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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 [1], subtitled New Zealand mountaineering tragedies and survival stories, after some prodding in issues 178 and 179 of the FMC Bulletin [2], and also a comment [3] 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:

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "High Misadventure by Paul Hersey (my thoughts)"

#1 Comment By Adrian Wood On 30 March, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

Hi Mike. For me personally there was a powerful message in the Matukituki Valley, 1988 story about communication. Anyone leading a trip needs to be able to understand and assess the party members psychological state and ask questions before a trip is to commence.

People who can function well in normal situations may react poorly when under stress.

Just started a new book (Aspiring by Kieran Kelly) which is not only a mountaineering story of a first-time climber but also about middle-age, mid-life crisis and dealing with past demons and fears.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 March, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

Yes I certainly thought that was one of the most powerful stories despite not having much directly to do with mountaineering, and kudos to the author for researching and including it.

#3 Comment By Robb On 31 March, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

Kia ora Mike,
I recall that 1966 Rolleston story involved Norm Hardie, a Kiwi mountaineer of days gone by but highly accomplished. In many other respects as well. He was one of the men trapped by the second avalanche, and the telling of it in his own book “On My Own Two Feet” is gripping stuff indeed. Bob McKerrow has had a few good mates lose their lives on that mountain as well.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 April, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

Hi Robb. Thanks for that reference. Norm Hardie was one of the people interviewed, although I expect his story was largely summarised in this account. It’s quite amazing that nearly all of them survived at all. I’m not too experienced in those conditions but I think typically if you get caught in an avalanche it’s unlikely you’ll get out alive, unless someone locates and digs you out very quickly. It seems they were only very lucky that some gear in the tents prevented some of them from getting completely pinned, and allowed a couple of them to cut air-holes through the canvas and eventually get most of them out.

#5 Comment By Lynda Lehmann On 10 April, 2010 @ 3:31 am

Sounds like a great book for climbers to read. I love to hike but would not attempt a mountain of any considerable size. (I’m not sure I was EVER fit enough for mountain climbing, although I wish I had been.)

I do LOVE the outdoor life, though.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 17 April, 2010 @ 8:50 am

Hi Lynda. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I’m not a climber at all either, though I get outdoors a lot and found it generally relevant and overall fascinating. There’s a lot of cross-over in these things.

#7 Comment By Lynne Williams (nee Harper) On 21 April, 2010 @ 12:05 am

I was recently sent a copy of the book from my cousin who lives in Australia but visited New Zealand recently and quite accidently found out about its existence. My brother Michael Harper was one of the climbers from UK who died on Mount Rolleston in June 1966. As I was only 10 at the time the book made very interesting and poignant reading. My father died a few years after the accident and unfortunately my mother was never able to get out to N.Z. to visit his grave. I am hoping to do so either later this year or next. My cousin did visit his grave while visiting N.Z.

I would also like to mention that Michael was a very experienced climber according to members of my family who were of the same age group and despite his young years had travelled the world in the merchant navy, and climbed mountains whilst visiting countries, before leaving the UK to live in N.Z. with his fiancee Christine (I never knew her surname).

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 23 April, 2010 @ 8:25 am

Hi Lynne. Thanks very much for the comment.

It doesn’t surprise me to hear that he had a good idea of what he was doing. Sometimes, I guess, it can just be an unlikely freak accident or otherwise very small mistake that could lead to larger consequences, and I suppose there’s always a risk in those conditions.

I hope you’ll have a chance to make it over here sooner or later and then appreciate the trip. If you’re able to, you should certainly try to set aside at least a few weeks to look around while you’re here and enjoy the place.

#9 Comment By Kelly Ranford On 27 May, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

I am the niece of one of the trampers killed in 1977 at Three Johns Hut (Craig Benge) I cam across this site while trying to find out more information about what happened. It is not much talked about in our house and I was not yet born when my Uncle died. There is very little else on the internet about it but was good to read some information about the accident.

#10 Comment By Mike McGavin On 27 May, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

Hello Kelly. Good to hear from you and thanks for posting.

I was surprised with a quick search just now to find that it’s not a well described incident around the internet, as you’ve pointed out, maybe because it occurred before the internet was available. It’s certainly well remembered in the outdoor community, especially among people who were actively doing things outdoors during the late 1970’s. There are also many people, probably mostly younger, who have heard about it but know little except that the hut blew away with people inside (I was one until recently). It’s an understanding that brings people’s assumptions about total safety down to earth either way.

