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Thoughts on the Barker Hut Trio

I’m often behind on current events. I don’t spend much time listening to New Zealand’s news media, and I don’t have much respect for a lot of it. (Some of National Radio is an exception.)

Over the weekend, I’ve been catching up with the plight of the three people who were caught at Barker Hut down in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Reportedly they were stuck behind flooded rivers and down to their last energy bar between them. They attempted to arrange a helicopter out via mountain radio, and even offered to pay for it, but were denied this after the Department of Conservation and Police decided their situation wasn’t an emergency. (Helicopters are banned in Arthur’s Pass National Park except for emergencies.)


The Press, Christchurch’s daily newspaper, sensationalised their plight when they were still stuck in the hut being denied a rescue. Once they’d returned on Thursday, reportedly having been forced to make a shockingly dangerous river crossing, The Press spent quite a lot of effort continuing to slam DOC [1] and claiming there are flaws in the system. It makes for some quite shocking reading if you believe how The Press reported things, but I did find it enlightening to read a researched chronology of events and conditions that was put together by Graeme Kates, who lives in Arthur’s Pass and maintains a locally-focused mountaineering website. [Update 3-July-2008: Here’s an example of another story by The Press from earlier [2], again authored by Dan Silkstone, followed by this one a couple of days later [3] which looks as if it’s trying to save face after generating more backlash against the paper than they might have expected.]

Graeme’s post about the subject is titled “The Wimpy Media Trio [4](link now broken, see update below), and claims the party made some quite silly decisions leading up to their arrival at the hut. They also ignored weather forecasts, didn’t carry their own shelter (ie. a tent), didn’t properly research the route or have adequate maps, ate a large meal the night before they ran out of food, despite knowing they might have trouble leaving immediately, spent a lot more time talking to the media (over the radio) rather than SAR personnel, and continued to ask for a helicopter without actually checking if the level of the river was going down. The entire article makes interesting reading compared with the sensationalist media view of things.

[Update 31-Aug-2015: Graeme Kates’ account was taken down with a redesign of the website, but it can still be read in its totality thanks to the Wayback Machine [5].]

2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Thoughts on the Barker Hut Trio"

#1 Comment By Mikegb On 1 July, 2008 @ 10:18 am

As a frequent visitor from over the ditch, I’ve got nothing but respect for the sterling qualities of NZ trampers, but these guys are a bunch of crybabies. As a journalist, I can only offer apologies for the craven members of my profession who never allow truth to get in the way of a sensationalist beat-up. Sounds like this intrepid trio they left their brains as well as their bravery behind. And they’re Aucklanders…..well that’s a surprise…..hope they stick to escalators in future.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 July, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

Hi Mikegb. Thanks for the comment.

I don’t know quite what to think about this. I can’t claim to be an expert but to me it does sound as if they panicked, and ended up either trying to save face or convinced themselves that they were in more trouble than they were to rationalise all the attention they were getting. Considering the importance of communication with how this all unfolded, it does also seem as if the radio operator did a lot to help fan the flames. I suppose it’s in the past now, but hopefully something constructive can be learned from it all.

What I’m sure of is that the journalism around this was awful, which is unfortunately common around here. It was particularly bad from The Press and from the journalist (Dan Silkstone). The journalist labelled one of the guys as an “experienced outdoorsman”, and the only rationale I’ve been able to find for this label is that he won a $70,000 car from a competition in a reality TV show! (In other words, “you saw him running around outdoors on TV so obviously he knows what he’s talking about”.) I don’t know them personally and I’m sure it’s possible that any or all of them could deserve such a title, even if it didn’t show on this occasion, but I’m not convinced there’s a correlation between outdoor experience and reality television and it seemed irresponsible of The Press to label them this way. (It just puts more pressure on *them*, among other things.)

Reality TV aside, I don’t think there’s even much of a correlation between time spent in the back-country and common sense. There will always be people who have to learn things the hard way, and there are. There are also very careful people who just get into trouble, or make a bad decision from time to time, because people make mistakes.

I’ve had the pleasure of going out with several people whose wealth of experience and judgement I’d happily trust my life to (and I have), even though they’re not well known outside small circles, if they’re even known at all. They’ve earned my respect by demonstrating that they don’t make a habit of doing stupid things, or asking other people to do stupid things or things beyond their limits.