A sad Tararua tale of the usual sorts of reasons

I’ve held off writing much about the November 2016 accident in the Tararua, near Alpha Hut, where two people died. There hasn’t seemed to have been much new to write about which I haven’t already covered previously in this forum.

Last week I received a copy of the final Coroner’s report, which has now been released. Flick me an email if you’d like a copy.

Background

There’s not much new in the coroner’s findings that has not already been reported. It makes for some depressing reading. The findings describe that both men were fit, and that one had “significant tramping experience in New Zealand”. Neither had ever visited the Tararua, however, and “experience” is often a subjective metric. It’s not a word that always correlates with ability in all circumstances.

The two men appear to have made plans to attempt what’s commonly known as the Neill-Winchcombe circuit after a work conference in Wellington. The trip was a last minute decision. Clear intentions had seemingly not been left with anyone, except that they intended to stay at a hut, probably Alpha Hut.

There’s a relatively direct route to Alpha Hut from their starting point, but they instead opted to follow a much longer, circular route. Maybe this decision was made if they thought the direct route appeared to short and boring, but exactly why this decision was made is unknown.

Without clear intentions being available, the main sequence of events has been reconstructed from other evidence.

Here’s a map of the area.

The pair left the Waiohine Gorge carpark, inland from Greytown, in the early morning of Saturday 19th November. From there they tramped west to Cone Saddle, climbed to Cone, then north-west to Neill Saddle and around to Winchcombe. After Winchcombe, the route crosses to the west and eventually meets the more popular Southern Crossing track at the peak of Mt Hector. Hector is a relatively short distance south of Kime Hut, but they instead walked south-west, around the Dress Circle and eventually towards Alpha Hut where they most likely meant to stay the night.

They never reached Alpha Hut.

The Neill-Winchcombe Circuit

Neill-Winchcome is the common name for a known circuit in the Tararua. It’s normally considered a big ask, and a reasonable amount of research should reveal this. Recently when I searched the web for “neill-winchcombe”, six of the top eight results were trip reports. Of those:

(1) A WTMC attempt in 2012:

We summited Winchcombe and tramped as swiftly as we could towards the next steep peak (height 1398). This brute had almost sheer sides. With daylight almost exhausted and the westerly growing in strength we decided to retreat back the way we had come. A little after nightfall, we bivvied in a half decent spot just off the track.

(2) A TTC trip from 18 years ago, which did not attempt the circuit but successfully managed to cross from Otaki to Waiohine Gorge in an extremely fit 11 hour day.

(3) A TTC report from 2011 titled “Benighted on Winchcombe”, of which the title generally describes what happened:

After at least one false start we started towards Hector again using cairns. However shortly thereafter the GPS told us we were off track. Making our way back onto the track, it was difficult to find the route forward in the mist. After a 12 hour day, with night approaching, a decision was made to find somewhere to camp. A hollow area about six metres below and in the lee of the ridge offered shelter and a nearby shallow tarn, protected by leatherwood and spaniards, provided water.

(4) A second trip report for the same attempt described in the first report, by a different member of the group.

We did not cover this ground as fast as I had hoped, but this didn’t become a problem until we reached Winchcombe. The wind was howling in from the west. Walking upright was becoming somewhat of a challenge and we soon found ourselves crawling along the ridge toward pt1378 tightly grasping the tussock. With fading light, gale-force winds and the ridge narrowing toward razorback we chose to turn back for the safety of the bushline for a night of unscheduled fly camping.

(5) A six day trip report from 1994 which didn’t actually attempt the loop, but passed alongside part of it.

(6) My own report from 2008, in which I described us turning around when things weren’t going to plan.

Getting down from Neill was fairly steep and muddy in places, but easily do-able with care. By 11am we were in trees again, heading towards point 1055. It was about now that things changed. After 4 hours of walking we were only a third of the distance we’d planned to travel for the day. Nobody was knackered, but although we expected things to get much faster and easier after reaching Hector and the main Southern Crossing trench back to Alpha Hut, several of us were starting to wonder if we were likely to make it through the entire day.

It’s entirely possible to follow the Neill-Winchcombe route safely, but it requires careful thought and preparation in case of unforeseen events. The route involves a long time above the bush-line with excessive undulation. For much of the time there’s little or no guaranteed water. It is very exposed to all the extreme conditions that the Tararua Range is known for, including strong wind and low cloud. Much of the route is relatively isolated, and it can be difficult to bail out if plans need to change, except for continuing forwards or returning backwards. Much of the route has no marked track, and an ability to navigate with confidence is essential.

