Learning  The FMC Backcountry Accidents Column

Much can be learnt from careful analysis of Backcountry Accidents. Shaun Barnett details the history and thinking of the FMC Backcountry Accidents column

As early as 1933, just two years after the Federated Mountain Clubs formed, its executive recognised that accidents in the backcountry were an issue that needed discussion and attention. In its usual style, the Federation set up an ‘Accidents sub-committee’ and by 1937 it had been decided to begin writing accident reports. The first of these appeared in 1938.

The aim was multi-faceted: to reduce the number of accidents by providing safety advice and training (publication of Safety in the Mountains, as well as club bushcraft and mountaincraft courses which also aided this aim); to avoid unnecessarily negative public attention on outdoor recreation; and finally, to record and analyse accidents so that lessons could be learned and potential causes exposed.

At first reports were circulated to clubs, but publication of the first FMC Bulletin in May 1957 provided a better forum. That first issue reported on five ‘Fatal Mountain Accidents’. Four involved young hunters (two drowned and two died from shooting mishaps) and the last involved a fall. Although the victims weren’t members of any FMC-affiliated clubs, the Federation recognised that ‘As far as press publicity is concerned it is always a climber, tramper or deerstalker involved when a mishap occurs in the hills. In our own interest all clubs
should do all they can to prevent mountain accidents.’

Hunting accidents dominated many of these early reports, probably reflecting the large number of active hunters during that period, and the fact the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association was then affiliated to FMC. Then as now, not indentifying your target was a major contributor to these tragedies. As early as May 1961, research concluded that the safest colour for hunters to wear in the bush was ‘BlazeOrange.’

In the March 1962 Bulletin the death of D.F. Young in the Aspiring country drew attention. Young died from a fall while scrambling up Mt Ragan with two other less experienced members on the tramping club trip. Accident reports written during this time not only named the victim, but were often written in a more forthright and judgemental tone than that adopted today:

‘A trip which started as a carefree scramble was continued in terrain beyond the resources of the party. The failure to keep contact with each other was undoubtedly a serious error. If a rope had been used this would, of course, not have been possible and it is very probable that had a fall occurred it could have been checked by the other two climbers.’

A hunter who shot his mate in Westland’s Okuru Valley came in for particularly severe criticism: ‘That a man who knows his eyesight is poor and who should know that as the light was falling his friends were due to return should take a shot at an unidentified target such a short distance from the very doorstep of the hut is utter folly.’ (July 1964 Bulletin)

Striking the Right Tone

Sensitivity is of course vital when discussing any fatal accident. When hypothermia claimed the lives of two students on a stormy crossing of Harris Saddle on the Routeburn Track, the July 1964 Bulletin reported ‘After commending the teachers for their devotion to the children and to their outstanding efforts to keep the tragic toll to a minimum, there still remains the duty to point out the mistakes which led to the predicament.’

Sometimes tragedy resulted not from lack of skill or judgement, but just plain bad luck. When M.J. Frost fell traversing the slopes above the Rockburn gorge, the November 1965 Bulletin reported ‘This case comes closer than most to being a genuine accident.’

Other reports make chilling reading, like the situation of W.F. Winter, who was blown off a cliff by a fierce gust when camped on Mt Manakau, in the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Winter, the Bulletin concluded, might not have died had he had tied himself to his ice-axe, as had his other companions.

A Strong Interest in Accidents

Accident reports appeared in most Bulletins, presumably reflecting a strong interest from the readership. In some, accident reports dominated; half of the eight pages in the November 1965 Bulletin were devoted to accidents, and in January 1968, six of the eight pages featured reports on backcountry fatalities.

Sometimes the reports provided an analysis of technical issues, such as the case of a fatal fall involving a group of three climbers on Mt Arrowsmith, when the gate of the karabiner was forced open by faulty rope technique (FMC Bulletin February 1964).

How were accident reports written? Each AGM, the FMC executive appointed some of its members to the Accident cub-committee. This committee gathered all the information available, and reported their conclusions to the executive, before sending on their draft report to any relevant club. Only after this quite extensive process was the final report published.

In 1966 the committee comprised Fred Gallas, Gordon Hassell and Alan Evans (current FMC patron). After analysing accidents dating back to 1945 for the January 1968 Bulletin, they concluded that 96% of fatalities were ‘avoidable.’ ‘It is apparent that there is a lesson to be learned, therefore let us give full publicity to the lesson so that another likely cause of accidents is exposed.’

