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Nostalgic Exposure (aka Such a Stupid Way To Die)

I should have posted about this when it came out, but missed it at the time and have since not had a suitable excuse. I still don’t have one, so I’ll just post it anyway with the expectation that it may be new for some.

Forty years ago, in 1971, the New Zealand National Film Unit produced this educational video designed to terrify young people with the horrors of “exposure” (aka hypothermia) and, with luck, teach them how to avoid it. I was never subjected to this film during my educational years, but as recently as 1997, some schools were reportedly still petrifying their youth with the words:

“Thomas Cougan will tomorrow night be DEAD!”

Two years ago, NZOnScreen digitised the film and put it online [1]. (There’s a press release here [2].) Happily the entire thing is available for all to see, from mountain mules, disgusting breakfasts and fashion of the late hippie era, to a relatively young Ray Henwood [3] who draws concise diagrams on a blackboard as he expertly pronounces the symptoms and causes of “exposure”.

The digitisation comes in two parts, followed by the credits. (Part Two is below if you’ve clicked into the full post, or you can just wait for Part One to finish.)

The theme of the film remains relevant today, even if modern clothing technology has gradually reduced the number of hypothermia deaths relative to other causes. At least, I think drownings during river crossing attempts are now a more frequent cause of death than hypothermia.

The film opens by panning over newspaper clippings that describe a 1968 accident in which two of three teenagers died of exposure when crossing Biggs Top in the Kahurangis (see Carl Walron’s excellent book Survive [4] for a more complete telling of the story). Next it shifts into a brief presentation about the facts of hypothermia, before a more lengthy dramatisation that follows five young people, who lack experience for what they’re trying to do, to their ultimate demise.

I can’t figure out where it was filmed, partly because I can’t hear the commentary properly, but I expect somebody knows. It reminds me of Nelson Lakes, but that could also be my limited experience talking. After four decades, the production and acting is amusing to watch, but it was also produced with the intent of highlighting certain things to viewers more-so than as a brilliant production. See how many classic mistakes you can count, including at least one heuristic trap.

As you watch it, keep in mind that some of the knowledge about hypothermia has advanced since it was made, for better or worse. Notably, the statement that most body heat is lost through the head has lately been put down to a fairly flunky US Army experiment [5], and it’s since been shown that any surface area of the body will lose heat roughly equally, if it’s exposed. I checked further on this, however, and there’s a more detailed summary over at Wilderness Medicine Newsletter [6] which discusses the points in detail and notes that this concept of even heat loss over the entire surface area of the body really only applies when a person is at rest. Things change once a person starts exercising, though mostly in a way that evens it all out. There’s a brief period at the beginning of exercise where more heat is lost through the head, before the rest of the body starts saying “hey, give me more blood” and all areas start losing heat equally again. This is apparently what was misunderstood from the army experiment. Very importantly, however, if a person is already hypothermic and shivering, heat loss through the skull can be up to 55%! If they’re not hypothermic and shivering, the head is of a more similar importance (in terms of heat loss) to the rest of the body. So if things start getting really bad, ensuring the head’s covered seems like a very good idea.

Of course, I’m not medically qualified to assess this advice and I’m really just regurgitating random advice I found on the internet, so as usual I welcome any feedback in the comments section. That way even more people can regurgitate random advice they found on the internet, but at least it’ll be clearer to them if it’s controversial.

Once you’ve watched part one, here’s part two.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Nostalgic Exposure (aka Such a Stupid Way To Die)"

#1 Comment By Amelia On 25 August, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

It sounds like they say “Mt Kenneth area”, but the images dont match the terrain around Mt Kenneth, which is near Mt Cook
[13]

#2 Comment By Amelia On 25 August, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

And I always thought it looked more Nelson Lakes – Watching it, when they walked up to the hut I instantly thought “looks like where Sabine Hut is”.
At -4.08 in part one it even shows “Sabine Hut” on the door as he walks out 🙂

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 26 August, 2011 @ 9:06 am

Good spotting. I completely missed the obvious one at -4.08, but I spent ages trying to read the name on the door at -5.26! Yes I thought I heard Mt Kenneth as well, but I searched and searched and couldn’t find a reference to the name. Then I thought maybe it was Kerreth or Keddeth with similar luck. I didn’t think to try a LINZ placename search, which of course would’ve made complete sense. The only reasons I can think why they’d fake the area would be if they wanted to make it sound more close to people in Canterbury for some reason, or (more likely) the script was written before a filming location was picked.

#4 Comment By Stuart On 14 September, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

Good to catch up with this 1971 production thru’ your posting. Thankyou.

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 19 September, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

Hi Stuart. You’re welcome!

#6 Comment By Ledge On 14 October, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

Hi there!
Nostagia galore! In the 1970s, we were indoctinated with this film, EVERY YEAR (from aged 7 to 16, i remember?). It gave us kids goose-bumps.
Yes, it’s Sabine Hut in Nelson Lakes. And the pretty girl is Graeme Dingles close friend, Jill Tremain, with whom he did the first winter traverse of the Sthn Alps in 1971. (Read Ding’s classic book “Two against The Alps”.) Very sad when Jill was avalanched in about 1972=4 in the Himalayas.
I saw this film in about 1999 at a Mountain Safety Council ‘bushcraft’ course.

#7 Comment By Robert R On 31 January, 2013 @ 7:42 am

RE: Jill Tremain – she was my cousin. In fact I was talking to her sister just last week. Since there was some doubt (?) as to the year — it was 1974, and I still remember where I was when we got the news. Jill’s father, the late Lance Tremain, gave me her old (first?) ice-axe, which is still hanging in my hallway, along with the ice-axe of my late father, who climbed with Jill in California. Jill was also an artist and we have a nice painting of Wellington harbour that Jill did. (sorry, just loose nostalgia, nothing to do with hypothermia).

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 20 February, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

Hi Robert. No problem whatsoever with the nostalgia. Thanks for sharing.

#9 Comment By Mike McGavin On 19 October, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

Hi Ledge. Thanks for the anecdotes. It’s impressive how long this film has lasted, which I guess says something about the consistency of accepted advice throughout these decades. Yes, I’ve now come across a couple of people who’ve identified her as Jill Tremain, who’s admittedly before my time.