I think it’s remembered because it shocked so many people at the time, and it still does shock a few people when they hear of it. Typically in New Zealand’s outdoors, back-country huts are assumed to be safe-havens that are immune to bad things happening. This is virtually always the case, but I guess this accident thwarted some people’s fundamental assumptions.

If you’d like to learn more and haven’t yet looked it up, I’d definitely suggest Paul Hersey’s book (which I’ve discussed in this post) as a good starting point. It was published recently (2009) and you’ll find it in a library or otherwise somewhere like Whitcoulls or another bookshop. He’s devoted 11.5 pages to Three Johns Hut, although about half is his insights and comments around the expectations of such huts, and related stories. I think it’s the only occasion in his book where he’s not been able to interview first-hand witnesses, but he’s still put in a lot of research and interviewed others who were involved to describe more detail about what happened at the time.

#11 Comment By Robb On 1 June, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

Kia ora Mike,
I just finished the book that Adrian above mentions by Kieran Kelly. As I am about to turn 50 myself, and with a new hip, I was attracted by his motivations of finding himself and dealing to things in his past through climbing mountains. I have been exploring some of those same notions myself, but after reading the book I think one day I may do a guided winter trip to a place like Taranaki, but on the whole Kelly’s journey in a mountaineering sense really put me off. Aspiring was vastly out of his depth and capability, indeed he had never climbed any mountain prior to attempting a very difficult and dangerous route. He was more or less dragged up the mountain by a paid guide, and a couple of times put both their lives in danger. In the end he found it not be the cleansing sort of experience he had imagined. I find some of these modern guiding companies to be a bit culpable in promoting many of the worlds high peaks, or difficult ones here in NZ as being doable by people whom clearly are not. A lot of the reading I did in my convalescence were books on Everest and the moneyed treadmill to the top it has become. Except when it goes wrong. Think I might just stick to the tramping.
By the way also read Hersey’s two books, interesting to read from Kelly above who was related to one of the guys killed in the Three John’s disaster. I was very chilled reading that story imagining the horror of those guys realizing they were in deep shit, hearing those guy wires snapping ect. I had one experience on my own at Top Maropea where the walls were bending in on the side of the northely gale, and the roof blew off the dunny. I dressed at 3:00 am and considered heading into the leatherwood, and it was a long night. Needless to say the hut is still there, but I can only imagine what those people in the Three Johns must have gone through.

#12 Comment By Mike McGavin On 1 June, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

Hi Robb. Well you’ve gotten into an issue that I’ve wondered about for some time, which is the entire infrastructure for guiding in alpine environments. I’ll just have a rant, but I don’t think it’ll add anything to what you’ve said.

A few years ago (as was well publicised) Mark Inglis [10] 300 metres from the Everest summit, and doing nothing. He’s defended it and claimed there was nothing that could be done, and was even quoted saying “My sherpa sort of just pushed me on . . . that was the end of the situation really. I did nothing. I did nothing, you know. I did everything that I possibly could, which was essentially nothing,”. (I don’t want to single out Inglis with this — he’s obviously not alone, and I just think it’s the easiest example of the situation.)

This is someone who’s a very experienced mountaineer, but even he was being influenced by a sherpa in this instance (apparently) according to what he said. Probably he didn’t have the time or facilities to spend years invested in doing it by himself, as is also the case with so many others. Interestingly enough the guy they walked past was someone climbing independently, who’d elected to climb on his own without relying on the guiding expedition infrastructure. It may or may not be true that he couldn’t do anything. It probably was true, but I don’t think I’ll ever be certain no matter what’s said about it. I find it a terribly discomforting situation to hear about. It’s well and good to complain that critics don’t understand what it’s really like up there. I bet many don’t, and I’m certainly not someone with first-hand experience either, but I think it’s reasonable to question why it’s like that up there at all. I’d be very surprised if it’s entirely to do with a harsh environment.

Several decades ago, a climbing team might well have stopped regardless, and done whatever they could to help or at least comfort someone in that situation. Finding someone in such a state would have been unusual and very possibly a person the team knew or cared about. These days, the guiding infrastructure makes things a conveyor belt whereby people with reasonably appropriate skills and enough money can pay a company to guide them to the top, and the expeditions have financial incentives (both for their current and future customers) to give priority to their own and their goals. It opens that level of climbing to all sorts of extra people who’d never have made it on their own, but perhaps have always dreamed or wanted to for a lifetime. It’s also designed, however, so that people will spend a lot of money (perhaps their life savings) and quite possibly only have one chance, all the time knowing that they “might not” reach the top. I have trouble imagining how anyone could have this kind of buildup and still think rationally in such a situation. How many people actually would give up on their colossally expensive life-long never-having-another-chance dream because they happen to walk past someone who’ll probably die anyway? Especially when the sherpa for the expedition company pushes them on and justifies that decision for them.

