The Price of Great Walks

Last month an incident occurred, out of season, on the Milford Track. I’ll reflect on a few things before getting to it.

In New Zealand we have an enshrined legal right to enter most parts of the Conservation Estate. (I wrote more about how this works, over here.) By design in law, it’s difficult for people to be fenced out for their protection. In exchange visitors are considered responsible for their own safety. After all, one person’s dangerous place could be another adequately skilled person’s source of adventure.

Great Walks, however, don’t always fit nicely into this framework. Similar concepts have existed previously, but the modern idea of “Great Walks” began with the Department of Conservation’s effort towards its mandate of fostering recreation. The idea has been to consolidate and market several of the most iconic tramping trips, and make them relatively accessible for a large number of people of varying abilities.

Over time they’ve become intensively used. By the latter end of the 1990s, booking systems were being introduced to control overcrowding. A booking system can’t restrict anyone’s entry to the land, but tactical limitations of facility use (especially huts), combined with bylaws to disallow camping in certain areas, now makes it impractical to walk some Great Walks without booking ahead.

The Milford Track is one such Great Walk. In the booking season, between November and May, it becomes a beautifully iconic conveyor belt of tourists. The speed at which you might want to walk it doesn’t matter, because “the track takes 4 days to walk“. This is thanks to the requirement of booking all three huts at once for sequential nights, with these huts being the only legal place to stay. If this doesn’t work for you, you could either search for a way to camp further than 500 metres from the line of the track (difficult with the geography), or run the entire track without stopping.

The Milford Track’s role in public access

Despite the highly managed structure for visitations, the Milford Track actually has its own place in the history of New Zealanders’ establishment of the freedom to explore their own back yard on their own terms. In 1965, about 40 young people from the Otago Tramping Club decided to be civilly disobedient, to protest the exclusive restrictions of entry to the Milford Track for highly paying resort tourists. In protest, they illegally entered and walked the length of the track anyway.

Ripples of this protest soon resulted in a policy change. The government entity which had been operating these expensive, exclusive guided tourism walks would eventually became the privately operated Ultimate Hikes. In parallel, however, it’s now legal to enter and walk the Milford Track without a guide, and remaining fully responsible for yourself, just as happens elsewhere on public land.

There’s an excellent account of the protest, and its impact, in the January 2014 issue of Wilderness Magazine. A wider effect has probably been the continued establishment of public access rights on public land in New Zealand more generally. Without the precedent, some of what have become Great Walks since that time, and perhaps some other places attractive for tourists, might also have been instead locked away as segregated and privatised attractions.

Milford in winter

Through winter, the Milford Track becomes more dangerous, even for highly skilled people. Alpine skills are required and there are serious and often very difficult-to-gauge, sometimes impossible-to-avoid avalanche risks. DOC refuses to take bookings for the huts during this time of year, and public huts revert back to the first-come-first-serve system of regular back-country hut tickets. DOC also removes many bridges which would otherwise be susceptible to avalanche damage. Access to the land is still permitted. It’s a National Park, but few people enter the vicinity of the Milford Track in winter.

Usually, however, there’s a buffer zone between the official booking season and when winter really kicks in. Its excessive popularity, combined with available booking spaces, has also led to a trend of visitors immediately after the end of the official season, when the Milford’s huts revert to unbooked back-country huts. This could be to avoid the higher booking costs, to avoid the crowds, or because they hadn’t booked huts in time to be able to walk the track earlier.

Last month, it was out of season when this incident occurred: a woman was swept down a flooded side creek and into a surging Clinton River, following a failed attempt by three people to cross the creek.

Swept away from the Milford Track

A description of events from someone involved emerged through the Sydney Morning Herald, republished on Stuff. In the heat of the moment, at least one of those involved vented anger at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, for not telling the group that there were no bridges.

“They didn’t tell us that there are no bridges, so we had only one option to go across the river, and the water was too strong, the girl wasn’t able to go on the other side, so she fell into the water and died,” he told friends.

