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Risks of Experience

Recently an incident in Auckland’s Hunua Range [1] 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 [2]

…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.”


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 [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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* [6]).

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 [7]. 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 [8], 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 [9]. On the 19th of June, within an hour of him being found, the Herald reported him as ‘an experienced tramper’ [10], without citing a clear source. The next day (20th of June), the Dominion Post quoted the man’s sister as saying he was experienced [11], and eventually in an interview with the Herald the following day [12], other members of his family indicated they viewed him as ‘experienced’.

A week later, even after a somewhat muted analysis in its own pages [5] 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’ [13].

‘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 [14] 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 [15], 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 [16]) 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.


* [17] Few searches are formally reported as costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2008 search for Israeli tourist Liat Okin [18], which is often cited as one of New Zealand’s most expensive searches if not the most expensive, was costed at $136,052 [19]. 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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Risks of Experience"

#1 Comment By Robb On 3 July, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

Kia ora Mike – I shook my head then about this guy, and I still do. Having been the aim of a search and rescue effort, being overdue, and doing everything correctly, even described by the search and rescue guy in the news as “experienced”, then “but”, I felt then, and do now, as being subjected to their chance to get on the soapbox – in my case about mountain radios. I had met the sar guy a few times before then, and have been at a few gatherings with him since, and sense a reluctance by him to look me in the eye. My point is sometimes it is a less newsworthy day, or there is an agenda at hand. To describe this guy in the Hunua as “experienced” I find amusing. Being fit has little to do with being experienced. I was incredulous at the amount of emails I had from folks back in the states about the other “experienced” trampers you refer to here. They were Americans, and this story went a bit viral in the states and they were fawned over as hero like survivors. People did not like my pointing out they ignored well in advance bad weather forecasts, and were woefully ill equipped in most ways, including “experience” in the southern alps. They were very very lucky. That is my rant and I am sticking to it.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 4 July, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

Hi Robb. Thanks for the comment. Are you referring to [26]? That’s not the one I linked to but I possibly should have included that. I haven’t been down that route, but a quick Google shortly afterwards popped up [27] about the Hot Pools they were visiting, and it’s full of references in the following comment thread regarding risks of being trapped there in bad weather.

I’ve been trying to follow reporting of back-country accidents and searches for a while, now, and it’s obvious after just a few that comments about situations post-search are often insanely subjective and inconsistent. Sometimes people are strongly and negatively criticised when the stated facts make it appear as if they’d done everything as well as they could, and other times people screw up massively and stupidly and there’s little criticism at all. It does often seem to be a function of the rescuer rather than the rescued, and I wonder if Sergeant Duthie (in this Hunua case) just falls towards the more diplomatic and less soap-boxey end of the spectrum. I can appreciate what you mean about soap boxes. Sometimes it just seems that certain officials prefer to act as if the ends out-weigh the means and the individual people who are being targeted by their rants.

I’ve also found it very interesting to watch that lately, when Police are controlling a search, there’s been more effort put into responding consistently to the media and taking advantage of how it tends to operate. In the last few months, large numbers of press releases (and therefore loosely edited regurgitations of them appearing as journalist-authored articles) include verbatim text about how everyone should consult the AdventureSmart website. Prior to that, it was all about pushing EPIRBs, and how everyone should always have one.

I guess the higher offices have decided to go for simple, repetitive messages whenever the opportunities arise, and try to avoid complicating the issues by letting every officer have his or her say. On the other hand it also seems to mean we get less information about what actually happened and the actual causes of the problems on some occasions.

Cheers for now.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 27 July, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

Gee, and then we get [28].

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 13 December, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

For some contrast to this incident, check out [29], of an 84 year old hunter on a day-walk accidentally being stuck outside for 3 nights, and walking himself out.

On balance there’s a likely difference in experience here (whatever that means) and he’s not being presented as arrogantly, perhaps for good reason, but are the mistakes the same? The actual narrative reads very similarly. Still…. search goes on, subject keeps moving without thinking he’s being searched for…. eventually walks himself out….

#5 Comment By Gazza On 14 December, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

Its an interesting dillemia to be in I guess. On one hand he wasn’t in much immediate danger, he was just lost. so if he got himself un-lost before a search really ramps up he saves people a lot of hassle. On the other hand by moving about, if you cannot get out, or back to your mates pretty quickly then you are creating extra hassle…in that your still lost but not in the area the searchers are expecting to find you.

If I was in a similar situation I would probably bunk down for the first night, figure my friends would be a little worried about me but would hopefully be confident enough in my abilities that they would give me a decent chunk of the next day to get myself unlost before raising the alarm. So I might move a bit…however I would also like to think that if I found myself unable to quickly get my bearings I would eventually retrace my steps and then wait for the searchers.

That being said I can see how someone’s thought process might keep them moving…

“I should have hit the lake by now, hmmm, must have mis-judged the distance…just keep moving for a bit.”

“ok, somethings not right but i am sure I have been moving south..well south-ish anyway, so If I find some high ground over there I will be able to see the lake and get my bearings”

“hmmm, cannot see the lake, sight must be blocked by that ridge over there, so if I head over there I will be going the right way”

It would be all too easy to trick yourself into continuing I think.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 17 December, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

Hi Gazza. Thansk for the thoughts.

Yes, a dilemma is right. I guess many people have been through that phase when they’re in limbo, and hope they can fix a problem themselves before it becomes a big major thing that inconveniences a lot of people. Most times, it probably works for them and nobody hears about it, but on this occasion and a few others I suppose it can end up becoming worse.

Reading the article again I’m not really sure any more if this is much like the Hunua case at all. I notice he had his compass but hadn’t been carrying his own map (although the group was), which just sounds like a dumb oversight that he’ll not do again. Mistakes usually have to add together for something seriously bad to happen, but considering how he probably could have made use of a map given his other apparent experience, I wonder if it was a critical thing that led to his problem, and we’d never have heard about it otherwise. Even if he stayed lost, he might have realised he was lost much more rapidly if he had a map.

Like you, reading about it has made me wonder what I might try to do in that sort of limbo situation. I’ve found myself embarrassingly disoriented in just a tiny amount of bush in the past (literally just a few metres on any side when I was trying to be smart and cut between a couple of dog-walking tracks, but quite thick), and sympathise with how it can suddenly happen from time to time.

I guess if you suddenly realise that you’re not certain of where you are nor how to get somewhere useful, even if you think it might be resolvable with a little nosing around, something important to try and do would be to try and find reliable ways to intensively mark your position and route from there, both to make yourself easy to track in the event that someone starts searching, and to be able to find your way back to where you started with certainty. It’s not always obvious straight away when you’re lost, though, and as you said it can be possible to trick yourself into thinking you’re not.