Comparing two recent weather-related incidents

Out of everything that’s occurred in recent weeks, I’ve found a couple of incidents interesting to compare.

With the first incident, in mid-July, a group of 14 year-old school girls and two instructors were trapped by flooded rivers in the Kaimai Range. They contacted Police and informed them of the situation. Knowing they were well equipped with food and camping gear, Police decided the group were adequately equipped to camp and remain in place. As a precaution, SAR teams entered the bush to help the group identify the easiest way out. The group was well equipped for at least one more night if they’d needed to be.

“This was an example of a very well prepared group with all of the safety equipment you could ask for, making a very good call to ask for help,” senior sergeant Rupert Friend of the Waikato District Command Centre said.

“The girls were never in any real danger, but it was right not to try and push on when confronted by rising water.”

With the second incident, in early August, two women attempted a daywalk in the Tararua Range. They intended to walk between the Holdsworth entrance, via Totara Flats, and out to the Waiohine Gorge road-end. Weather was great when they left and they hadn’t thought to consider the forecast. Conditions worsened considerably, they were slowed by flooded track conditions, and they eventually found themselves trapped by a slip in failing light. The alarm was raised when they didn’t arrive at the collection point, and they were located by a LandSAR team early next morning having waited in torrential rain under survival blankets.

“We looked like drowned rats,” O’Connor said.

French said that, in colder weather, the incident could have been much more serious, but no-one gave the pair too much grief. “There was a bit of polite banter.”

If they hadn’t been trapped at a slip, they very possibly would have been trapped between un-bridged and flooded side-creeks over the track they were following.

Both of these incidents involved land-based search and rescue operations, and fortunately both cases worked out well. Both groups had apparently made their intentions clear, which is something that people whose problems become serious often haven’t done. For the Tararua incident in particular, leaving clear intentions with a trusted contact was probably one of the most critical precautions which led to the women’s efficient and effective rescue. Their situation could have rapidly become worse if nobody had reported them missing, or if Search and Rescue officials had needed to waste a day or longer trying to identify where to start looking for them.

There were at least a couple of significant differences, though.

In the Kaimai incident the group were fortunate enough to have the means to communicate their situation directly to officials. It’s unclear from reports if it was simply a regular cellphone, which are often unreliable. If it wasn’t then I’m guessing a mountain radio, because stereotypically large parties with many young people frequently carry mountain radios, but it could also have been a SatPhone. The outcome highlights the value of good communications, or any communications, when in a compromised situation.

An even more significant difference with the Kaimai incident, though, is that Police knew they were well equipped to stay the night. They were known to be carrying portable shelter which was completely adequate for that purpose, and this information could have been conveyed by a trusted contact even if the group hadn’t made direct contact about their situation.

In contrast, the two people of the Tararua case were probably not known to have not taken any specific equipment reliable for spending the night outdoors, and it was probably assumed that they had none. They were at considerably higher risk, and the SAR prioritisation process would have identified it as being more critical to locate and assist them more quickly.

The story of the Tararua rescue has been doing the media rounds. The Kaimai incident was also reported, but I think it’s uncharacteristic that we’ve heard about it at all. Reports probably only occurred because Police decided to arrange precautionary help, probably due to the large number of younger people in the party, even though it was known that they were well equipped and likely to be fine.

Several years ago, I wrote some thoughts about planning a daywalk with safety in mind. I think there’s something of a heuristic trap that’s commonly present. It’s sometimes easy to enter a mindset of assuming that the need for overnight preparation directly relates to a plan to stay overnight, especially when there’s often an interest in fitting everything inside a daypack, and preferably one as small as possible. More relevant aspects to consider, though, would be metrics like the reliability of communications, the remoteness of the area being visited, and the ability and ease of being reached in all potential conditions.

On balance, in relatively populated areas it’s probably reasonable to take fewer safety precautions. For example, there’s little reason to take a grunty winter tent if following Wellington’s Northern Walkway which weaves between populated suburbs and is frequented in all conditions by people with dogs.

On the other hand, I think I’d personally be very uncomfortable to follow the Tararua daywalk route attempted by the two women, in any forecast, without having a clear safety plan for being potentially trapped at any point for several nights. The base of this safety plan would normally be to have some type of reliable portable shelter to deflect the elements, and an ability to remain warm inside it. This doesn’t necessarily mean a tent, but it might mean taking a bivy bag or a fly to string up and shelter underneath.

The two women in question at least seem to have had survival blankets, which could potentially be adequate for some conditions and limited time, but the longer term usefulness of those survival blankets in continued rain, or colder weather, seems to be questionable. Especially if they were looking “like drowned rats” by 5am when they were located.

A useful question to ask is what would happen if you were to slip and break an ankle at any point along a journey. Even if carrying instant communications, like a PLB to alert officials that you need emergency help, there’s a realistic chance that help might not be able to arrive for several days, or even that you might lose your PLB in whichever incident causes the problem. You might not be reported missing until after you were due to arrive home, and for that to work you still need to have left accurate information with a reliable person, and stuck to the plan you’d declared.

With the recent Tararua incident I’ve seen people being critical of the two women not checking the forecast before leaving. This isn’t unreasonable criticism and the women themselves quickly agreed that they should have checked it, but I don’t think it’s by any means the most significant issue. Simply relying on forecasts as authoritative can also result in more problems, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

Weather forecasts provide important information, which can and should influence decisions, but I don’t think they’re the be-all and end-all of safety. After all, if we only went out in fine and sunny weather, we’d miss out on an entire dimension of what the outdoors has to offer, and we’d be repeatedly caught out when the forecast was incorrect. More critical for safety than simply knowing the forecast is to be prepared to survive any conditions which might reasonably be expected to occur.

Anyway, I’m mostly interested in the case studies. I don’t wish to be too critical of any individual, especially based on isolated incidents. The people involved in these cases are hardly alone, and very few people don’t make a dumb mistake from time to time. Most mistakes won’t be heard of, because people get away with them.

Both incidents turned out well, the latter in particular being thanks to the combined efforts of specialist Police, dedicated and highly trained volunteers, and other organisations which they work with. Hopefully the events will be learned from, and become amusing stories to tell to strangers around a campfire some day.

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