quite scared on occasions regarding the outcome of certain days , however good mountaincraft and the dependibility of good friends made for a positive outcome on our part, these factors enabled us to push things on occasions, this is the way experiance is gained I suppose. The weather on that day must have been particularly bad, having not done the Southern Crossing yet I wondered why they couldn’t have just dropped down to lower ground? get in the bush and get shelter, I had a look on google earth and could see problems with finding the hut in a white out Having time mainly just for cycling these days I have only got into the Tararua on a few occasions, did the Jumbo/ Holdsworth traverse and I was struck with how wild and dangerous the terrain is, such a beautiful mountain area, I’ll be making an effort to see more of it after the Graperide in a weeks time, Simon.

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 28 March, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

Hi Simon. Thanks for the comment.

Yeah, good and reliable friends are critical when in a group. I’ve been saved by friends on a really crappy day at least once in the past couple of years, and it’s because people I trusted were taking into account more than just themselves.

Back in July when this story was first filtering through the media, I was thinking in the back of my mind that they might have simply dropped down to Penn Creek Hut, which would have been quite sheltered (as long as it wasn’t cut off by a flooded side creek), as it’s easy to get off the tops from further back on Table Top… although from there it’s probably at least as easy to just go back to Field Hut. That area’s full of thick scrub (leatherwood and thick dracophyllum, etc) around the bush-line, which might have made it difficult to get into the trees if they’d tried. I don’t know it too well in winter, though.

I guess at the time that they realised things were going wrong, probably when the weaker person couldn’t go any further, it may have already been too late… especially if the other didn’t want to leave them behind. Again it’s only me guessing, though. White-out conditions and extreme wind wouldn’t have helped, especially if they hadn’t experienced anything quite like that before, and people can also start to act quite irrationally when they get hypothermic. I don’t know exactly how I’d act in similar circumstances and I’m not sure I’m keen to find out.