Heuristic Traps of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Departing from South Crater
Leaving South Crater near
the end of spring.

A rescue that may have been inevitable occurred in Tongariro National Park on Saturday, when 16 people were rescued from the Tongariro Crossing, at least four of whom were in early stages of hypothermia. Present media appear to be pushing an angle that assigns much blame to a shuttle operator (who also has a side of the story) for giving the group incorrect advice about weather, although that’s something I struggle to accept. [Update 5/5/2012: This morning the Dominion Post also weighed in with an editorial, which largely blames the shuttle operator, but which I also think ignores much of the problem.]

“It got very nasty very quickly, and we became separated into three groups.

“We had the strong wind at our backs and we didn’t want to turn back into a headwind.”

Their hands became so cold that it became too difficult to open their packs to find food.

It was not until a woman collapsed with hypothermia that they decided to head back, he said.

Two Auckland trampers, Ghaz Jabur and Graham Plows, found the confused and hysterical group late in the morning and helped them off the mountain. They also contacted police by cellphone.

“The visibility was down to 10 to 20 metres; it was a freezing wind and we were crouching behind this boulder when we saw this hysterical person coming towards us,” Mr Jabur said. “We asked him if he was alone and he said he was with a big party who were trapped further up.”

The men grabbed their packs and climbed up to find the group huddled together. “They were hysterical; they had minimal clothing on – puffer jackets, hoodies, jeans, tights and sandshoes.”

The men gave spare clothes they had in their packs to the worst-affected and tried to get them out of the wind.

“All we could do was grab them and pull them down the slope. We did this for about 10 to 20 minutes, it was totally exhausting.

“Two guys and two of the girls were in a really bad way. They were shaking involuntarily, they had hypothermia and their eyes were rolling. They couldn’t put food in their mouths; they would have died for sure.

“The only way we could get their attention was to scream at them one at a time and tell them what to do.”

For me, it’s a reminder that the Tongariro Crossing is one of the wackiest places I’ve been in New Zealand in terms of seeing unprepared people in a wild, potentially very isolated, changeable and dangerous environment. I wrote about this problem of inexperience combined with popularity at the Tongariro Crossing a couple of years ago, and this TVNZ Close Up story from a few months before impresses the extent of the problem.

It’d be premature to try to comment on specifics of exactly what happened with regard to advice given, but I’m not entirely sure it’s relevant. While it’s good to have responsible people on the edges, assigning blame to operators for dropping off and collecting people who aren’t prepared also ignores the bulk of the problem.

That said, it also feels simplistic to just assign blame to people themselves and go no further—there are bigger things happening. Even if 16 people found themselves in trouble and had inadequate clothing and weren’t properly aware of the forecast and nearly died, and even if it is their own fault, they still weren’t doing anything especially different from what a substantial proportion of people have been doing before them and will likely continue to do in the future. In that respect, these people just happened to be the unlucky ones out of the crowd. For me, that is a much bigger problem, and this incident is merely symptomatic.

Operator responsibility

I’ll consider the shuttle operator’s responsibility before going further. Only you, or someone with you and in control of decisions, can possibly be responsible for your safety in an outdoor situation. Furthermore, everyone’s different with different needs and intents. Someone who drives a shuttle can’t possibly be expected to reliably gauge what’s right for every person they meet. They can’t always perfectly judge who they’re transporting, and they can have off days like everyone else. The fact that other people were on Tongariro that day (ie. those who discovered and rescued the group) without issues suggests that a properly equipped and experienced person would have been fine.

It may be that advice from a driver was badly formed or worded, or incorrectly interpreted, or perhaps they just made a mistake. Maybe it was completely irresponsible. I’m not certain we’re necessarily hearing the full story, but I also don’t think it should be a critical consideration. Hanging the safety of anyone on the thin strand of an individual operator’s ability to never make a mistake about a future they have no control over before they wave goodbye at the end of a road is asking for trouble. Those in a group need to be aware of that limitation, and if they aren’t then it’s something that needs fixing. In my opinion it’s never a good excuse to say you nearly died because of bad advice from another person who isn’t there. Once you enter the back-country, you really are on your own and must be prepared to deal with unexpected problems without assistance, at the very least for a reasonable amount of time to allow help to arrive, which could potentially be days away in atrocious conditions.

