Risks of Experience

Recently an incident in Auckland’s Hunua Range provoked a discussion in parts of the outdoor community. It wasn’t a discussion about a man’s getting lost for four days when intending a 4 hour daywalk so much as a discussion about the way he was repeatedly described in media as ‘experienced’, despite many of the things he did having been categorical opposites of what is typically recommended for those stuck in his situation.

Once eventually found, an exciting story emerged. The man had at first made a mistake by following a trapping line off the main track on which he’d intended to remain. Despite having two maps (I’m unsure what sort of maps they were), neither proved useful. Intent on saving himself because he knew he could get out

…A determined Fong barely rested for the next four days as he followed water courses in the park, picking himself up from falls down hills, losing his map and running out of food.

Unable to catch the attention of the searching helicopters, he even tried unsuccessfully to use an old tree trunk as a raft to paddle himself to safety, all the while never entertaining the thought that he would not make it.

“I knew with my fitness I could get out, it was just a matter of time. In my head I just put one thing in my head and said I’ll get out and that’s it.

“When I saw a mountain, I just thought ‘I’ll bust through that mountain and just keep going and going’.

“I never felt tired, I just kept walking and walking. I never thought that I would die in the forest.”

[—snip—]

The bush was so dense that searchers could have passed within two metres of Fong and missed him if he was unresponsive. Duthie [the SaR coordinator] said it was a massive relief when Fong was located because there’d been little sign of him and as more time passed the chances of him safe decreased.

Even after it was clear to him that a search was underway, he walked roughly 50 kilometres through thick bush where he would not have been visible from the air. He didn’t remain in the same place, and was eventually located in a region that had already been searched.

This post is meant to be about the general media’s interpretation of experience within outdoor contexts more than any specific incident, but I’ll refer to this and a couple of other incidents for demonstration. There’s another discussion about similar things on the NZ Tramper website. As usual this is all just my own musings, and thoughts are welcome.

Rescuers believed he would have been found much sooner if he’d remained where he was. By not remaining in the same place or even trying to leave signs about where he’d been and where he was going, especially once it became clear that people were searching, the search effort became much more convoluted and drawn out than it had ever needed to be. Search and Rescue co-ordinator, Sergeant Dene Duthie, guessed the search may have cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars”(see footnote*).

The media’s readers and viewers could be excused not for noticing this, though, given the editorial tone of the reports. Some articles reproduced concerns of search personnel, but the editorial focus often seemed to be more about excusing actions in exchange for a story about the self-motivated heroics of a local boy from Auckland, than on criticising his actions. Never mind the 200 people who were involved in searching for him as a consequence of his mistakes. More than anything, though, he was repeatedly described as ‘an experienced tramper’.

The ‘experienced’ label

Experience can be a red herring, because often the serious problems that strike people in the outdoors are those things which they haven’t experienced. When someone’s missing or overdue, the more relevant attributes to be considering might be a person’s ability to cope with the unexpected and unfamiliar. This can be tough information to obtain about a person, certainly without finding someone who knows them well enough in an outdoor context, and is knowledgeable enough themselves to be able to comment about the person’s abilities.

Very soon after his return, Wilderness Magazine pondered over the ‘experienced’ label. In that article Sergent Duthie commented that he didn’t know where the media had gotten the label from. It’s unclear, but the description probably came from his family. On the 18th of June, Radio New Zealand reported that he was not experienced, sourcing that description from SaR officials who’d assessed the person they were searching for as clearly as possible, in a qualified way, based on sparse information he’d left behind. On the 19th of June, within an hour of him being found, the Herald reported him as ‘an experienced tramper’, without citing a clear source. The next day (20th of June), the Dominion Post quoted the man’s sister as saying he was experienced, and eventually in an interview with the Herald the following day, other members of his family indicated they viewed him as ‘experienced’.

A week later, even after a somewhat muted analysis in its own pages in which search experts criticised what the man did (again pushed to the end of the article following repeated descriptions of his heroics), the NZ Herald still habitually refers to the man as ‘an experienced tramper’.

‘Experience’ is a double-edged sword

Having ‘experience’ means to have undergone something in the past, and subjectively it’d be reasonable to state that if a person’s been out exploring frequently for several years, they’re experienced in doing so. This is what the family saw, and their media-repeated view was that experience was something he certainly had. In a general sense, it doesn’t automatically equate to diversity of experience, though. It also doesn’t automatically equate to common sense, knowing one’s limits and being able to stay within them, knowing how to simplify search and rescue operations, having any particular skills or abilities that might be needed in certain contexts, or being able to cope well with unexpected situations.

