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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 [1], 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 [2], 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 [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6].

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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Comparing two recent weather-related incidents"

#1 Comment By Robb On 6 August, 2014 @ 9:29 am

Kia ora Mike,
As Charlie Douglas so sagely said, “Not being able to swim has saved my life on several occasions.”, I think I might write the same about learning to read a weather forecast, “being able to read a weather forecast has prevented me getting into potential grief on many occasions.” I put off a trip last week as the rain and severe gales forecasted just didn’t seem to inviting. Hopefully this coming week be better. I realize we cannot wait for the perfect forecast or we would never go, but a bit of preparation goes a long way. I think ultra light tramping has a bit to answer for as well, seems these days the lighter and faster one goes the better. Yet I have yet to arrive at any hut and be awarded a medal upon arrival. I probably sound a grumpy grizzled oldtimer, and I guess I am. The mountains will be there for some time yet so patience is a good thing. So is carrying a pack with enough to survive. Cheers mate.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 August, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

Hi Robb. I have to admit that occasionally I’ve looked forward to going out in shocking forecasts, just to see what it’s like. Obviously though this means needing to expect that many courses of action simply won’t be possible. I’m conservative about ultra-light. I think it can be done well by paying close attention to what’s actually important, and some people do this, but it can also be done very badly in ways that reduce many of the safety devices. It’s not something that interests me greatly right now, though. It’s too much effort to understand how to get it right, and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Thanks for the insight and I hope you enjoy your coming weekend. Seeya,

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 August, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

Extending from ultra-light, I should add that mountain running’s something yet again. Once again I know people who do it well and are very careful, but there also doesn’t seem to be a clearly and centrally documented standard of what’s acceptable outside of the social networks and certain standards for specific events, like individual races which are full of support staff stationed along a course. Outside of that when I meet some random person, running past by themselves in the middle of nowhere, who’s clearly carrying almost nothing, it crosses my mind to wonder that if it’s acceptable for someone who’s running to do that, is it okay for me, too, when I’m tramping? I do wonder what might happen if they broke an ankle.

Some runners have good safety plans. Esp those with alternative tramping experience, like always being in groups, often carrying carefully measured ultra-light-weight emergency gear for safety reasons just to keep them alive, but I suspect a few will also be relying on simply being able to pull out a PLB, activate it and wait for help. After all, the prevaling message that’s been pushed through the media in the last few years is that “it’s okay as long as you take a PLB”. It’s probably better than not being able to do that. To be fair, the proportions probably aren’t too different from trampers who aren’t adequately prepared, but the margins of safety also seem so much narrower when you’re seriously aiming to carry as little as possible.

#4 Comment By Gazza On 6 August, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

It would be nice to see more stories like the Kaimai Range one hit the news, ones like “well prepared trampers make a lot of correct choices”. Sometimes all some people hear about are the trampers that make a series of mistakes and then they start in on the “they are all idiots that should pay for rescue” type comments. A write up of how a group were well prepared and were able to comfortably wait out poor weather could be a good learning example.

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 August, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

Hi @Gazza. Thanks and I agree, and would love to see additional reporting of things which don’t go wrong, or at least which demonstrate people as having been well prepared. I guess it’s mostly the distance from the norm which makes something “news”.

#6 Comment By Robb On 7 August, 2014 @ 10:04 am

Kia ora Mike,
I agree with Gazza about also sharing the stories where these things go right. I guess I feel a bit jaded on it as I was involved years ago in such an exercise when because of foul clagged in weather on the Ruahine tops I stayed an extra night and walked out via the Pohangina river rather than the tops. To my surprise a helicopter came down the river just as I was leaving Mid Pohangina hut to the road end and “rescued” me. The guys in the chopper were good, complimented me on the intentions I had left with my wife, and the trail I had left in the hut books over the past 4 days, and clearly stating my intentions to walk out via the river and that I was in good nick.To my surprise an article appeared in the paper the next day on how a “lost” tramper had been “found” and though he had done things mostly correct was highly critical of my not carrying a mountain radio. I knew the guy whom ram the S&R here in those day and when I rang him he told me basically their need to get the message out superseded the real truth that in fact it was a good result and I was prepared and reacted properly. I guess it still rankles me a bit. Have a great day.

#7 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 August, 2014 @ 11:35 am

It’s funny how these media strategies work. I’ve informally heard that mountain radios are no longer part of the official publicity campaign, basically because the enthusiasts who normally run the networks aren’t considered to be a reliable enough bet for the future robustness of the services. Maybe it’s for the best on a large scale, but it still leaves us with lots of dumbed down template publicity about PLBs and not much else. And to be fair a PLB will nearly always be much more reliable for getting immediate emergency help than a mountain radio, but probably at the expense of many call-outs which really aren’t necessary. Cheers.

#8 Comment By Gazza On 8 August, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

Hi Robb,

I have also had a similar experience, caught out by a flooded creek on the way out from a overnighter with my dad and some members of a local tramping club (i was just a teenager). We just pitched a fly and camped the night, quite comfortably too. Next morning creek was back down and we wandered out only to meet search and Rescue 15 mins from the carpark.

We all got dragged to the local police station and had to spend time getting debriefed when we really just wanted to go home, turns out the someone new had just been given control of the local search and rescue and was waiting for a chance to try them out. Cannot remember if there was a story in the paper or not.

#9 Comment By Mike McGavin On 2 September, 2014 @ 9:23 am

That’s almost funny if it didn’t sound so annoying. 😛