- Windy Hilltops - http://www.windy.gen.nz -

Recap on the recent Milford Track accident – DOC’s Review

Kathryn Ryan interviewed Allan Munn this morning on Nine to Noon (Radio NZ National). Allan Munn is the Department of Conservation’s Southern Region Services Director. The interview regards changes being made following the death, in May 2014, of a person who was swept away from the Milford Track.

This morning’s 20 minute interview can be listened to here [1]. It’s also been reported on in The Press [2], and by Wilderness Magazine [3].

The incident which sparked this review occurred when the group were on the Milford Track out of the main tourist season, after many of the standard “Great Walk” style facilities are removed. It’s not uncommon for people to visit outside the booking season, whether to avoid higher hut fees or after having been too late to book at an earlier time. It remains public land with open access, and can be relatively safe with good preparation and advice, and an ability to assess conditions. The group didn’t seem to have been be prepared for the reduced facilities, nor properly aware of it. This combined with other factors probably led to bad decisions and eventually resulted in the accident.

I wrote down some of my own thoughts about this a few months ago [4].

DOC has now completed an internal review. It’s decided that safety processes are fundamentally sound, but certain things could still be improved upon. During the interview Mr Munn noted that DOC had “a range of contacts with that party” prior to the event. The party members either didn’t hear the available advice, or chose to ignore it and take their chances. In the face of this, there’s probably little that could have reasonably and immediately been done in that specific case.

More generally, though, DOC’s review has acknowledged that there are problems with getting key messages across to the masses in the face of modern forms of media, much of which is out of DOC’s control. It’s also noting higher numbers of visitors of limited skills and experience aiming to walk the Milford Track during the buffer zone between the end of the tourist season and when the most dangerous winter conditions set in.

I’ve requested a copy of the review, and am hoping it can be handed out. It sounds like an interesting read. Based on Mr Munn’s comments this morning, at least some of the changes DOC is implementing sound like things that (metaphorically) attempt to further tape over gaps which people can fall through after not necessarily having acted with their own best interests in mind. I’m undecided about how useful this is, but it’d be good to see the actual detail.

Compensating for inadequate preparation

I’m not a great fan of compensating for people’s inadequate preparation. I don’t think it addresses a more fundamental issue of people not taking responsibility for their own safety. There’s a risk that compensating for that can has an opposite effect of encouraging visitors to be even less responsible with planning and preparation, simply placing more problems and responsibility on the state. The Milford Track might need to be so heavily “managed” as it is during the booking season to compensate for its excessive popularity, but the management probably also encourages a lack of self responsibility for many visitors, both in and out of booking season.

I’m in two minds, because I can’t think of what else can be done. The fundamental problem is very hard to address. Some people will always ignore or fail to appreciate good advice, intentionally, accidentally, or otherwise, and especially when there’s a combination of youth and reduced skill and experience. When this happens en-mass in a way that can be predicted, I’m doubtful about the ethics of casually letting people suffer tragic consequences, purely for the sake of taking some kind of moral high ground.

An alternative to compensating for a lack of responsibility and skills is one of extreme control: lock up the Conservation Estate and tell people that they’re not allowed to visit and explore it on their own terms. This occurs in some countries, and it’s something I definitely don’t wish to see in New Zealand. Freedom to explore on one’s own terms is one of the key things which makes it so great around here. As soon as we start compromising that, or trying to distinguish between people who are capable and people who aren’t, it’ll become a barrier for any random person to get involved or try something new, and learn about the country we live in.

In the past I’ve expressed concern about the gradual and systematic seepage of new bylaws into our National Parks which enable DOC officials to close access to parks (or parts of them), not for environmental protection, but for “public safety reasons” [5]. That said, I also appreciate the obvious effort which the current administration of DOC is going to to avoid actually doing that.

Specific recommended measures

Of specific interest to the recent accident, the review has suggested leaving the avalanche-prone bridges in place for longer. From now on they won’t be removed until 5 weeks after the end of the tourist season. The review has also resulted in a decision to keep wardens on the Milford Track beyond the end of the official tourist booking season, possibly including a “roving warden” type of system. This is acknowledged by Mr Munn as a judgement call which balances lessened risk for some tourists against increased risk for some DOC staff, who will be working on the track in potentially more risky times, and will later be removing the bridges during more risky times. The risk can be managed, of course, it it’s always there. It may result in loss of bridges to avalanches.

DOC’s also going to try and work on standardising its information provision, making the distinction between summer and winter season more clear, and attempting to work with other publishers and hopefully some of the newer-media information providers, to give a more realistic view of what to expect in New Zealand. Another measure is to review the signs on the tracks and elsewhere, in a similar way to sign changes approaching the Cascade Saddle [6].

There’s also a consultation aspect to the review, which might lead to something beneficial. Mr Munn also noted that although DOC already consults with groups like the NZ Deerstalker’s Association and Federated Mountain Clubs and the Mountain Safety Council,it’s interested in formalising the way in which interacts with those groups about what’s happening and the decisions it makes.

