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Ordering of Priorities

I recently attended a great talk, courtesy of a person whose group of four was rescued from the Tararuas less than a year ago. The incident was not reported by media. If it had been then it probably would have attracted much criticism.

They had made a series of bad decisions, then become stuck in a situation where, due to exhaustion there was nowhere they could go. They activated a Personal Locator Beacon, which at first mis-represented their position as being safely in a hut. To its credit, the RCCNZ made no assumptions about the safety of the group. Weather prevented a helicopter from reaching them immediately, and so a small fast-moving LandSAR team was sent on foot towards the hut where they were initially believed to be. The helicopter finally made it through. Based on hut book comments they were eventually found some distance away, having endured 170 mm of rain overnight with no adequate shelter, and with a dire outlook for the near future had help not arrived.

It’s uncommon to hear people speak so openly in front of audiences about such an experience, knowing mistakes were made. The speaker was perfectly humble about the group’s mistakes, and I really appreciate the attitude with which the talk was presented.

I asked about what might have happened if they’d not had the PLB. He treated the question as theoretical on the grounds that he’d never go out without a PLB, but otherwise guessed that there could easily have been deaths had they not had it. This philosophy about never venturing out without a PLB is consistent with a recent media push of promoting Personal Locator Beacons above all other aspects of back-country safety [1], at least as far as I can tell. I think this struck a chord for me, because for as useful and important as I see PLBs, I struggle to justify carrying one without carrying the type of portable shelter which would not only have kept them warm and dry until help arrived, and probably prevented deaths if rescue had taken an extra day, but very possibly could have prevented the entire emergency to begin with.

Any rescue is useless, as is a PLB, if you can’t stay alive long enough for that help to arrive. Requested help can often take hours or days, depending on circumstances. As recently as two years ago, two people with perfectly adequate communications could not be reached by rescuers before it was too late [2]. Until help arrives, self reliance is all you have. To me, thinking of a typical tramping scenario combined with the NZ weather’s high tendency for precipitation, good portable shelter is a very important component for heightening chances of survival if something goes wrong.

PLBs are also not essential in every rescue which involves them. Help will still arrive, without doing anything, if you’ve followed a few habits like telling a reliable person of your intentions, then sticking to them, so that search coordinators can make efficient estimates of where they’re likely to find you once you’re reported overdue. Having a PLB in these situations can obviously result in much less stressful time and be extremely convenient for all concerned, but it’s not as essential if you’re likely to be quickly found and rescued anyway…. after being reported overdue.

In this post I’m not trying to argue about whether PLBs should or shouldn’t be carried. I still think they’re a good idea, even moreso under certain circumstances, and I carry one myself. Here, however, it’s more the ordering of priorities which I’m finding interesting.

With so much recurring media discussion about how people are automatically idiots when they don’t carry PLBs (check out the colourful comments thread [3]), I do struggle to see the logic of how we still see many people apparently not carrying reliable portable shelter for staying warm and dry, let alone some of the other basics of the Outdoor Safety Code [4], like telling someone where you’re going. We barely even talk about preventative stuff like portable shelter in the media, compared with the amount of talk about reactive stuff like PLBs. Personally, however, I’d rate reliable portable shelter as being more important than a PLB for most circumstances, if it were necessary to choose between them.

…and now to try something…

All of this reminded me of an old NASA-sourced exercise from many years ago. The exercise, happily still around on the internet [5], posits a scenario of leaving a crashed spaceship on the daytime side of the Moon, needing to reach a mother ship, 200 miles away. Participants are given a list of equipment they can take, and must prioritise items in order of importance.

[Stop reading here if you want to try the exercise without seeing a discussion of answers.]

NASA’s answers for its exercise are here [6].

There are some obvious essential items. For example, when needing to traverse the surface of the Moon you’d be naive to leave behind tanks of oxygen, or you’d have no hope of getting anywhere at all. Some items have less obvious uses. eg. A self-inflating life raft might not seem useful at first, until you consider that the CO2 bottle could be used for energy-saving propulsion in an environment of low gravity and no atmospheric resistance.

In a place where the Sun stays in the sky for 327 hours at a time and its rays aren’t filtered, parachute silk is considered useful as protection from its rays, whereas a portable heating unit is considered less useful.

I’ve wondered if this could be a fun style of exercise to apply to outdoor tramping and similar scenarios. Not necessarily just about stuff you might take, but also how important other aspects of preparation are when compared with each other.

For example, consider that you’re above the bushline on tussocky tops. A significant incident is about to happen, but you don’t know what. You might be injured. You might be paralysed in your current location, or not. Right now it’s late afternoon and the weather is approching blizzard conditions, but during this instant you can’t remember what’s in the forecast, except that it’s autumn.

