Another two too many in the Tararua Range

Two deaths occurred near Alpha Hut in the Tararua, in late 2016. I didn’t write about them at the time, but today Stuff published an article regarding the Coroner’s investigation.

The men were attempting to walk the standard Neill-Winchcombe circuit. It starts at Waiohine Gorge, into Cone Saddle and up to Cone (.1080). Then there’s a steep dip into Neill Saddle before climbing up to Neill (.1158), across the ridge to Winchcombe Peak (.1261), then to the junction of Mt Hector (.1529) before continuing along the main Southern Crossing route back to Alpha Hut. From there, there’s a route via Bull Mound and Cone Hut back to the starting point. Here’s a topo map of the region.

The route is a good fit trip, but it’s also very exposed to the worst sorts of conditions which the Tararua Range is capable of throwing at people. The route is notorious because there are very few good places to bail out if something goes wrong. For much of the route along the tops, the only practical directions to take are either forwards or backwards.

The two men were found about 900 metres short of Alpha Hut, sparking confusion about how they managed to get so close without reaching comparative safety.

I’ve read this article a few times, and each time I’m finding it more and more incredible about what these people were trying to do compared with how badly they seem to have been prepared. On one hand, I’m sure people have gotten away with worse than this and, hopefully, learned something. But still…..

These distances could be misleading, because the exposed ridges could be demanding and difficult, Rix said. In his opinion, the two men were not wearing adequate protection from the weather, which they may have struggled through for a while.

Neither had a maps, compass, GPS or light source.

The idea of this seems almost unfathomable to me, considering what they were attempting. Maybe they’d planned to do all their navigation with a smartphone? Maybe they’d committed the route, and everything around it, to memory?

If so, even with that single point of failure, they’d have had very limited means to know how far they’d gone and how much further they’d need to travel for comparative safety. If anyone’s confused about how neither of them managed to be motivated to continue just 900 metres further to Alpha Hut, despite the conditions and situation that might have made it extremely difficult regardless, it’s at least consistent with the possibility that they had little way of knowing how close they were anyway.

And then comes the rest of the explanation.

It was apparent the pair were not well equipped for a prolonged period in the bad conditions, Matheson said.

The bravado of the pair in the photos showed they had little concern or appreciation of the risks associated with the alpine journey they were about to undertake, he said.

The article also indicates that one of them appeared to have a significant knee injury.

The terrain was steep and there was an injury on the man’s left knee – it was bruised with blood, and it looked like the man had slipped, he said.

This possibly explains how they might have gone slower than intended. Usually if someone has an injury like this, is causes both to go slow. Especially if they weren’t clothed well for the conditions, moving more slowly than intended will often result in less body heat making it easier to freeze.

There’s no mention of any portable or emergency shelter being carried by either of them. With the context of the report that probably means they weren’t carrying it.

I know people make mistakes. I don’t wish to disrespect these people who, as with everyone who dies in the mountains, must be respected as much more than merely the method by which they died. That said, this article just reads like a dump truck full of mistakes from a couple of people who seem to have attempted something they were woefully unprepared for. Ironically the chances were probably still in their favour, because the majority do get lucky, but it’s sad because too many people are still out there doing very similar things with very similar lack of preparation, and no realisation of the actual risks to which they’re subjecting themselves and sometimes others.

Please, everyone, make sure you know what you’re capable of. Get objective input about what your skills enable you to do. Learn from as many people as possible who are good at what they do, so you can contrast and compare. Look after yourselves. Sometimes well managed risk can be an acceptable thing, but taking risks without even understanding what they are seems, to me, to be both reckless and unnecessary. The Outdoor Safety Code is a good place to start.

The Tararuas, and the New Zealand outdoors, don’t need more corpses.

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