Signage and skills

I think it’ll be interesting to see the justification of proposed changes to signs, and how it works out. I guess it’s part of a wider range of adjustments and maybe that’s the point and there could be actual objective research showing that it genuinely works. My gut feeling, however, is to be sceptical of the likely effectiveness of warning signage. Especially if its main objective is to tells people, at the point when they’ve finally arrived at the start of their journey (or are well into it) after much anticipation and excitement, that they should seriously consider turning around.

Mr Munn also commented on the decreasing amount of skill and experience of many visitors, including New Zealanders. Without disputing it I’m interested to know more about the background of this assertion, and what it actually means. I haven’t been around for long enough to appreciate changes over decades, but I’ve gathered that people have always been out there doing things with questionable competence. eg. Does this comment refer to some measure of average skill in the back-country is reducing, resulting from more visitors overall, many of whom might be less skilled than a static portion of visitors who’ve remained the same? Is low skill much more concentrated in certain places and not changing in others? Have there been genuinely fewer incidents in the past than in the present, or just fewer reports and SAR responses in the past (maybe due to less effective communication) to what might have been comparable incidents? And so on.

Anyway, these are just my own random thoughts for now, which often amount to non-committal brainstorming. Please go ahead and listen to the interview, and as always it’s interesting to hear of thoughts and comments if people have them.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Recap on the recent Milford Track accident – DOC’s Review"

#1 Comment By Gazza On 24 October, 2014 @ 9:03 am

These seem like reasonably helpful changes that are quick to implement and shouldn’t cost the earth (provided, as you say, they don’t start losing bridges to early season avalanches) but i couldn’t help feeling that I don’t think they would have made much difference in the recent death there…the bit where she was swept away isn’t bridged to my understanding and i suspect the group might well have tried to cross anyway even if they had hut wardens warning them to be careful that morning (but cannot know for sure, perhaps a general warning might have left an impression, who knows).

While the changes wil likely make the track safer overall I wonder if they might end up being counter productive to this point “making the distinction between summer and winter season more clear”. Now you will have summer, winter and “not really summer but not really winter”…there might be a trap here of people going “they have only just removed the bridges last week so theres probably no risk of avalanche just yet”

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 27 October, 2014 @ 11:54 am

Hi @gazza. Yeah. Like what you say, one point I saw made on Facebook is that now it seems the only difference between official tourist season and the buffer zone is that the huts get cheaper and maybe the gas gets removed from them — there are still bridges and there are still wardens, so the incentive for people to go during that time increases. It’s more like a management strategy to compensate for something DOC thinks it has little control over, and which they think will happen anyway, than a strategy to encourage people to make better decisions and not go if they’re not capable.

On this group, one of Allan Munn’s radio comments was that he wasn’t sure if the changes would have made any direct difference for this particular group. Even if they’re being diplomatic, it reads to me as if some DOC people unofficially think these people had plenty of opportunities to take good advice from DOC sources, and basically ignored it. There was that widely published statement immediately afterwards that “DOC never told us about the bridges”. It doesn’t seem like a reliable source to me, especially given the circumstances of getting that quote (immediately after, stress being high, and with a huge incentive for the guy to deflect responsibility).

Also, I think two of the group had also only met the third person fairly recently, shortly before they started, so I do wonder if some of that might have contributed to bad group decisions in risky situations. I haven’t heard any specific comments along that line from anyone more in the know, though.

#3 Comment By Gazza On 28 October, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

I agree with Allan Munn on it probably not making a difference to that group but to me its not really a feeling that advice would be deliberately ignored, its more a question of how well general advice to be careful of the rivers and streams translates in peoples heads when they are looking at a stream that seems cross-able if a little high and they are weighing up the alternatives of sitting the weather out or back-tracking several hours on what may well be (in their head at least) their one chance to complete this walk.

Wade a cross a few rivers in the back country and you soon get a feel for how powerful all that moving water can be, if you haven’t done this then it can be quite easy to say “well its a bit high but its just a stream, it should be fine shouldn’t it?”

I guess the point I am trying to make (albeit in a clumsy way) is that all the advice in the world doesn’t often mean much if the people cannot put it in context…if they don’t understand the difference between normal stream flow, slightly high and still relatively safe and “probably going to knock you off your feet” then relying on giving them advice is always going to a be a bit hit or miss when it comes to the point of making that important decision.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 December, 2014 @ 10:22 am

That’s true. You really can’t beat experience when considering a river.

#5 Comment By BushwalkingBlog On 24 October, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

Recap on the recent Milford Track accident – DOC’s Review | Windy Hilltops [13]

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 11 November, 2014 @ 9:30 am

Allan Munn has kindly emailed me a copy of DOC’s internal report which he was quoting. If you’d like to see it, please email me ( [14]) and I’ll forward a copy.

Note that the report says nothing about this specific accident. The accident triggered the review, but the review itself is entirely analysing DOC’s safety management, focussed in the vicinity of the three southern Great Walks.