DOC spokespeople were quick to respond, stating that it’s the responsibility of people to be skilled for their situation, and that it’s not DOC’s job to watch out for people. This sentiment has been echoed through much informal discussion in social media and elsewhere. A couple of the more structured examples are on Amelia’s HutBagging blog, and Matthew’s New Zealand Death article on his NZ Tramper website.

The alert on the front of DOC’s
Milford Track website
, 22nd May 2014.

Even with some additional information recently added, claims about information on the bridges also don’t really stack up. Anyone who researches the Milford Track before walking it certainly should discover the detailed Winter Tramping section of DOC’s Milford Track website for May to October. It outlines clear details of what to expect, and states in two places that bridges are removed during winter.

Considering the circumstances under which those quotes were obtained and the lack of objective info on what occurred, I don’t really wish to judge the party member who made them except to disagree with what was said. It’s tough to know what actually happened without having been there. I have theories, but often there’s so much more going on than what’s reported. Hopefully a coroner will more clearly identify what occurred. I do, however, agree with what’s been said elsewhere regarding how responsibility needs to be assigned to people themselves.

The bottom line, however, is that this is yet another occasion where someone’s died because a group of people made a bad decision and chose to step into a flooded river. This is obviously terrible for all those involved, but also extremely frustrating. Basic mountain safety protocols in New Zealand place high emphasis on being prepared to make good and conservative decisions around rivers. Accidents like this simply shouldn’t need to happen, because people should never need to believe that their only choice is to step into a flooded river, but it happened anyway.

All that stuff

In the past I’ve already written about the hut fallacy, and about having suitable bail-out plans, and about all sorts of other stuff. I don’t think I can add much more. The group carried a PLB as is repeatedly recommended (seemingly more than other safety precautions from what I can tell), but it sadly couldn’t summon help until it was probably already too late.

From the descriptions until now, this might have been a standard heuristic trap. As in, the “safety” of entering the river wasn’t assessed by considering the state of the river and members of the party, but by considering the perceived importance of reaching the other side.

It’s unclear from reports if the group had any reasonable plan for portable shelter which might have given them a clear alternative to stepping in a flooded creek (if in the right mindset to begin with), or if they could have been able to return to a permanent shelter on the track rather than try and cross, or whether they carried torches to be able to return to the hut they’d left that morning, or whether the problematic creek would have even been bridged during the booking season.

It seems worth a mention that DOC doesn’t actually advise people to carry portable shelter on the Milford Track, even in winter. Even on DoC’s page regarding winter tramping on the Milford Track, the “what to take” list makes a big deal about being fully self sufficient. It advises equipment such as a snow shovel and avalanche beacon, but weirdly it suggests nothing about portable shelter beyond a survival blanket.

DOC’s “what to take” list on its Winter Tramping page for the Milford Track.

The Milford Track certainly has more constructed shelter than what’s typical for a back-country experience, but somehow it seems like a shortcoming to not suggest proper portable shelter for winter. It could be the cynic in me which wonders if this might be because someone in DOC doesn’t want to be seen advising people to break the law, considering that Fiordland National Park Bylaw 5A, making camping illegal, remains in place after the booking season ends.

Maybe a more immediate question to ask about the incident and probably some others, though, is whether the group actually understood the need for absolute responsibility for themselves, what that means, and how those perceptions were formed.

Skewing the responsibility with Great Walks

Use of Great Walks has expanded in self-fueling popularity over the past 15 to 20 years. This has especially been the case with overseas visitors wanting to see iconic New Zealand, but sometimes also with locals. Traditional trampers will also visit Great Walks, but the intensive management and marketing of them generally attracts a radically different class of visitor, who might be relatively inexperienced.

Visitors will often be people who haven’t spent much time in New Zealand, who often don’t follow local media. They may have been on multi-day treks in other countries, sometimes under vastly different conditions whether it be with guides or with recurring civilisation, and who from time to time expect something different. New Zealand’s tourism industry sells visitors an experience with Great Walks (remember that giant, global Great Walker competition from Air New Zealand?), and it’s sometimes perceived to be “safe” as a consequence in the same way that one might expect bungee jumping or sky diving to be safe, based on a recipient’s own view of the world and of what’s entailed by tourism. Great Walks largely are safe, based on statistics, but they still take place in what’s actually a different context from a more typically managed tourism experience. Unless a person pays large amounts of money to a private operator to take responsibility, they don’t involve a tour guide or anyone else directly managing the experience.