Today there’s so much guiding infrastructure and commercial infrastructure and political incentive to encourage rich mountaineers to pour money into some of these places. The possibilities are open for so many more people to attempt what would once have been restricted to the elite who had time to invest in building all the skills and knowledge on their own, but you also end up with [11] (why??). I suppose New Zealand has its share which Paul Hersey’s book also gets at one way or another, and it sounds as if Kieran Kelly’s book does too.

I don’t think there’s a problem with having a guide to show you around a place. Guides are how you can learn things. But they should be there primarily to teach with a goal so you can do things independently with a comparable competence for yourself, not to babysit and walk you through.

#13 Comment By stephen On 3 June, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

There’s at least one other example of people who have died in huts. Bushline Hut, in the left branch of the Motueka River in Richmond Forest Park, was washed away (in the mid 1990s I think), killing two DOC workers sleeping inside. The new hut is called Hunters’ Hut in their memory, and was built a long way above the river (and is a very nice hut I might add). When I went through there about 12 or 13 years ago, there were still bits of corrugated iron from the wrecked hut up a tree.

#14 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 June, 2010 @ 11:54 am

Hi Stephen. Thanks for pointing that one out. It was before my time (involved in the outdoors) though I vaguely remember something about it. It’s very hard to find info online apart from a couple of very brief mentions. I might have to make a trip to the library and consult some old newspapers.

#15 Comment By john On 11 June, 2010 @ 11:23 am

Hi Mike
Like you I find this a really interesting albeit often tragic subject matter.

After reading this blog, picked Hersey’s book up and read it in a sitting, found it pretty riveting – will need to re-read for a second, more savoured approach.

I’m definitely more tramper than mountaineer, but have experienced basic alpine technique and try to climb North Island mountains in winter every few years

On one such occasion, in June 2007, we set out for a early winter weekend Tongariro crossing – snow had fallen during the week, with the Desert Road getting it’s first closure of the year – so were looking forward ‘cramponing up’ and enjoying a crunchy stroll in the white stuff.

The weather forecast was great for the Saturday and then to deteriorate on the Sunday Afternoon – turning to custard overnight Sunday – we figured we would, with a night at Mangatepopo Hut on Saturday be cutting it fine – but be fairly comfortable. We arrived at the hut on Saturday afternoon after a quick stroll from Whakapapa village – and settled in.

Amazing night with the star lit silhouette of Ngauruhoe omnipresent – drawing some of us out of the hut to sleep on the deck. However morning arrived with a change in the weather – and the front heading in perhaps a little earlier than first predicted – however we set off fairly comfortable with our ability, knowledge of the track and the appropriate gear. Others (mainly Kiwi’s in the Hut) decided to walk up to the staircase – but go no further without the appropriate gear.

It had been a few years since my last Tongariro jaunt and what amazed me on the Saturday morning when we departed the hut was the endless stream of day walking Tourists, clad fairly lightly, even for a summer trip! Cotton, jeans, fingerless gloves, sneakers and shock horror even ugg boots.

They all seemed pretty jolly as we all climbed in unison up the devils staircase (now literally a staircase) but as we reached the top the temperature had plummeted with light snow falling, and fairly slippery conditions on the South Crater – we sat down for a bite, donned crampons and were asked by many of the Day walking Tourist what are those things on out feet – to which we answered crampons, you need them here today. Some asked if they should turn back – with which we answered an emphatic yes. And some did – but a good number 40 plus had already gone ahead as we had a rather leisurely breakkie and start out from Mangatepopo Hut.