If you didn’t know how many of the items below you’d get to keep, in which order would you rate them, and why? Does the ordering change depending on where you are, or what you’ve seen in the forecast? Does it make a difference if you’re with a group?

The scenario above and the list below will change each time you reload the page, but don’t let that constrain you too much if there are things to discuss. If an item repeats, you can rank it in multiple places… but really I don’t care how much the rules are bent. 🙂

I don’t know how fun or boring this game is or whether it’ll provoke any meaningful discussion. Maybe I need better ideas for items to enable in the list, but it’s just a thought. Please feel welcome to make up your own rules, items and assumptions when analysing the list. Maybe you assume that you’re already wearing underpants with which you could figure out how to start a fire, or something. But are the flammable underpants more important than the .22 calibre pistol?

Thoughts are welcome.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Ordering of Priorities"

#1 Comment By Oliver Thompson On 22 April, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

A good though experiment – and as tonight is a leaders’ planning meeting for our sea scouts I’ll take the liberty of suggesting these (both the moon crash and the bush scenario) as quick exercises for our scouts?

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 May, 2015 @ 11:47 pm

Thanks, Oliver. The whole idea is quite random but I hope it was of some use. The NASA one is certainly much better thought out. 🙂

#3 Comment By Gazza On 24 April, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

some of the items seem to repeat themselves and others make little sense on their own (I see tent inner for example but no mention of the rest of the tent in the other items). The scenario I see is low down, spring with some rain and no idea of the forecast…so I would rate items in roughly this order (Will make up my own groupings):

1) Warm clothes and a jacket. Being spring, with a little know-how, you can probably survive a night or two out with the right clothing (Merino or polyprop layers and a fleece along with the jacket most likely)
2) Portable shelter. Could be a tent, but a fly or bivvy bag would also be acceptable…I would even accept a $6 tarp from the warehouse. Protection from the elements greatly increases warmth but also morale….and the mental game is important.
3) Sleeping bag…warmth and morale again. A mat would be nice but I generally don’t take one unless I am planning on camping…I can sort out some ground insulation if I need it in a emergency.
4) Having left good intentions. Provided you stay warm and sheltered you will be found alive (this might move down the list a little if you come to grief on day 1 of a 10 day tramp though…)
5) Communications. Beacon, mountain radio or even a cell phone in some places (but not a cell in the scenario I got). Being able to arrange rescue is nice but they still have to find you and reach you…and weather may well delay them. Might move up the list if you came to grief on day 1 of a 10 day tramp however 🙂
6) Lastly extra food. Your not going to starve to death anytime soon…but going hungry is no fun and I suspect foraging for food would burn a as many calories as you find unless your really good at it.

I guess a water supply would be in that list somewhere too, probably about the middle but varying depending on the likely expected rescue time. Fire making tools would also be nice but I wouldn’t rate it as too important in most places in spring provided you have warm clothes and shelter…A nice warm fire is a good morale booster though.

All of these things are reasonably important though and its not like its hard to achieve all of them, none of them are mutually exclusive after all.

If it helps, I have only once felt like I needed communications while in the hills, and that was simply to tell my pickup I would be running late since a flooded river was causing me to detour…it was a convenience thing as opposed to a safety thing. On the other hand I have used my emergency shelter on three trips (a tent fly all three times, although if I was going alpine it would be a bivvy bag probably)….granted on one it was simply because I misjudged my fitness vs the difficulty and was apparent pretty quick I wouldn’t make the hut…without shelter I would have simply turned back and called it a day but because I had a tent fly I decided to just keep going and camp when it got dark. I can see the need for a beacon or something similar in the event of serious injury or serious medical condition however.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 May, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

Hi @Gazza. Thanks for that. Yes I’m aware of the repeating thing but couldn’t be bothered fixing it. 🙂 I’m going to have a go at the random list which popped up for me. I think I’ll assume I’m on my own….

above the bushline on tussocky tops; it’s mid afternoon; the weather is raining heavily; it’s winter.

And the list (I’ve removed most duplicates)…. NOOOOOO, there’s no shelter!! Hmmmm… Plan follows the list.

A Satellite Phone.
A GPS with loaded topographic maps.

A three-season down sleeping bag.
A 2-person tent inner.
A 3/4 length self-inflatable sleeping mattress.

Food for 1 extra day.

Voltaren/painkillers.
Strapping Tape.
Cloth bandages.

A box of waterproof matches.
An LED Head-torch.
Food for 1 extra day.

An author-signed copy of Tramping – A New Zealand History by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean.
A pen.

A DVD (and plastic case) of the 2010 season of New Zealand’s Next Top Model.

A CPR face shield.

With no obvious reliable long term shelter, I think I’d want the satphone more than anything, and a GPS to be able to read off a good grid reference for someone.