Should the group have been responsible for themselves and prepared better? Of course, and it sounds as if the people of this group made some extremely bad decisions and nearly paid a very serious price for it, but it’s also not as simple as that. When so many people consistently do something so potentially risky without appreciating or realising what they’re doing, there’s something else happening. In this case I think there’s something uncomfortably wrong with the New Zealand tourism juggernaut when it comes to the Tongariro Crossing.

Heuristic Traps

A heuristic is a rule of thumb that can be used to simplify a decision and measure the differences between situations according to pre-determined rules that are easy to assess. For instance, a road authority might decide which roads to improve by considering the number of reported accidents per kilometre, without necessarily examining the roads directly. “Number of reported accidents per kilometre” is a heuristic that’s easy and inexpensive to measure, and which can allow existing roads to be compared in a vaguely objective way. In outdoor situations, a very common heuristic application is to estimate how long it’ll take to climb a hill based on contour lines from a map. In the groups I’ve been in, we’ll often look at a map and presume we’ll climb roughly 300 vertical metres an hour as a general rule, and for us it usually works, so it’s very useful.

A heuristic trap is an occasion in which an incorrect rule of thumb is applied to assess a situation. The “300 vertical metres per hour” heuristic could become a trap if it’s applied when a group has a very exhausted member, or if the route turns out to be very overgrown and slower than expected. For such cases, it’s advisable to be prepared, such as by always carrying adequate portable shelter. Sometimes heuristics have little resemblance to the situation in which they’re being applied, and this is also very risky. For example, guessing how long it’d take to reach the top of a steep hill by measuring the horizontal distance from bottom to top would be unlikely to produce consistently accurate results, and a party might fail to reach an intended destination by an expected time, but people sometimes do this.

In traditional back-country experiences, the most risky heuristic traps tend to be encountered in situations such as river crossings and avalanche zones, where there’s often a high desire to get somewhere, but a high risk of doing so quickly. These are situations where people often kill themselves or otherwise get into trouble. Some examples:

  • “The river looks a high but there’s warm, dry shelter on the other side that I’d rather have than camping out, so I’ll cross.” The safety of the river is unaffected by what’s on the other side.
  • ”Everyone else is doing it so it must be safe.” This makes no consideration of the actual danger so much as watching what other people are doing and presuming they know what they’re doing and that you can do it too.
  • ”Something moved and I know there are deer out there, so I’ll shoot.” This is a classic way that hunters shoot their mates, and it’s a clear heuristic trap.

Heuristic traps, where people apply irrational reasoning, are recognised in many back-country accidents, which is why there’s so much ongoing emphasis in the wider community for people to become familiar with the common ones. First-hand experience is one of the best ways to better understand and cope with heuristic traps, so as to become more familiar with the risks. For instance, a good river safety course will provide good first-hand and direct experience of how dangerous rivers can be, perhaps by letting people experiment and be swept away in a controlled environment. It will give people a more complete picture for when they’re making their assessments for real, and falling into the heuristic trap becomes less likely (though still possible).

On the opposite side of the equation to understanding risk, it’s also possible to reduce the incentives for rationalising unnecessary risks away. For instance, a common incentive and rationale for taking risks is to prevent friends and family from worrying, so carrying a Mountain Radio, SPOT Beacon or Satphone to retain a link to those at home in case of delays can help avert this incentive. Mentally preparing and equipping one-self to potentially take longer than expected might also help, even if returning late was never the initial intent. Despite so much emphasis, some people still get themselves into trouble having fallen into heuristic traps, even in full knowledge of them.

Heuristic Traps and the Tongariro Crossing

As I stated earlier I believe personal responsibility is paramount and there’s no valid excuse for not accepting it, but the Tongariro Crossing is a weird case because it’s such a massive outlier in terms of the number of people it reaches, many of whom have never touched the New Zealand back-country before and many of whom will never do so again.

The tourism industry, officially and unofficially, routinely spreads promotion of the Tongariro Crossing as one of the best daywalks in the world. You’ll find that claim in popular international guides like Lonely Planet, you’ll find it promoted by a variety of tourism operators, you’ll find people chattering and recommending things informally on travel website forums and (once people arrive and start travelling) in the back rooms of backpackers throughout the country. It’s a major reason for some people to come and visit. For anyone who can only afford or be bothered with a single outdoor New Zealand experience in the North Island without the complications of overnight tramping, it’s one of the most accessible top places on the list. Huge numbers of people walk it, sometimes up to 1,000 people on a popular day.