Neill-Winchcombe is a route for which it’s important to expect that things might not go as intended, and to plan accordingly.

The incident onwards

The two men never reached Alpha Hut on Saturday night, but nobody noticed until Sunday evening when the wife of one of them was due to meet him off a flight to Auckland. She called police when he never stepped off the plane. A Search and Rescue operation was initiated, with limited information. On Monday morning a helicopter entered the range towards Alpha Hut.

Its crew made contact with an individual there, but no evidence that anyone had been there two nights earlier. When the individual left and walked towards Kime, he found a deceased person on the track within 30 minutes, and less than a kilometre from the hut he’d just left. The helicopter returned after the man dialled 111. Soon after, the deceased man’s companion was found, also deceased, about 200 metres down the side of the ridge.

The details of their last moments are unclear, but the coroner notes that the possibility of the second man seeking shelter or somehow tumbling off the main track are fully consistent with latter stages of hypothermia, where victims often stumble and fall, and thought processes fail.

Considering what happened

Investigation found that against the context of the Neill-Winchcombe circuit described with all those trip reports above:

  • they took no map,
  • they took no compass,
  • they took no equipment to navigate, beyond what might have existed on their smartphones,
  • they had no torches,
  • they had no portable shelter, no survival blankets, nor any practical means to keep themselves or their equipment dry.
  • the pair had raincoats, but the Senior Constable who coordinated the Search and Rescue operation described their raincoats as “the kind that one might use in wet weather for a half hour shopping trip”.

Extrapolating from the above, it also seems likely that they had little knowledge of where they were going, and they didn’t sufficiently understand the reality of what they were attempting compared with how they’d prepared.

There’s no direct evidence that the lack of attention to navigation caused them problems, but a lack of location awareness and ability to navigate might have slowed them down. It might also have left them without critical information they may have needed for making competent and informed decisions about a need to turn back, based on knowledge of where they were and how well or badly they’d been going.

The terse intentions left by the pair caused confusion with initial media reports. There’s a direct route to Alpha Hut, via Cone Hut and Bull Mound. When initial reports suggested they’d been found dead on the way to Alpha Hut, many in the outdoors community didn’t understand how two men had been found dead on such a straightforward track, just a short distance from a hut. Being found on the far side of that hut created more confusion, and explanations weren’t immediately published.

When the full story emerged, however, that they’d been attempting a much more arduous and risky route, everything made more sense. Reports from others, such as a comment of mountain runner Tim Sutton’s in the above-linked Wairarapa Times article, confirmed that conditions in the range at that time were of cold and extreme wind.

We were on the Main Range doing a day loop of the Tararua Peaks from Otaki Forks. On dropping off Mangahuka onto the ridge leading E-W to Bridge Peak we copped the full force of the wind and were soon into the bulk of our gear as our hands were numb from cold within minutes. This section of ridge runs parallel to the Neill-Winchcombe Ridge which the men were apparently on earlier in the day.

In effect, the two men embarked on one of the more challenging and exposed routes in the Tararua Range. The weather involved very strong wind and unenviable conditions. Even at times when it wasn’t raining, any sweat on them would have intensified the chilling factor of the wind. They allowed themselves no way to remain warm and dry except for a reliance on heat generated from their own perpetual motion. An unforeseen circumstance, which probably left them fumbling in the dark of sub-alpine terrain, with no torch, resulted in rapid hypothermia.

As I’ve noted previously, huts are meaningless shelter if you can’t reach them. It’s risky to venture without adequate portable shelter and a plan for how to cope with something going wrong unexpectedly.

In retrospect

I’ve been uncertain about whether to write anything about this. It’s easy to blame people for their demise, but they’re hardly the only people who make mistakes. Most simply get away with it. Some who do so fail to even realise, or quickly forget, the risks they might have taken. Many highly competent people still managed to make bad decisions on the way to reaching their level of skill. Blame also needs to be considered in a context whereby even if someone messed up some outdoor decisions, it’s not a reflection on every angle of themselves or their lives, and it’s important to remember victims as real people instead of simply for how they died.

From an outdoor safety perspective, though, the tragedy exemplifies a series of clear mistakes which can hopefully be learned from. It’s only by talking about this stuff that learning can happen.

The coroner decided to make no recommendations.

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