Tragedy  A Preventable Death in the Young Valley

What lessons can be learnt from tragic 2015 drowning of a tramper on the Gillespie Pass circuit?

Area: Young River, Mt Aspiring National Park
Activity: Tramping
Deceased: ‘Ms A’, 20-year-old woman from the USA, studying in New Zealand
Date of Incident: 25 April 2015

Summary

On a wet and windy afternoon in autumn conditions, a party of three trampers became spread out while crossing Gillespie Pass en route to the Young Valley. Near Gillespie Pass, two of the party members saw Ms A about 500 metres behind them, but because they were tired, cold, wet and ‘pretty freaked out’ by the conditions, decided to continue down to the shelter of the Young Valley. Very strong winds had blown them over several times. During their descent, these two leading party members also became separated. They arrived at Young Hut, about 20 minutes apart, in a cold, wet and ‘distraught’ condition.

Another tramping party was present at the hut, and together the two groups made a decision that it was too unsafe to return to look for Ms A – because of the flooded river, rain, hail, wind and darkness. When she did not arrive in the hut by the following morning, the combined parties decided to tramp out to Makarora to get help.

Two days later, the search operation found Ms A’s pack and clothing on the banks of the Young River. Her clothes were inside out and the pack straps still fastened at the shoulder, chest and hips – indicating that the force of water had stripped off these items. Members of the SAR team suspected that she had slipped or fallen into the flooded Young River, and suspended searching until the river levels had dropped. On 2 May 2015, she was located pinned underwater in a section of rocky rapids below the bridge. The flooded and discoloured condition of the river had earlier obscured the location of her body.

It appears that Ms A had tried to follow the track, which was then underwater. While negotiating steep ground around flooded sections, she probably fell into the Young River and was swept downstream for approximately two kilometres.

Cause of Death

Most likely falling, sustaining a head injury, and drowning.

Comment and key lessons

Weather

The party knew about the forecast rain, but with limited experience in the New Zealand mountains, they were probably unaware of the consequences of the weather above the bushline or the rapid flooding possible in the Young River headwaters. It may also have prompted them to race the weather: rushing can lead to poor decisions.  The severe but relatively common weather conditions (rain, hail and strong winds) were a significant contributing factor in this accident. Ms A had been wearing only a thermal singlet and cotton sweatshirt. The surviving party members reported that being cold was a major factor in the decision to stay separated and push on to Young Hut. Appropriate outdoor clothing would have mitigated this, as hypothermia may have been a contributing factor, leading to poor decision-making.

 

Be prepared for an unexpected night out

Have the resources to survive outside a hut, such as a tent or bivvy-bag. This allows options including protecting an injured person from the elements, or waiting out a flooded river. A mountain radio or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) means help can be activated sooner. In this case, SAR was not activated until the party had reached Makarora.

 

Exposure, fitness, fatigue and hypothermia

These are all interdependent. If you get cold walking up a hill when your body is at maximum thermal output, then you will be much colder on the descent. Turn around, get lower and warmer. If you get cold waiting for someone to catch up, then walk back towards them. It will keep you warm and help the other person – who may well be colder and more tired. Do a ‘dynamic assessment reality check’ (the conditions, risk and hazards constantly change, so need constant reassessment) and consider the options.

In the outdoors you always need reserves to cope with the unexpected – for example, the ability to tramp an extra 10 kilometres at the end of the day in stormy conditions. If you don’t have this capacity, you are taking too much risk: always do things from a position of strength.

 

Outdoor experience and the Great Walks

Ms A had limited tramping experience in New Zealand, having only completed the Abel Tasman and Kepler Great Walks earlier in the year. The Great Walks are generally highly developed and require relatively few outdoor skills, knowledge or judgement. Great Walks are:

  • Extremely well marked and signposted requiring little real navigation or routefinding ability
  • Well graded requiring less physical dexterity and fitness y All waterways of consequence are usually bridged
  • There are numerous, regularly spaced, shelters and huts
  • Hut wardens are often present, who may have radios or other means of communication

Great Walks do not provide the necessary experience, skill, and judgement for tackling tracks such as Gillespie Pass Circuit. DOC describes it as ‘a tramping track mostly unformed but with track directional markers, poles or cairns. Backcountry skills and experience required.’