Nearly 80% of those who walk the Tongariro Crossing are overseas visitors who come to New Zealand as part of a wider world trip, or having been to other parts of the world. Visit a variety of comparable attractions on the popular tourist trails overseas, and you’ll often find highly controlled experiences. You’ll find backpacker tourists being shepherded through hiking experiences with guides, or without guides but still never too far from danger and reliable shelter or help. You’ll find good steps and handrails and reliable cellphone reception in many of the potentially dangerous places. Gates will often be closed to lock everyone out at times when a government or exclusive operator believes there’s too much risk for tourists, and you’ll often find relatively stable climates with dangerous weather reliably predictable well in advance. Even across the ditch in some parts of Australia, it’s common for park authorities to close access or strictly control entry to some parks on safety grounds.

Such things are not the Tongariro Crossing, or nearly any part of New Zealand’s wilderness. Despite having largely open access to the public, it’s a wild environment that’s quite risky on its day for reasons that won’t always be present in people’s experience to date, and it needs to be treated as such. I’m insanely happy that the Tongariro Crossing is not a highly controlled experience as exists in some other places and I sincerely hope it never becomes one, yet the major tourist trail aspect of the Crossing means its perception could be completely disconnected from what it actually is in the eyes of many visitors.

This lays the foundations for a giant heuristic trap, and one that’s in a completely different class from other heuristic traps normally associated with local back-country experiences. Irrespective of the placement of warnings (like bylines in guidebooks and signs at ends of the track), the vast majority of visitors to the Tongariro Crossing are likely to compare both the crossing itself, and the warnings about it, with their past experiences, whether they be outdoors in other countries, or previous occasions in which they’ve walked 20 kilometres. Consider the following:

  • ”Today’s the only day we set aside and there’s nothing else to do around here, so we’ll just go today and hope it gets better.”
  • ”We were told to take gear for storms but there’s no time to get any. The last three days have been great weather and it looks the same this morning.”
  • ”It’s full of tourists, so if anything goes seriously wrong it’ll happen to everyone and we’ll not be much extra trouble for rescuers.”
  • ”Up to 1,000 people walk it every day, and we’ve barely heard of any accidents.”
  • ”The mountains don’t get much higher than 2000 metres, which is nothing compared with overseas.”
  • ”It’s okay, we have a cellphone.”
  • ”Those people we met last night said much of it was a boardwalk.”
  • ”The government wouldn’t let anyone in if it were too dangerous.”
  • ”The bus driver reckons the weather will probably improve.”
  • ”We’ve just come out of military training and can handle quite a bit of rough weather.”
  • ”Proper boots are expensive, I only need them today, and it’s only a daywalk.”
  • ”Jeans and sweatshirt are what I have for winter clothing in case it gets cold.”
  • ”The temperature back home is routinely 20 below and I know I can handle it.”

People often have strange ways of weighing risks against benefits which don’t always consider full implications, and there’s a lot of research in this. In this case it’s frequently, but not exclusively, young and inexperienced people who will happily reinforce their decisions by telling each other that things are fine. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people so often read about the risks, consider them in a fallacious mental equation of human nature, and convince themselves that it’s really not so bad to attempt the Tongariro Crossing after all. The tourism marketing machine, officially and unofficially, ensures that people really really want the benefits. The risks, meanwhile, remain exactly the same, not affected in the slightest by hype in the opposing direction, and they’re often not fully understood besides. Rationality goes out the window, and unhelpfully “most” people do get through the Tongariro Crossing without a hitch… until something like Saturday’s event occurs.

Fixing it

I don’t have clear answers of how to fix this, aside for knowing of several things I definitely don’t want to happen, but I do think there needs to be a serious discussion. It needs to involve proper research about where people get their information and how they perceive and weigh the risks with the benefits. Then it needs to be acted on to ensure that when people decide they want to walk the Tongariro Crossing, they’re less likely to convince themselves to take stupid chances with or without realising it. The Department of Conservation has already attempted to change how people perceive the walk. For instance, several years ago it pushed for operators to begin referring to the walk as the “Tongariro Alpine Crossing”. I’m not convinced it’s working, though.

As I indicated in my post a couple of years back, I don’t think much will change around the Tongariro Crossing until an unexpected storm comes along and wipes 50 unprepared tourists off the mountain. I sincerely hope this doesn’t occur, in part for the obvious devastation it’d cause for those involved and also for the knee-jerk responses I think it might provoke. That said, it might be that but for a few fortunate coincidences, the situation on Saturday came close to something comparable happening.

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