High Misadventure by Paul Hersey (my thoughts)

I’m not sure how I’ve come to have a fascination with outdoor accidents, but possibly it’s to do with wanting to find out as much as I can about how things can go wrong. It’s a sensitive issue to discuss, but also important to be able to learn about how accidents occur and what might be changed, without going overboard, to reduce the chances of future accidents. I discovered Paul Hersey’s 2009 book High Misadventure, subtitled New Zealand mountaineering tragedies and survival stories, after some prodding in issues 178 and 179 of the FMC Bulletin, and also a comment on an earlier post (thanks Adrian). It’s easy reading but also a serious topic, and Paul Hersey has handled it well.

The author has written eight essays about New Zealand outdoor accidents between 1966 and 2005. Most essays are centred around a single accident, but occasionally around multiple accidents that are related. They are typically decorated with further information about circumstances and additional experiences of the people involved. All essays have been researched thoroughly through coroners’ reports, newspaper and journal articles, books and biographies, and frequently through personal interviews with the people involved. The focus of the book is on mountaineering and climbing, which typically involves higher risk than regular tramping, but one which people choose to accept. An underlying theme put forward by the author is that the risk can be managed (perhaps better than it sometimes is), and that climbing is not as risky as it’s often made out to be from outside the mountaineering community. From the book’s conclusion:

…whereas climbers are prepared to rationalise or accept the risk, non-climbers mostly are not. Society, as a whole, has become more and more risk-averse. Of course, 100 per cent safety and security is impossible. And to eliminate physical risk is to deny the ability to learn from personal experience.

Climbers accept that risk is an element of their chosen activity, but that doesn’t mean they should simply ignore the mistakes or ill-fortunes of others. Gaining experience in the mountains comes from years of skill-gathering and decision-making, as well as learning from the actions of other climbers.

There is a delicate balance here and climbers sometimes need to be reminded of that. By exploring a range of accidents in detail, including how they affected those left behind, it is hoped that climbers will continue to recognise that the choices they make above the snowline can be wide-reaching and permanent.

Each of the essays contains maps and photos, and is roughly ten to twenty pages. The brevity makes it easy to read complete segments of the book in single sittings.

The author has gone beyond the simplistic reporting of facts, which I think helps this book to stand out. The texts cover insights into how rescue teams operate, thoughts about what’s led to the high rate of alpine guide deaths, and also examines what happens to people after accidents and how they cope, going as far to get psychological comment about people’s actions where it seems appropriate. Despite each essay being a discrete entity, they’ve been well structured to support an eventual conclusion.

Overall this book is about how people cope with accidents in the outdoors. Despite the mountaineering bias, the essays are relevant far beyond mountaineering. Many are at least indirectly related to unforeseen weather or mistaken judgement, and a few are simply very bad luck such as a slip or a fall at a bad time, typically putting people in positions where they had to cope with cascading consequences.

Several described accidents were high profile when they occurred, but others were barely reported at all. I appreciated learning far more about several accidents that occurred during my lifetime than what had registered through the media at the time. One of these was an accident in 1990 where 6 young army cadets died of hypothermia in a blizzard at the top of Ruapehu. Some details of things that go on also surprised me. It was news to me, for example, that as recently as 1988, although an alpine guide’s client died during a training course (and he was later cleared of responsibility), he was not immediately stood down and offered counselling. Instead he felt obliged to complete the course for another client and was ordered by his employer to return straight back to work to teach another course, almost immediately leading to another potentially lethal accident.

The author treats all his subjects with great respect, and is always careful to emphasise a redeeming context. Rather than being critical and blaming of mistakes, he’s investigated what could have led to things having happened as they did. Where necessary he’s expanded his research to others who might have relevant things to say. On several occasions, he’s taken extra care to make it clear that most (perhaps all) of these accidents occurred due to bad luck or temporary letting down of the guard rather than habitual lack of safety concern. Subjects candidly comment on what they might wish they’d done differently if they had a second chance, while at the same time noting circumstances that might have led to accidents occurring.

The depth of the Paul Hersey’s research, combined with his experience, knowledge of and contacts in the community, and overall respect for New Zealand’s mountaineers, makes this a special book and worth a read. The essays are woven with the author’s own experiences of close encounters that might have so easily turned out differently. He uses this to emphasise that although safe climbing is something that can generally be achieved, there’s a constant and necessary process of learning and building of experience, always with an acceptable risk that can be managed but a risk nonetheless. On several occasions, he argues that safety in mountaineering is something that people need to develop through experience over time, noting that it’s impossible to gain such experience without some acceptable risk naturally present with the outdoors. In support of this, he points out that even the 1000-odd back-country huts scattered throughout New Zealand, which are often touted to be the pinnacle of safety for those who reach them, are not themselves immune from the occasional destruction by bad weather or avalanches.

