The Next Three Hours

Last weekend, when four of us bailed out of our trip through Leon Kinvig Hut in the Ruahines, part of the reasoning was the weather forecast. All things considered I think we made a good decision, and it started me thinking about the role of weather forecasts in outdoor recreation, especially tramping.

Something I’ve heard about New Zealand is that for the next three hours, a good judgement on the weather from looking out the window is likely to be more accurate than a forecast issued by the MetService. After three hours, probabilities switch around and the forecast becomes more accurate than what you can typically judge on your own. Coming from me this is just an out-of-context statement taken from anecdotal rumours of random research, but I find the essence believable. Obviously it depends on how you interpret statistics and the “correctness” of forecasts, not to mention how good you are at judging the weather. A more important point to draw from this is that there’s a lot of information available from observing what’s around you, especially regarding what’s about to happen during the next few hours.

Forecasts in New Zealand are also fallible thanks to limited data, proximity to the sea, endless micro-climates, and the need to simplify the colossal amount of information and expertise into a way that can be conveyed to people not trained in meteorology. A sunny forecast doesn’t guarantee sunny weather, and vice-versa. Even the isobar charts, which I think can convey some of the most useful information if applied well with local knowledge (something for which I’d like to improve my skills), are a gross simplification of all the information considered by forecasters who draw them.

Much outdoor safety is about getting between points of safety, and making good judgement calls based on the information available and what can be seen. To do this safely it can’t be just a matter of asking “How much time do we have and how long will it take?” It also has to involve constantly and repeatedly asking questions like “Can we back-track?”, “What are the risks?”, “What happens if we take a wrong turn or get lost and conditions worsen unexpectedly?”, “Who’s the least capable person here?”, “What will happen if someone slips and breaks a leg when we’re in an exposed place?”. Even if it’s a clear sunny day, it’s important to ask “Where can we bail to and find emergency shelter, and how long might that take if we’re crippled?”, “Will we be dead if something holds us up, or just very uncomfortable for a while?”, “How cold will it be tonight?”, not to mention “What’s the weather doing right now, and what’s it likely to do?”

There’s usually a degree of risk and a small amount is out of one’s control, just as with driving on State Highway 1, but it’s all the better to anticipate the risk as much as possible and have plans to minimise it, or otherwise channel it into a non-fatal situation you can later escape from. This isn’t done well in New Zealand, with just one example being the number of people who rely on back-country huts to keep them alive, often without acknowledging the risks and with no backup plan. Huts are a great convenience for points of safety, but they have an unfortunate habit of not standing up and walking themselves to the injured and lost.

When people get into difficulty, it’s not uncommon to see criticism for not checking forecasts. The most recent high profile example, which seems to come up a lot on this blog because for me it’s close to home, is in the coroner’s findings of the recent accident near Kime Hut just over a year ago (a further follow-up is here). Among several other things, the coroner’s inquest states that one of the key factors in the two people’s deaths was their “failure to properly check the forecast”.

The inquest report is not public (at least without making a special request) and I’ve not had an opportunity to request and read it, but at least from the way it was reported I’m sceptical about what’s to be gained from suggesting someone died because they failed to properly check a forecast. To me it sends a risky message about outdoor safety and good decision making, and I can’t see how checking a forecast has much to do with that particular accident, or with most accidents, and certainly not as a key factor.

As best as I can tell from everything else described, for whatever reasons, the people involved made a string of bad decisions that included leaving a point of safety for another one about three hours away, meeting people who’d turned around and then making a judgement call to ignore advice from others present to go no further, not identifying through first-hand experience what was happening to the weather in their immediate surroundings, and passing a point of no return (perhaps without realising) as they walked into a blizzard. They eventually succumbed to the conditions they’d walked into. There was most likely some get-there-itis involved, and there may have also been some bad judgement about capabilities between the two. The end result would have been helped by other aspects of their preparation, such as not carrying adequate shelter (which could have worked as a mobile point of safety), and the coroner’s inquest also pointed this out.