On the way up from South Crater to the top of the Red Crater is where thinks got a bit interesting. We came across the main group of 40 plus people, imobilized due to the plummeting temperature and the snow which had turned to rock hard, slippery ice. There was one guy with a broken ankle from slipping and further ahead it got even worse with a young French couple in a hypothermic state – luckily three Kiwi guys (who also stayed in the Hut with us the night before) had them in their sleeping bags and were in contact with the police on cellphones (these guys were undoubtedly the hero’s of the day as they definitely saved lives) – we had a quick recce with them and decided that as we had crampons and ice axes that we would cut steps back down to the South Crater for the remaining Day Trippers, as they were really not clothed properly to stay there much longer and some were staring to suffer from the cold – they also mentioned that a strong and fit Swiss day tripper had already gone up and over the top of Red Crater towards Ketetahi – which was worrying. So we successfully cut steps and got the main group down to the South Crater – by this stage their sole guide/bus driver had arrived with a single ice axe and no crampons – so was ineffective in helping.

So we carried on – with the aim now to look ahead for the Swiss guy who had soloed across the tops and indeed to complete our weekend goal of an early winter Tongariro Crossing. On the way over the tops we heard the thud thud of the Rescue helicopters coming in for the hypothermic French couple and as we headed down into the Central Crater and Blue Lakes we were hit with blizzard like conditions with driving snow, sleet and gusting winds. Worryingly too we noticed specs of blood through the snow, these continued all the way to Ketatahi hut – where thankfully the Swiss Soloist had made it to after slipping and falling on the steep descent off Red Crater – he sustained serious cuts/abrasions and a broken arm – probably fairly lucky in hindsight, and was airlifted to Taupo.

The French couple with Hypothermia were airlifted off the mountain too as was the guy with the broken ankle, and one other English tourist who had broken his ribs in a fall on the ice – so not too serious – but it could well of been a lot worse if a few keen Kiwi’s had stayed home that weekend to watch the Allblacks.

I know now (since that trip) regulation on the crossing has tightened – and this event may be less likely to happen – but I was astonished that all those lovely tourists were sheep loaded onto a bus, paid good money and then were basically led (or not led as the case was) into a possible tragedy and maybe another chapter for Hersey’s book.

In consideration of all this and I guess back to one of the central themes of the book – one thought that I consider from time to time, and as that well heard cliché goes “death and taxes are inevitable” – I guess if I could choose mine – it would probably be (hopefully at little or no cost to the taxpayer) in the hills or mountains.

John (Auckland Man)

#16 Comment By Amelia On 11 June, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

John – scary stuff that!
We did the Tongariro Crossing the week after Christmas this summer just been, and thankfully things are better organised by most shuttle companies now (and I say most, I cant speak for all).
The night before, every company we rang said that on the current weather reports they were NOT intending on going, but the reports had been exceedingly changeable, so call first thing and check again.
The advantage this had was that a lot fewer people bothered trying, because that “call in the morning” meant getting up at 6.30am just to find out if it was possible to go – I think a lot of people would have been put off by that!
The weather was bad, but everyone we saw had good kit, and it was bad rather than appalling. I wound up with bad wind burn, and several others waiting at the Ketatahi road end had blisters, but other than that, everyone was out safe and well.

Previously though, I saw trampers in chucks and jeans with cotton tees at Easter (and it got cold across the tops that day too) and at Winter Solstice one year we came across a fairly-well equipped tourist who was solo-ing and had broken her ankle. She was in good spirits though, and had warm clothes and stuff…

MIKE – any chance I could borrow this book off you? Sounds like a great read!

#17 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 June, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

@Amelia — yep.

@John — ouch, thanks for that chilling story. The last and only time I walked the Tongariro Crossing (about September 2006), it wasn’t crampon material but there was still a fair amount of snow, maybe 5 metres visibility in some places, and some very freezing and strong wind in certain places that would have badly gotten to anyone with exposed skin. Yet every so often the mist would open up, and there would somehow be 50 people above and behind us, none especially well prepared. A friend of mine’s been doing geology field work in that area and seen people trying to walk it with skirts and Glassons bags! As you’ve implied, I’ve also heard some disturbing things about how some of the drop-off pick-up tour companies have operated in the past, but also claims that the operators often just get ignored by people when they give advice to not go ahead, or to not go far, or whatever.

So far my impression’s been that the majority of people who walk the crossing do so with no bail-out plan for bad weather. So lots of tourists factor in exactly one day of their trip when they’ll walk what they’ve been told is one of the best and unmissable walks in New Zealand. Then the weather disintegrates on them, and people go anyway. They’ve already arranged so many other things around it that there’s no easy way to change their plans, they really don’t want to miss it. I guess people see it as unrealisitically safe, maybe an impression resulting from it being so accessible and well promoted, and because it’s a day-walk. Also because when visiting some of the other places world-wide where young people go on their world trips (at least from what I’ve seen), the dangerous places are usually away from the main tourist trails, or at least locked behind guided tours or other kinds of excessive supervision from countries’ governments or otherwise… which isn’t quite the case here (and I hope it never is!).