Today, Great Walks bustle with tourists, many of whom frequent the social rooms of cheap accommodation throughout the country. As happens everywhere in the world, backpackers often trust each other for advice, via word-of-mouth, more than trusting any information provided officially. For some, it probably doesn’t matter what DOC says on signs and pamphlets about safety. Official information won’t always be trusted as much as the first-hand experience (or anecdote) of some random person from back home, found online, or traveling around in the same community and met the night before. This placement of trust shouldn’t be surprising, either. Visit many countries as backpackers, and you’ll quickly discover that local people and governments are often trying to shape a visitor’s experience, and often tend to lie to you about the best ways to see and do things. They want you to spend as much of your money as they can get you to spend, yet particularly as a backpacker, money is a precious commodity.

It’s a given that many visitors to Great Walks, including the Milford Track, aren’t taking full personal responsibility for their own safety, either because they don’t see the risk or they don’t see that someone else isn’t already managing it for them. The stronger management of visitors with lower independence most likely fuels some of the differing expectations.

Reinforcing perceptions

Given this, DOC manages Great Walks by augmenting the experience to better cater for people not being fully prepared. Back-country huts are large and well heated, with cooking facilities provided. Most waterways are bridged where they wouldn’t be under more typical back-country circumstances. During the designated booking season, DOC usually has wardens occupying every hut, partly to check tickets but also to watch out for people. If it rains too much and a small creek becomes dangerous to cross safely, DOC has been known to bring in a helicopter to carry trampers from one side to the other. Sometimes if rain makes it impossible for an ordinary visitor to follow the track, DOC will cancel hut bookings to prevent people from practically walking the track.

For better or worse, the actions of DOC and the excessive popularity of Great Walks are likely to encourage anyone’s existing perception that the experience has been tailored with their safety in mind, and that if something were un-safe then the experience would not be offered. Where something like portable shelter is concerned, the fact that its use has been made illegal, despite being generally considered as good practice, sends an implicit message of “what’s the point”? It should really be no wonder that some visitors incorrectly treat Great Walks as if the government, or perhaps some mystical fairy, is assuming responsibility for their safety. In contrast, the government makes the experience safer in certain ways, but takes no direct responsibility and (in this specific portable shelter example) makes it harder for people to take complete responsibility for themselves.

This party was walking the Milford Track out of the booking season, but it’s still a common thing which is probably talked about in the lounge-rooms of the backpackers, simply as a way to get around the usual booking requirements. It might have been completely overlooked that the end of the booking season means the end of many other aspects of the Milford Track’s management. Wardens no longer stay in the huts. Hut radios are no longer available. Cooking facilities are removed. Many bridges are removed. The Milford Track subtly shifts from an experience with an ad-hoc safety net towards an experience where it really is necessary to have a sense of responsibility and an ability to make important decisions.

Great Walks might have fewer discrete risks such as rivers which might flood, but they still exist. When encountering a problem such as a flooded river, or approaching darkness, the grade of track one’s been following is irrelevant. It’s fully possible to make a bad decision or a good decision in either circumstance. Preparation both mentally and otherwise, and simply having the option to stop and go no further, is an important factor towards making a good decision.

Every so often, something like this happens, and very suddenly the reality of the situation is brought right back to the front. Unless you happen to have someone clearly taking responsibility for you, even the Milford Track can be a place where it’s necessary to retain a sense of responsibility and clear-headedness about what’s needed for your own safety.

This, to me, seems to be a price which we’re paying for operating Great Walks on behalf of a tourism industry. The market at which Great Walks are targeted is one that’s in direct conflict with our existing balance throughout the country between access rights and responsibility, and it’s a market which obtains much of its information and perceptions from sources which can’t be easily influenced. The incident has already prompted a discussion of how to try and kludge even further around a very difficult problem. Down the line, I hope this type of thing doesn’t result in degrading the legal protections of our public access rights.

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