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Thoughts on another Tararua rescue

The Southern Crossing of the Tararuas has been in the news a few times lately. Shaun Barnett wrote this nifty description of the Southern Crossing [1] for the April 2018 edition of Wilderness Magazine, although a feature on the Tararua Range in NZ Geographic from around mid 2016 [2], by the same author, is much more comprehensive.

Meanwhile the RCCNZ stated that last Sunday night, 25th March, and leading into Monday morning, a man’s life was undoubtedly saved by a group he met at Kime Hut [3] after he arrived in a hypothermic state. A Stuff report provides further information [4], adding that he’d been with a companion.

A PLB was triggered, and a LandSAR team walked up to Kime overnight. Low cloud meant a helicopter couldn’t safely reach Kime at the time. He was eventually assisted to Field Hut, at a lower elevation, and air-lifted out. His condition meant he stayed overnight at hospital. It’s good news in the sense that things could have been much worse, but weren’t.

This case is interesting because the Stuff report suggests that the man mightn’t have been well equipped for the conditions in which he found himself. It reports that he’d previously competed in the Tararua Mountain Race [5], and it reads as if some of the gear he carried might have been more consistent with that sort of event.

It’s difficult to know exactly what happened when the main source of information comes through a media lens. If accurate then this could be an issue with nailing the differences between a need to be entirely responsible for oneself versus the preparation needed for a managed event.

For a managed event, at least some of the responsibility is removed from competitors by race organisers who ensure race marshals are in place, and make calls on whether conditions are satisfactory to run the event. Competitors also sometimes rely on maintaining movement to stay warm. An element of safety is added through knowing that many other people are actively following the same route at the same time, and that organisers account for competitors before, during and after the event.

In an un-managed situation where it might be necessary to slow down or stop for some reason, such as to wait for a companion who’s moving at a different rate, or just when something unexpected happens, a lack of sufficient clothing to retain the warmth can make a big difference. Sometimes people just make enough uncharacteristic mistakes at once that it gets them into trouble.

As a last word, and on a tangent, this line from the Stuff article bothers me a little.

“He took an emergency beacon on a day walk. That shows what kind of person he is.”

The quote is about the man’s companion, from a family member, but the subject is not so much the issue as that someone said it. PLBs are important in modern times. They definitely save lives, often in cases where those lives couldn’t have been saved through other means. They’re not a great heuristic, however, for gauging whether someone’s responsible enough to be attempting whatever they’re doing.

The quote is consistent with an impression I’ve had that lots of people out there believe that considering whether a person’s carries a PLB is the definitive way of knowing whether someone’s being responsible. Carrying a PLB should never be an excuse for being capable of preparing and making decisions which minimise the likeliness of needing to use a PLB, but sometimes I wonder if the amount of PLBs-are-awesome publicity helps people to fall into that trap. In contrast, considering the Outdoor Safety Code [6] is a great place to start.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Thoughts on another Tararua rescue"

#1 Comment By Gazza On 3 April, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

The part of the story I wish was highlighted a bit more is that, due to the weather conditions, it took search and rescue 7 hours to reach Kime Hut after the beacon was activated, if he hadn’t made it to the hut and been helped out by his people there the beacon may not have made a difference…which highlights the point about being prepared.

Also I found the description of his gear interesting “thermals and a rain jacket”. That’s actually probably good baseline gear for most walks at this time of year, what might have been missing is more knowledge of the area, considering how exposed the Southern Crossing is to cold southerly weather a warm mid layer and over-trousers would have been on my gear list…but for a lower, more sheltered walk thermals and a Jacket would probably be fine.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 April, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

Hi @Gazza. Yeah, the media lens is often simplistic. It’s also hard to know exactly what gear he had from such a simple description. (A “rain jacket” could translate to many different things, some of which are far more appropriate than others.) Sometimes that’s not the whole story either. eg. There’s been the odd occasion when I’ve had warmer clothes but I was too naive to put them on before I froze beyond being comfortably able to.

#3 Comment By Gazza On 9 April, 2018 @ 9:05 am

Yeah, I think we have all been there. I did a trip as a teenager where we screwed up the navigation in cold, wet off track conditions. I knew I should put warmer clothes on (was wearing a thin base layer and a rain coat) but we thought the hut was close (we had actually gone down the wrong spur so the hut was not close at all) and my mind was going “don’t want to get changed in these horrible conditions, hut isn’t far”. I am pretty sure I ended up mildy hypothermic before we realised we had screwed up and decided to cut your losses and camp for the night, luckily we carried shelter and I had warmer clothes…when I warmed up a bit and got a cleared head I realised how silly I had been.