These days if people ask me about the Tongariro Crossing, I try to suggest they should have plans to spend a few days in the area if they can, and know what they’ll do instead if the conditions aren’t great, and just don’t expect to go. It’s not exactly easy in that area, though, especially for anyone without their own transport. I’m not sure how much has changed in the last few years, and I know that since then DoC’s at least been trying to change certain things (like referring to it as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing), but I did honestly come away from that experience with a firm opinion that probably nothing serious will change until 30+ tourists get wiped off the mountain.

Cheers and thanks for the comment. Personally I wouldn’t want to choose death in the mountains. It’d probably mean I screwed up somehow. 🙂

#18 Comment By erik monasterio On 1 September, 2010 @ 11:51 am

Hi Mike,
I have read with interest you post and append a copy of an article I wrote several years ago, with respect to accidents and personality charcateristics of mountaineers. This has been published and quoted fairly extensively and summarises a body of research and opinion on the subject. It may provide the basis for further discussion on a highly complex and emotive subject.


By Erik Monasterio

Adventure and risk-taking sports such as mountaineering, kayaking, rock-climbing, downhill mountain-biking and base jumping have increased in popularity in recent years. These activities court significant dangers and attract individuals who are prepared to gamble their personal safety, and at times their life in search of a rush of excitement or an unusual accomplishment. Public attention in these sports generally focuses on tragedies and as such is highly emotive and sensationalized. Dramatic accounts of accidents and hardships often lead to fierce debates on the merits and ethics of these sports. Take as an example the controversial events surrounding double-amputee, Mark Inglis’ successful climb of Everest in 2006. Over forty ascending climbers, most with significant team back-up and radio contact to base camp, walked past a dying English mountaineer, David Sharp. Recent accounts reveal that film footage of the unfortunate climber was gratuitously taken and despite David’s poor health he was able to speak to the climbers. Tragically and incredulously despite the teams being well equipped with modern equipment, oxygen and medicine no rescue attempts were made. Ambitious mountaineers walked around David and left him to die, choosing instead to direct their energy to the climb. They gave more value to the summit than to the life of a fellow mountaineer! The climbers once again stumbled past the moribund David on their way down, and still offered no help. The self-serving justifications that he was beyond help and that rescues at such high altitudes are impossible are not convincing, as ten days later another very sick mountaineer, Australian Lincoln Hall, was rescued from a position higher up the mountain. Himalayan climbers, and the leader of the Inglis team, Russell Brice, know very well that many successful rescues have occurred beyond the “Death Zone” (over 8000m) and that it is notoriously difficult to predict who will die from mountain sickness. In 1996 on the same mountain, Texan pathologist Beck Weathers walked to safety despite twice having been deemed “essentially dead”. Over time 245 mountaineers have died in their quest to climb New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/ Mt Cook and more than one thousand in their quest for Europe’s highest peak, Mt Blanc. Australian sea kayaker Andrew McCauley tragically died attempting the first solo-crossing from Australia to New Zealand. Base jumping is probably the most dangerous sport in the world and involves parachute jumping from either tall natural features or man-made structures. The parachute is initially closed and is opened after a (short) free fall. A comprehensive data base of base jumping fatalities reveals that 175 jumpers have died since the sport began (approximately 30 years ago). The surprising finding is that only 123 of those deaths were directly related to base jumping, the other deaths were related to other accidents, drug overdoses and suicides. Taking these reports into consideration the understandable public perception is that adventure sport participants are an unusual, highly selfish or odd breed of people. Why else would they willfully choose to court danger and gamble with their lives? At times to the detriment of others.

Sensationalized reports, although very good at capturing public attention, are seldom balanced or objective and therefore unhelpful in providing an understanding of the risks and motivations behind risk-taking sports. Given that New Zealand currently promotes itself as an adventure destination, where risk-taking sports and activities are popular and traded commercially, it is an important and timely subject. As a mountaineer and psychiatrist I have been involved in scientific research to try to determine the rate of accidents in adventure sports. I am also interested in finding out whether people who engage in these activities have “unusual” or unique personalities, and whether there are any biological or genetic reasons to explain why people take up these sports.