DOC suggests allowing a total of 8–11 hours from Kerin Forks Hut to Young Hut. As most of their experience had been on Great Walks, where young people of moderate fitness can easily beat the stated track times, it is reasonable to assume the party also believed they could move faster on the Gillespie Pass crossing. However, once off the graded and benched tracks, inexperienced people are often significantly slower due to being unaccustomed to rough terrain. The need for route finding also slows inexperienced parties, as does increased fatigue and exposure to the elements.

The coroner noted that the party may have considered their Great Walks experience as enough for the Gillespie Pass tramp, but it was clearly not. Lack of experience was a major contributing factor.

 

River levels

From hydrological records, it was estimated the river rose one to two metres in the accident location, causing trail erosion and flooding sections of the track. Rivers in the mountains can rise (and fall) extremely quickly, but it takes judgement gained from experience to understand the possible implications from adverse weather.

 

Turnaround times

In April there are about 12 hours of daylight. The party had lunch at Siberia Hut, from where DOC signs state it is 6–8 hrs to Young Hut. This left little margin for error, especially in stormy conditions. Turnaround times are group specific, but each party should have explicit time-trip goals: for example, turning back if a certain point has not been reached by a certain time to avoid travelling after dark. Based on their experience, preparedness and fitness levels, they left Siberia Hut too late in the day to cross a major alpine pass. Nightfall at Young Hut was one of the factors that stopped the group returning to search for their missing companion.

 

Stay together or separate?

As the conditions deteriorated while they gained altitude, and the terrain became more technical, the party did not seem to reassess the situation or discuss their options. Instead, each party member stuck to their plan to get to Young Hut, despite numerous hazards. These included negotiating flooded and eroding sections of track in the Young Valley at the end of the day when fatigue, panic, stress and possibly hypothermia were occurring.

In pursuing their goal of getting to the ‘safety’ of Young Hut, the party separated, with each member of the party individually exposing themselves to significant risks that – for their level of experience – became fatal hazards. By staying together they could have discussed options, provided physical assistance and mutual support, improved morale, and offered immediate aid in the case of an accident. With their combined knowledge, they could have explored options such as turning back or seeking shelter, despite their limited individual experience.

Separated at the rear of the party and significantly behind the others, Ms A would have negotiated higher water levels and most likely felt that the best option was to catch up to her companions – despite the severe and deteriorating weather conditions and her probable exhaustion.

The coroner acknowledged the distress and dilemma of the party – in particular cold and fatigue – and that they may not have been in a physical condition to provide assistance. However, he noted ‘they should have stayed together’.

 

Dynamic decision making – always have a Plan B

Given the forecast and the demands of crossing a high pass later in the day, the group should have discussed a ‘Plan B’ before leaving Siberia Hut. What if a party member injured themselves on the pass? How would they survive? The seemingly panicked decision to carry on in the conditions as three separate individuals meant that it was almost impossible for any Plan B (such as turning back) to occur. Each member, it seems, was instead driven by distress and a grim determination to get to the perceived safety of the Young Valley.

 

Leadership

Casual parties most often do not have a formal leader. It frequently falls on the most experienced to ‘guide’ the group. However, adverse conditions or emerging situations require explicit leadership. Without leadership, each individual faces and manages risks individually rather than collaboratively and collectively under the guidance of a leader.

 

A preventable tragedy

The facts point to a group in a situation way over their heads, and a cascade of poor decisions resulted in a preventable fatality. Tragically, Ms A was left to struggle alone in an environment she did not understand.

In 2014, an inquest was held into another death by drowning in approximately the same location. The coroner noted that this accident was a timely reminder for those tramping in remote regions to have the necessary experience and appropriate equipment.

This article first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – June 2016

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