The only resemblance of shelter in that list is a sleeping bag and a tent inner, so maybe I’d try and improvise some kind of warmth if any form of shade can be found from heavy winter rain, underneath some tussock or shaded over a ridge or something (ugh). Maybe a raincoat would help here if I already had one (hopefully)! Having some extra food reserves at this point might be useful, and I’m thinking about rating it relatively highly as a possible method of keeping warm than anything else, especially if not moving much.

Voltaren and bandages and strapping tape could be helpful for reaching the bush-line, depending on exactly what’s happened. Waterproof matches might help for starting a fire, if there’s fuel around (maybe if there’s vertical standing wood that hasn’t soaked up so much water), but it’ll always be a challenge unless it stops raining. Head torch for keeping coordinated when night roles in, and also to attract attention, though there’s probably already a light available on the GPS to attract attention from any helicopter which might eventually show up. More extra food. Hopefully it doesn’t need cooking.

I’m putting the Tramping History book next on the list, because it could possibly be used as another improvised form of shelter (big heavy book), maybe held up against strong wind if getting to the bush-line didn’t happen. Next I’d take the pen, as it could be used to mark the spread of any infections on skin and stuff over time, or to write stuff down (on book pages) if it needs recording. The NZ’s Next Top Model DVD could potentially be used as another way to get attention from potential rescuers, maybe even more effectively than a torch. eg. If it clears up, it could be used to reflect the sun during daylight. I can’t think of a use for the CPR face shield.

Anyway, random thoughts. 😛

#5 Comment By nzbazza On 8 May, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

I’ll give it a go too. One thought on your tent inner Mike is to use the tent floor as the “roof”, but then you will need to protect yourself from the wet ground, which can be done by making a raised bed of vegetation.
I’ll use the same conditions as Mike: solo, above the bushline on tussocky tops; it’s mid afternoon; the weather is raining heavily; it’s winter. I’ll assume that something major has happened: a fall or slip resulting in a serious leg injury, meaning very limited mobility. Given the conditions I would be wearing full storm gear (coat, pants, hat, gloves, with at least a layer of thermals and a lightweight fleece top underneath),
My list is (repeats deleted):
A wire coathanger. Wire is useful as a peg or hook for the tarp or radio antenna. Otherwise would have to use tussock as string.
Three printed A4 pages describing the brief and extended mountain forecasts, issued 12pm yesterday. A reasonably recent forecast for anticipating how much longer the bad weather will continue, so would give an idea of how long the wait would be before a rescue could be mounted. Paper useful for firelighting (if kept dry).
A $5 waterproof bright yellow pack liner. Excellent– something to attract attention with and shelter as an emergency bivy bag. However it probably will only cover me to mid torso unless it was the size of the MSC pack liners.
A 2 metre by 4 metre tarpaulin. Again excellent for use as shelter either strung up as a fly or wrapped around me given we are above the bushline.
Spare batteries, for whichever device you nominate. A spare battery for mountain radio.
An Acme Thunderer Whistle. Excellent for attracting attention if people are nearby (~200m depending on weather conditions).
A plastic waterproof map case. Keep maps and paper dry for firelighting, collection container for rainwater off the tarp.
A .22 calibre pistol. Useful for attracting attention if people are nearby otherwise not much use.
A Land Information New Zealand 1:50000 topo map of the intended area. Good for working out where you are (for giving a grid reference over the mountain radio), firelighting material otherwise.
A CPR face shield. No idea.
A Personal Locator Beacon. Yahoo! The get-out-jail card. Maybe. After “carefully considering the difficult situation we’re in” the first thing I would do is activate the PLB and wait.
A 3/4 length self-inflatable sleeping mattress. Useful for lying on or stuffing semi-inflated under the raincoat as extra insulation.
A Silva Field 7 Compass. Since I can’t move much only useful for orientating the map.
A Rented Mountain Radio. An excellent two way communication system. The only downside would be trying to set up the antenna correctly in an injured state.
A box of waterproof matches. Useful for starting a fire although wet tussock doesn’t burn well and very limited other fuel sources for burning.
Food for 1 extra day. Good for keeping energy levels up, some food would be hard to eat if it required cooking or re-hydrating though.
An Android Smartphone with a Vodafone SIM. A backup backup communication device. Useful only if there is service.
The critical thing that I feel that I’m lacking is insulation, things to keep me warm. Apart from the clothes I’m wearing (which are really only sufficient for keeping me warm while I’m moving, and may be damp from sweat as well) I don’t have anything else rather than stuffing the thermarest and plants under the waterproofs. Hypothermia would be the major concern along with any major bleeding from injuries. Getting a fire started and kept burning would be next to impossible in the conditions. Survival in this case would be very dependent on the time help took to arrive and how the conditions changed.