In a New Zealand based study of experienced and committed mountaineers, I found that almost half of them had suffered at least one climbing related injury. Two thirds of those injured were hospitalized and 20% required more than 3 months to recover or were left with long-term health problems. Four years after starting the study there was a 10% death rate (five deaths), four due to climbing accidents. Other studies of mountaineers have found similar results. For example Murray Malcolm, from the University of Otago found that the death rate from climbing in the Mount Cook National Park was 5000 times greater than from work-related injuries. The death rates from climbing on the highest peaks in the Park where similar to those of climbers to peaks over 7000m, approximately 4%. I also found that the personality of climbers was quite different to that of average people. Climbers scored higher in the areas of Novelty-Seeking and Self-Directedness and lower on Harm-Avoidance. What this suggests is that climbers generally enjoy exploring unfamiliar places and situations. They are easily bored, try to avoid monotony and so tend to be quick-tempered, excitable and impulsive. They enjoy new experiences and seek out thrills and adventures, even if other people think that they are a waste of time. Climbers therefore also participate in other adventure sports, such as mountain biking. When confronted with uncertainty and risk climbers tend to be confident and relaxed. Difficult situations are often seen by climbers as a challenge or an opportunity. They are less responsive to danger and this can lead to foolhardy optimism. Climbers also have good self-esteem and self-reliance and therefore tend to be high-achievers. I have completed a similar study of base jumpers and the initial results are sobering as they show that almost two-thirds have suffered at least one base jumping accident. Almost all of those injured required hospital treatment and two-thirds needed more than 3 months to recover or were left with long-term health problems. All base jumpers estimated that they had had “near-misses” and all of them had friends die from the sport. Overall the personality of the base jumpers appears to be very similar to those of mountaineers. These findings are similar to those of other personality studies of risk-taking sports people, which have found high scores on the measure of Sensation Seeking (essentially the same as Novelty-Seeking). What these findings suggest is that biology and genetics play at least a moderate role in determining who will take up these sports. We know that the amount of Harm-Avoidance, Novelty-Seeking and Sensation-Seeking are inherited from our parents and are determined by the levels of a number of brain neurotransmitters, called monoamines. These monoamines (Dopamine and Serotonin) are chemicals that pass information between lower and higher brain regions. High Novelty-Seeking and Sensation-Seeking are both associated with low levels of Dopamine and the current theory is that involvement in risk-taking activities helps to boost the levels of this brain neurotransmitter. High Harm-Avoidance, which confers a propensity to become anxious or scared in the face of risk or uncertainty is related to high levels of Serotonin. In my studies risk-taking sports people had low levels of Harm-Avoidance and this may explain why they are able to tolerate risk and uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. In fact the low levels of Harm-Avoidance may contribute to a tendency to underestimate danger and therefore may partially account for the high rates of accidents.

An interesting observation of serious risk-taking sports people is that despite frequent “near misses” and accidents, they continue to participate in adventure sports. This persistence in the face of trauma is in my view quite unique. Average people who experience or witness trauma to the levels found in my studies would be expected to develop psychological complications, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other mood or anxiety problems. In the studies however participants appeared to be immune to these reactions. Researchers in Switzerland who studied a large number of professional mountain guides also found that they had unusually low levels of trauma-related psychological complications. The researchers commented that the level of trauma experienced by the mountaineers was similar to that experienced by fire-fighter and army personnel, yet they had only 10-20% the rate of psychological disturbance. Only 3% of mountaineers developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whereas rates in firefighters are up to 20%. The mountaineers in that study were also found to have low levels of Harm-Avoidance. What emerges as an interesting possibility is that risk-taking sports people may be protected from the psychological complications that generally accompany serious trauma. This could explain why accidents don’t put them off adventure sports and low Harm-Avoidance may account for this immunity. At a community level, psychological complications from trauma are relatively common and it is estimated that at least 5% of the population will suffer from these debilitating problems at some point in their lives. A major difficulty for health workers following traumatic events such as natural disasters or terror attacks is identifying which people are at risk or are protected from these conditions. If a link between Harm-Avoidance and a lower incidence in these conditions is established, then it may eventually help to identify vulnerable individuals and offer early interventions. Further studies of risk-taking sports people could therefore have important public health benefits.