Surely in such a situation, bad decisions combined with a lack of appreciation of what was possible in that area and identification that it was happening must have had much more significance than simply not checking a forecast. What use is it to know that high winds, heavy rain and snow have been forecast when there should be much more immediate and reliable information available from the surroundings at that time for making such short term decisions? I’ve been to places during hideous forecasts when the weather’s been perfectly okay and clear. We assessed what was happening at the time, considered what our safety options were whilst keeping in mind that there was probably worse weather nearby so we may want to be cautious about becoming too committed to certain options, and made consequent decisions.

When we backed out of our walk up Tunupo in the Ruahines last weekend, it wasn’t because the weather forecast said we’d be walking into a possible death trap. We could clearly see that we weren’t, at least as far as the weather was concerned and as long as we took appropriate precautions. We were concerned that we might arrive somewhere that could be tricky to get away from the following day, we assessed the feelings and capabilities in the group, and decided that we didn’t want to risk being stuck there and overdue with people worrying about us. That’s where the forecast was useful, but more relevant for our immediate safety were immediate conditions that included what we could see around us, combined with what we knew we couldn’t see. If we’d already been out for a week or otherwise not had a recent forecast then we might have kept going based on all of this, and I expect we’d have been perfectly safe. If we’d found ourselves stuck in a hut between ridges during extreme wind, it certainly wouldn’t have been the extreme-wind-predicting mountain forecast issued a couple of days earlier that would have discouraged us from leaving.

I don’t want to give an impression that there’s no point in checking a forecast. I think it’s essential to have as much information as possible before setting out. But if it was inherently unsafe to visit the outdoors without a recent forecast, there would have to be something especially dangerous about visiting the outdoors for longer than a few days at a time, and I don’t believe there is. I’m just not sure it’s reasonable to consider it as a major factor in these kinds of accidents when people should be doing other things and making other preparations that would be of more immediate significance to their safety. I think forecasts are useful and important for planning and longer-term decisions, particularly with issues like getting stuck in places and the potential to be very uncomfortable, but it’s risky to make decisions that involve life and death if they hinge solely on a weather forecast. Some kinds of outdoor recreation are different in this respect, and for those activities a good weather forecast is ultra-important. Nearly always when tramping, however, having an inaccurate forecast, or no forecast, should never cause someone to die if a person or group is conscious and cautious about what’s happening around them, and have prepared reasonably.

It’s true, too, that forecasts often have important information that’s worth knowing about. In August 2008, a group of us walked up to Field Hut within a day of gale-force easterlies! Gale-force easterlies to such an extent are something that occur about once every 50 years in that region, and therefore we discovered during the calm after the storm that many of the 50 year old trees had fallen and absolutely trashed much of the normally popular track leading from Otaki Forks up to Field Hut. This is an example of one of the few times when it might be fundamentally un-safe to be on that track, despite it being under reliable tree cover, and it stems from understanding that the area is being hit by weather to which it’s not well adapted. Still, I think if we’d arrived 12 hours earlier during such a storm, we’d probably not have left the safety of the parking area, or would otherwise have turned around and bailed back to it as soon as it became clear just how much damage the storm was in the process of causing.

Maybe it’s just semantics in how coroners’ reports are written that caused it to cite the lack of checking a forecast as a key factor in those two people’s deaths. I guess a weather forecast, or lack of it, can be a key factor in someone’s death, but to my mind that could only be because they were putting more trust in it than they ever should have in the face of what’s happening around them. If these two people didn’t bother to check it properly, it seems unlikely that they were too concerned about putting excessive trust in it. It’s just a tragedy that they also didn’t notice everything else going on.

Am I wrong about the place of weather forecasts in tramping? Am I missing something? I’m not qualified or experienced for this kind of accident investigation and I’m also not the world’s expert on the weather and forecasts. But I have an interest in better understanding how accidents happen, partly so I can learn more about how to avoid them.

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