It’s tough to assess a person’s relevant experience and ability without lots of information about how they act and react in an outdoor context, and even then it’s possible to get confused. In this 2009 case in which two people sadly died in the Tararua Range, one of the two, who was considered to be the most responsible, had been frequently cited in media as ‘an experienced tramper’. The coroner’s inquest noted that he’d been out tramping quite a lot over the years. In effect he was experienced, but the coroner also determined through witnesses that he’d been doing some rather dubious things with regard to safety during that time, over and over again. In the end, these habits contributed to the two people’s demise. If his experience played a part at all, it was a naive and mis-leading experience of having been lucky up until that time, and that perception created a trap into which the two people marched.

More recently, in a Radio New Zealand interview which I described with a transcript here, Mary Wilson interviewed two people who’d gotten themselves into trouble in a blizzard for three days before being rescued, describing them as ‘experienced trampers’. In that case it may have been true, but what wasn’t clearly addressed was that their experience could not have had much to do with them getting into trouble. If the interview transcript passively revealed anything, it was that their prior experience of winter tramping in the area had led them to incorrectly believe that they would not strike such problems.

The man in the Hunua Range had spent much time outdoors in the past, but seemingly with very little scope. It’s likely that the man’s limited scope of experience led him into a trap at least as much as it helped him to get out of it, and in the end he was very lucky. I think it’s examples such as these and others which cause me to cringe whenever I see the phrase ‘experienced tramper’ appear in popular media. More often than not, a journalist applies the term ‘experienced’ in the same disconnected and not-very-relevant way as this man’s family and friends may have applied the term.

Diversity of experience

Sometimes freak accidents occur, but back-country mistakes can often relate to a gap in experience, or a mis-interpretation of previous experiences which then become a root cause of the problem. It may be that a person’s spent countless hours outdoors in the past, but if most of it has been following formed and sign-posted tracks, that experience is unlikely to help if wandering into un-tracked or loosely tracked bush. If most time has been spent in good summer weather, it’s unlikely to help in an unexpected hail storm. If most time has been spent staying in back-country huts and rarely bringing portable shelter, it’s unlikely to help if something occurs that requires staying out for a night or more. When someone’s missing or overdue, the most relevant attributes to consider are those that relate to a person’s ability for coping with the situation at hand, which will often be unexpected and unfamiliar.

I think understanding one’s limitations and remaining within them is one of the most important policies for remaining safe outdoors, and for avoiding and minimising the impact of problems as they occur. For a good understanding, it helps a lot to have a diverse enough range of experience so that it’s clear when a limitation is being crossed. One of the best ways to do this is to visit the outdoors with diverse and different groups of people, attend training courses (such as those offered by the Mountain Safety Council) and also discuss issues with others who have different views. It can help to observe and critically discuss different ways of doing things as much as possible, and take expertise that’s offered under advisement. Clubs can be fantastic if they’re your thing, but clubs can also be hit and miss for a good fit, and depending on certain factors about the club, can occasionally even become their own breeding ground for un-safe practices. Above all, people and groups in the outdoors are responsible for themselves. It’s just as important to have a responsible person available who understands why certain procedures are recommended as it is to carry them out.

Reporting of experience in media is often relevant because there may be a relationship between that and the event, and possibly a person’s ability to survive it. That said, I think the way experience is often reported for people who require searches and/or rescues is often mis-leading or irrelevant if it does not clearly demonstrate how a person’s experiences are relevant to what’s likely to have happened. This could be improved if journalists would more clearly explain where they’ve obtained the information, and especially if they would question their sources from time to time. Without reporting context and a source, information about a subject’s experience is meaningless. Some day I hope that significant media outlets will get a better handle on their reporting of such events and ideally try to second-guess the information they’re given. I doubt it’ll happen in the foreseeable future, but I can live and hope.

Footnote

* Few searches are formally reported as costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2008 search for Israeli tourist Liat Okin, which is often cited as one of New Zealand’s most expensive searches if not the most expensive, was costed at $136,052. This included $102,861 of helicopter use, and the costing was before the missing woman’s family from Israel became involved to fund a much more expensive private search. If the Hunui Range figure was realistic, it would be likely to include the un-counted donated time and resources of many volunteers and their employers. This makes it a very fuzzy number and probably an over-estimation, but there’s little doubt that lengthy search operations that span multiple days involving many resources and volunteers typically cost orders of magnitude more than speedy rescue operations which require no search, such as when an EPIRB is activated.

Also note that official rescues in New Zealand are always free for the rescued party. Short of criminally charging a person for intentionally wasting police time and resources under the Summary Offences Act, there is no mechanism to charge people for rescues, and you should not be asked to provide payment.

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