More Group Coordination Problems

From the Herald about a week ago:

Three young men took a wrong turn at the Red Crater Summit and wound up heading along a ridge to Mt Tongariro’s summit in 70km/h winds, with icy rain falling, snow underfoot and visibility at just 10 metres. Meanwhile, the main group carried on and the leader did not realise until they got to the Ketetahi Shelter, that three of her group were missing.

On the ridge, one of the students turned back, leaving the other two still ascending the mountain. Some time afterwards, the cold and wet pair realised they were lost and running out of strength, with hypothermia beginning to set in.


[Professional guide Terry] Blumhardt dug a trench in the ice and put up an emergency shelter and the trio force-fed the hypothermic young men with sugary food, electrolytes and hot drinks and wrapped them in foil blankets in an attempt to revive them.

Once they had warmed up a little and after two RARO rescuers had arrived, the group attempted to get the stricken students off the mountain.

The visibility made a helicopter rescue impossible and so the rescuers had to half walk, half drag the young men down to Central Crater to get them out of the wind, then walked them further down the mountain to below the cloud cover…


[Former police senior constable Cliff] Jones estimated the temperature on the ridge was well below zero. He said if help had not arrived, they would have died and it was touch and go whether they could even get the young men walking again and off the mountain before dark.

“This is one of the closest I have seen for a long time.

“These people haven’t got the relevant experience or possibly the relevant training to be carrying out what they’re doing.

“Somebody needs to be taken to account. They bloody near caused the death of two boys there yesterday.”

This incident has also been covered by Stuff. Unfortunately with the educational institute (Te Wananga o Aotearoa) not saying much except that they’re running an investigation, media coverage seems to have been relatively minimal.

Nobody died, thankfully, and thus the coroner’s not involved, so there’s no guarantee that results from that investigation will ever be released in a public way. There’s also no guarantee that it’ll even be an appropriately run investigation for adequately assessing what happened and what needs addressing. Hopefully we’ll see the institution pressed for answers in due course.

A few days later, TVNZ’s Seven Sharp ran a general story about squillions of people on the Tongariro Crossing being inadequately prepared. It’s similar to a TVNZ Close Up report that ran in July 2010 (actual video now offline) which had a similar structure and said basically the same thing. Even though numbers are increasing on the Tongariro Crossing, this suggests that general attitudes of many visitors aren’t.

It’s a shame that this sort of stuff still happens on the Tongariro Crossing. The blame often gets pushed onto international tourists, which is probably justified as overseas visitors are certainly represented in SAR figures, but some of the most serious incidents continue to involve local New Zealand groups.

Several years ago I wrote about another very close call. That time, a group of 16 inadequately prepared people, who’d travelled from Auckland, had gotten themselves into trouble. Several would almost certainly have died if they’d not been extremely lucky and encountered a couple of far more well prepared good samaritans. In that case, I wrote about heuristic traps—where an inappropriate rule is used to make a decision. To me it seemed that that type of flawed reasoning might have had a lot to do with what eventuated on that day.

What seems tentatively even worse about this latest incident, though, is that it was effectively a guided trip. The students were on a course which nearly killed them several of them. That, by itself, makes this an Occupational Safety and Health issue. Whether Worksafe New Zealand investigates and takes action remains to be seen. It’s premature to be critical of any specific person without further information, but a question that seriously needs an answer is how a single instructor came to be responsible for 12 students.

Even in more benign environments, a single instructor would find it difficult or impossible to keep track of that many students. This is attested to by the fact that three people somehow broke off and started climbing to the Tongariro Summit, without anyone else realising. The instructor had walked roughly 7 kilometres beyond that turn-off point, being at Mangatepopo Shelter by the time Taupo Police contacted and informed her that three group members were in trouble. The exact reason for this separation is unclear, but there’s clearly something wrong with how events reportedly played out.

Two years ago, in October 2014, the Auckland Section of the NZ Alpine Club suffered a terrible tragedy on Mt Taranaki. Two climbers died of hypothermia, having become trapped and unable to shelter from horrendous weather. The resulting coroners’ inquest, and also a separate report commissioned by the Alpine Club, revealed some highly disorganised planning by the wider group. Nobody was clear on group dynamics, leadership, nor who was actually taking responsibility for anything. By extension many people in the group did not usefully communicate. Critical decisions were never made at critical times, or at best they were made by some but not by others.

Group situations can be complex to organise, and the optimal method of coordinating a group depends on many factors. In the past I’ve written more details about my own views of group organisation and staying together, or not. There needs to be coordination, though. Everyone must be clear and in agreement on their responsibilities to themselves and to each other at all times.

In this most recent Tongariro case, it seems as if the group was either insufficiently organised, or simply lacked the skills needed to ensure everyone would remain safe at all times. I hope we’ve not heard the last of it, because it’d be a shame if such a serious incident were simply swept under the rug.

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