The study of risk-taking sports people yields interesting results. Not surprisingly sports such as mountaineering and base jumping are associated with significant risk of accidents and fatalities. People who choose to take up these sports appear to have a biological make-up which is different to that of average people in the community and these differences in brain chemistry help to explain why they put themselves in perilous situations. Biological correlations however must not be taken too far. In my view adventure sports are rewarding and exhilarating for reasons that go beyond the explanation of biology. A very significant number of participants in these studies pointed out that their involvement in risk-taking sports were richly rewarding for reasons far more profound than the simple thrill of risk-taking. They often described a connectedness to nature and respect for the natural environment. Others spoke of the special relationships that eventuate from trusting partners in challenging times. Ultimately however, whatever the reasons behind risk-taking sports, participants will be judged not so much by their achievements, but by their response to the needs of others at times of crisis and need. The risk that personal ambitions and economic pressures erode acceptable standards of behavior and moral values, are sadly as present in adventure sports as in any other human endeavor.


1. The research on Base Jumping is undertaken in collaboration with Dr. O. Mei-Dan (orthopaedic surgeon, Israel).
2. Malcolm M. Mountaineering fatalities in Mt Cook National Park. N Z Med J. 2001; 114:78–80.
3. Pollard A, Clarke C. Deaths during mountaineering at extreme altitude. Lancet. 1988; 1:1277.
4. Monasterio E. The Climber. Christchurch: Saxon Print; 2003: Issue 43/Autumn: p31–2.
5. Cloninger C, Przybeck T, Svrakic D, Wetzel R. The Temperament and Character Inventory: a guide to its development and use. Center for Psychobiology of Personality. St. Louis, Missouri: Washington University; 1994.
6. Monasterio E. Accident and fatality characteristics in a population of mountain climbers in New Zealand. N Z Med J. 2005; 118.

#19 Comment By Wayne Clark On 3 April, 2013 @ 8:26 am

Erik, your comments about leaving the climber on everest to die are out of perspective.
at the altitude they were at high on everest you’re so at the limit of functioning because of low air pressure and aoxygen and cold, its all people can do to move themselves let alone another person on a steep sided mountain ridge. if anything serious happens to you at that altitude and you can’t move yourself, then you’re as good as on your own, the only thing that can be done is administer oxygen if that doesnt revive a person, theres little hope for them

#20 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 April, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

Hi Wayne. I doubt Erik will be following this thread any longer, so probably won’t respond in his capacity as a mountaineer and psychiatrist unless you were to email him directly. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the ability of those who passed by to offer useful assistance, but I believe Erik’s main point is on how the relatively sensationalised reporting of such incidents is generally unhelpful in understanding what’s happening.

#21 Comment By Wayne Clark On 3 April, 2013 @ 8:30 am

oxygen was administered to the dying english climber to no avail
Lincoln hall was able to recover enough to walk down off the mountain on his own feet. he was in a far far better state when he came down than david sharp who couldnt be roused with oxygen…

#22 Comment By Mike McGavin On 2 September, 2010 @ 8:53 am

Hi Erik. Thanks for posting your article. Yes I’ve seen your work cited in several places, notably Paul Hersey book (the subject of my post above), Carl Walrond’s ‘Survive’ book which I’m busy reading, and also during a talk I was at some time ago about personalities of mountaineers. It’s very interesting reading.

Personally I think some helicopter pilots must fall into a similar category as many mountaineers and base jumpers.

#23 Comment By sam On 21 February, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

Just read this today after completing the Tongariro Crossing for the first time in near perfect conditions yesterday. Having had three planned attempts waved off due to weather in the past, finally getting the opportunity to go felt like an achievement in itself. For the record I am a novice/entry level tramper (I have done a few here and there, but not as a serious pastime). Even as a novice though having a lifelong interest in NZ’s changeable weather, and being somewhat pragmatic and hazard aware by nature I had a look at the recommended gear lists for a summer crossing and made sure I had everything (recommended or not, a few things on the list I would have taken regardless). I had probably the heaviest pack in my party as a result, but I would rather have these things and not need them (and in the event I didn’t) than the other way around. Seeing what some thought an appropriate level of attire and gear though, while not unexpected, was still unnerving.

I have to agree with earlier commenters about being dismayed at the simple lack of awareness and forethought of some people entering these environments (even amongst some in my group who should have known better, being capable trekkers in their own countries), and also agree that perhaps the marketing may have something to do with it. There is a process failure somewhere meaning that many walkers I saw yesterday clearly had no notion of just what they were attempting. I noted the ‘Are you sure’ sign at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase, but it occured to me that even that might not be registered by the naive (it is also only in English), expecting an easy trek and not having any real idea of what the warning implies.

