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Media Impressions of a Tararua Rescue

Sunday (a week ago, 11th July) saw what was probably a routine rescue mission in the southern Tararuas. A man (31) and a woman (27) from Wellington were somewhere in the vicinity of Alpha Hut and unexpectedly walking through deep snow. The Sun began to set, and their GPS batteries died. It seems they were lucky to be in a place where their phone worked, because they texted their last known position to friends to say they were scared for their safety, and were heading for Alpha Hut. The weather was very clear and calm, not expected to deteriorate any time soon. A helicopter crew spotted their torch light at about 6.30pm on Sunday night, using night vision goggles, and collected them.

In some ways this rescue wasn’t very interesting. It barely made the news at all. It was reported very briefly [1] in the DomPost, not even giving an approximate location, but reporting the GPS failure. A press release from the Life Flight Trust [2] (duplicated here [3]) adds a few more details, but wasn’t picked up and analysed by any popular media outlets that I can find. Also being a press release from the helicopter operator, its main focus is that they rescued people with their helicopter rather than explaining why those people needed rescuing.

The mention of “deep snow” in the Alpha Hut area means they were probably coming over from Aston (on the Tararua Southern Crossing route) or around Quoin Ridge in the water catchment zone. From reports it’s unclear exactly why there was a problem, if the two of them intended to be out overnight, or even if they’d actually requested a rescue or if it was just lack of information that resulted in the decision to send a helicopter. If a message had not gone out, maybe they would have simply reached Alpha Hut, or just had a night out walking around in circles in calm but cold weather. Such things happen, but usually go unreported.

From informal chats I think what happened is that in attempting a Tararua Southern Crossing, they took a wrong turn at Alpha Peak earlier in the day, apparently not having a proper map or anything, and went down Quoin Ridge instead of towards Alpha Hut. Then the Sun went down. From the result it sounds as if they were probably not carrying their own shelter, and relying on reaching Alpha Hut that night for their safety (see The Hut Fallacy [4]).

I found this story interesting because of how the GPS was mentioned. I’ve also met at least three people now who heard the news and independently expressed similar feelings. The implication from the reports is that the failure of the GPS was a key factor in causing the rescue. I’m not sure this can ever be the case, though, because a GPS isn’t the kind of tool that it should ever be necessary to rely on if other preparations have been made.

It’s sad how the media machine can simplify a story like this, through no intent of anyone specific but by how it operates, republishing information and then simplifying it to fit in small spaces. Irrespective of what actually happened in this case, the worst thing is how the presentation could just reinforce impressions that anyone might already have that a GPS makes things safe, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to assume one can send a text message from a cell-phone and expect a helicopter rescue to be called out when a GPS fails. It’s the same kind of media simplification that suggested a cell-phone would have saved a couple of unfortunate people [5] about a year ago (see this specific example from Newstalk ZB [6]) when really there were a plethora of reasons that added together [7]. In that case it essentially came down to bad preparation and some dreadful decisions. The cellphone factor was almost a completely irrelevant red herring, but for a while was pushed to the front of many media reports, probably because it simplified things in terms with which more readers were familiar, reinforcing whatever false beliefs readers may have already had.

Sometimes I think the reported messages are irrationally harsh on those being rescued, to the extent that people can get called idiots or stupid even if they were mostly well prepared and did 99% of things right but just made a silly mistake that resulted in a high profile rescue. Maybe rescuers have been quoted out of context or in the heat of the moment, or are just trying to take advantage of any media attention to get another safety message published through the media lens (although to be fair there are a lot of people rescued who’ve done some pretty idiotic stuff). This time it’s the opposite. Nobody’s out there denouncing the two rescued people as morons (which I think is good), but there’s also a very skewed presentation of what the actual problem was. If anything it could only lead to a worse understanding of what happened, and how to avoid it happening to others in future. If that’s all that’s going to be printed in an outlet like the DomPost, it probably would have been better for everyone that it didn’t get printed at all.