All eight essays bordered by an introduction and conclusion, are well researched and well written, as follows:

  • Mount Rolleston, 1966: Four young climbers attempting the Otira Face of Mt Rolleston are reported overdue. In worsening weather during the following days, search teams discover at least two people trapped half way up the Otira Face, but can’t reach them. Plans are made to abseil from the top of the face to attempt a rescue, but they are prevented by bad weather. One of the search teams’ camps is buried in an avalanche, killing one rescuer, and after this the rescue attempt is largely abandoned. This is the first rescue attempt in which a helicopter played a part. The pilot noted that he could have been more useful had he been stationed closer.
  • Three Johns Hut, 1977: Four members of the Wanganui Tramping Club, having split off as a side trip from a much larger club gathering, reach Three Johns Hut at Barron Saddle above the Mueller Glacier, and report in via radio at 7pm. A severe storm hits that night, and having failed to hear from the party for the next two nights, two rangers are sent to investigate. The rangers discover that the guy wires that anchored the hut had been either torn from the ground, or sheared apart at ground level, and the hut had been lifted and blown into the Dobson Valley, killing those inside.
  • Aoraki Mt Cook, 1978, 1982 (two events centred around Phil Doole’s experience on the mountain): An avalanche kills one and injures another on the Linda Glacier route to the peak of Aoraki Mt Cook. They are discovered by another group of four (including Phil Doole), two of whom attempt to reach Plateau Hut to raise the alarm, but are nearly stopped by falling into a crevasse on the way. The injured climber eventually dies before a rescue helicopter can arrive. Four years later, Phil Doole becomes trapped with Mark Inglis in bad weather at the top of Aoraki Mt Cook where they shelter in a small crevasse for 12 nights before the weather improved enough to allow for a rescue. The rescue effort itself it fraught with risk, with an air force helicopter flipping and crashing in the high altitude. Due to extensive frostbite, both men had their legs amputated below the knee.
  • Matukituki Valley, 1988: A climbing guide takes two clients on an alpine training course, but some way into the course loses one client during a river crossing, who’d not made it clear he was petrified of water. In the aftermath, the guide feels obligated to complete the course for the other client, and is then ordered by his employer to keep working for more booked clients immediately afterwards. He receives no stand-down period or counselling, nearly has a fatal accident with his next clients, quits the job soon after and spends the next twenty years coming to terms with what happened.
  • Mt Ruapehu, 1990: The New Zealand army runs an alpine instruction course with eleven cadets and two instructors. A further instructor, who would have been the most experienced, is called away for other duties at late notice. Having dug four separate snow caves on the side of Paretetaitonga — the second highest peak near the summit of Ruapehu, they attempt to wait out the storm, eventually all moving to a single cave when several cadets show signs of hypothermia. Eventually becoming concerned about the integrity of the cave, the group agrees to try to reach Dome Shelter. Within 150 metres of the shelter, they become lost and disoriented and are forced to dig a trench for shelter. Two eventually make their way to Bruce Road for help, but in the intervening hours six cadets die from hypothermia. After the events, a Japanese climber who’d dug a snow-cave a short distance from the cadets emerges having also survived the storm.
  • Mt Hicks, 1997: One of two climbers is hit by a rock, suffering a broken hip, when trying to climb the northern face of Mt Hicks. They eventually manage to abseil down, in deteriorating weather, and shelter in a crevasse for four nights before they can attract the attention of passing helicopter.
  • Mt Tasman, 2003: Three mountain guides and one client, of a total of six, are killed during a slab avalanche. A coroner’s report later decided that the guides were not at fault and that risk was an inherent part of climbing, although a few changes might be made in future. The author then interviews climbers who express concern about the coroner’s findings, and the pressures placed on mountain guides.
  • Aoraki Mt Cook, 2005: An interview with Guy McKinnon, covering several of his experiences but also including when he slipped and fell as a solo climber on the Beare Step near the top of Aoraki Mt Cook, luckily stopping between two sharp rocks before falling off, but damaging his ankle in the process and spending the night on an uncomfortably small ledge before a rescue helicopter could arrive. The essay examines McKinnon’s depressed attitude after the accident, and follows how it changes to a more positive outlook as time goes on.
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