Thanks for the post, it made interesting reading, with relevance beyond mountaineering. As an aside though, I have to point out that the helicopter that crashed in the 1982 Mount Cook rescue was Air Force rather than Army. The NZ Army has never operated helicopters in NZ, only the Air Force and Navy. This may seem like a small point to the layman, but it is a common and ongoing public misconception and really annoys the people I know who fly and maintain the things as another service is being credited with their hard work 🙂

#24 Comment By Mike McGavin On 23 February, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

Thanks for the comment, Sam. I agree completely.

I’ve corrected the army/air-force mistake. I have to take responsibility because I’m often equally pedantic when I read other people’s similar mistakes. I re-checked the book in the hope of proving that I’d not been the only one wrong, but the book definitely says RNZAF, My excuse is that I must have been distracted by the passage several paragraphs earlier on page 77 where the author wrote “DOC staff made radio contact with Doole and Inglis several times during the 24 hours after the gear drop”, when DOC as an entity obviously didn’t exist in 1982, having only been formed in 1987. 🙂

#25 Comment By William Bennett On 11 April, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

I was in the storm of 1977 in Mt. Cook National Park. We spent the night in De la Beche hut. We had been in Three Johns hut the week before. I have the same name as one of the climbers killed in Three Johns. Am looking for best book about the storm. Is Paul Hersey’s book what I’m looking for. How would I order it? I live in the U.S. Thanks! Bill Bennett

#26 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 April, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

Hi Bill. Thanks for the story.

The book is a collation of essays or stories, so it’s only a short part of it which is about this storm and the events. It was printed a few years ago now but I think it’s still around in a few online shops. eg. [12]

It looks like you might also be able to purchase direct from the author though, if you prefer. [13] If you contact Paul directly, he might also be able to point you to other resources.

NZ$30 probably equates to about USD$20 these days, plus whatever the postage charge would be.

#27 Comment By William Bennett On 11 April, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

If you don’t mind I’d like to include an excerpt from my journal 1977.
As we descended from Ball Hut the sun came out. However, the winds force along with cooler temperatures coming off the glacier did not seem very inviting. The wind was accompanied with a painful rain that felt like we were being sand blasted as it pelted our faces.

Traversing the Tasman was getting hairy, one person fell in a small dip in the glacier and sprained his ankle. A gust of wind knocked me over and dropped me into a similar ditch. I had taken my gloves off for some reason and had sustained a cut to the hand. The gust that had knocked me over had become the prevailing wind. The force of this wind was incredible: at times I could not stand. We were all taking turns falling down thanks to this demon who fought our every step.
We estimated that we were at least two hours away from the Malte Brun Hut. The situation had now become critical. One person remembered a seldom used little hut less than an hour away. Malti was abandoned and De la Beche become our goal.
In slow motion we had painstakingly worked our way to the edge of the moraine. Carefully placed steps steps gradually led us to a steep but short cliff. A little hand over hand and we would almost be there. I felt a big thump on my right shoulder. A rock the size of a softball had been dislodged and landed me a glancing blow. Pulled myself back into the rock wall and continued on. Over the top and there it was, a small structure but it looked like a King’s Palace to us!
The four of us tumbled into our new home. I had been the worst possible day to head up the Tasman. It was my pig-headedness that got us into this mess. One of the guys looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a straight face said, “so what’s the game plan, Bill? The room erupted into several rounds of laughter.
During the night De la Beche shifted and groaned from the force of wind and rain. At one point the walls leaned in from the force of the wind and knocked over the candles we had placed on the 2 x 4 support beams. This was a force of nature none of us had experienced before.
Would this small hut hold up to the beating it was taking? We were protected on three sides by the natural rock walls of the mountain and a good distance from the edge of the glacier moraine. However, as the noise from the wind and the imploding rocks against the hut made it impossible to talk, so too were any thoughts that were not connected with the shrill screaming storm and exploding missiles around us. It was to be a very long night.
Two days later we walked back from Ball Hut. The road had been washed out, no bus. As I tried to cash a travelers check it was then I found out that a climber with my name sake was missing from Three Johns Hut. Sad to say that Bill Bennett was killed along with three other New Zealand climbers in “The Storm.”

#28 Comment By William Bennett On 11 April, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

Mike McGavin, thanks for Paul Herseys email. I sent him an email. It would be great if I could get a copy.
Thanks a lot! Bill Bennett