Sometimes reports exposed freak events. H. Stoddart, for example, was badly burned on a trip to the Olivine Ice Plateau. The November 1965 FMC Bulletin reported:

‘While cooking inside a tent a member of the party mistook white spirit for water and poured it into a billy of boiling water. The spirit vapourised and ignited causing a sheet of flame which set tent and sleeping bags alight and completely destroyed them. Stoddart received severe burns to his face and right arm. […] It was indeed fortunate that the injuries were expertly attended to and that the loss of tent and sleeping bags had no serious consequences. The fact that it was possible to evacuate the injured man by plane also assisted in his comparatively quick recovery.’

While hypothermia, drowning, falls and shooting mishaps dominated accident reports, lightning played a role in the death of C.A. Smyth on a stormy climb of Malte Brun (August 1967 Bulletin). Sometimes the reports drew blanks. During the well-known deaths of four young climbers on Mt Rolleston in 1966, the same Bulletin reported ‘from the little evidence available it is not possible to draw any definite conclusions.’ Terrible tragedy haunts many of these reports. One climber died simply by stepping outside Plateau Hut to take evening photographs without wearing crampons or taking his ice-axe. He fell to his death. Young tramper John Wilson was out of sight for just three minutes when he fell into the Hawdon River, at Arthur’s Pass National Park, and hit his head on a rock. His fellow club members could not revive him (December 1979 FMC Bulletin).

In the same issue, the Bulletin pointed out the dangers of poorly ventilated huts. Carbon monoxide poisoning just about finished off a party of student trampers on the top bunks of Ketetahi Hut in Tongariro National Park. A faulty stove meant the wood was not combusting properly, but fortunately all survived, despite feeling nauseous for a day afterwards.

Photo: Heretaunga Tramping Club Archive – First Aid Training

Accident Reports in the 1980s

By the 1980s, accident reports were usually collated into just one Bulletin per year or even every two years. The reports were usually brief, and less judgemental in tone. Victims, however, continued to be named.

For many decades, FMC tried to cover all fatal accidents, with each report getting a number. By the 1990s, however, the executive recognised that reporting all accidents was not necessarily the most useful way of drawing lessons. Analysis of accidents over periods of time, grouping them according to activity, and teasing out statistics could provide more useful information. The November 1980 Bulletin, for example, printed a summary of climbing accidents between 1957 and 1979. Of the 118 deaths, 67 resulted from falls, 21 from avalanches, 3 from hypothermia and 14 from unknown causes. A breakdown by area showed 71 of the deaths occurred at Mt Cook National Park, 13 at Mt Aspiring, 9 at Arthur’s Pass, 6 in Fiordland, and 5 each in Egmont and Tongariro.

Analysis in a later Bulletin (June 1992) broke down 85 fatalities between 1984 and 1989 into activities: 56% climbing, 24% tramping, 11% skiing and 9% hunting.

Changing Times

Accident reports also reflect the changing times and activities occurring in the backcountry. During the 1970s, when New Zealand was experiencing something of a boom in outdoor activity, especially among young people, there was a corresponding increase in the number of deaths, notably in the 15 to 18 year-old age group. The July 1974 Bulletin commented ‘these young parties, even in relatively easy country, have shown an inability to appreciate the potential danger of a deteriorating situation.’ Today, relatively new research showing that the young adult brain has not yet learnt proper judgement reveals a deeper understanding of what causes such accidents.

Deaths from hypothermia on ‘cross country running’ trips in the early 1980s highlighted a new activity that we now know as mountain running. A group of harriers on a long run in the Rimutaka Range were ill-prepared for the stormy spring conditions, and three died from exposure. From the late 1970s onwards, overseas tourists begin to feature more frequently as growing numbers of backpackers arrived in New Zealand to go tramping. A depressing number of them died while tramping solo, without leaving clear intentions.

Naturally enough, famous accidents featured in FMC accident reports. The death of well-known mountaineer Bruce Jenkinson on the Sebastapol cliffs, elicited this comment: ‘cause of fall is pure speculation. […] Jenkinson was a powerful climber, aware of the added precautions necessary when solo climbing’.

The December 1990 FMC Bulletin carried a report about the death of six soldiers in a violent storm on Mt Ruapehu, an event which had gained much media attention.

Backcountry Accidents

Between August 1997 and June 2003, the FMC Bulletin stopped running accident reports. This was less from lack of readership interest and more from a breakdown of the old Accident Sub-Committee structure.

Frustrated by this, experienced outdoorsman and highly-skilled paramedic Johnny Mulheron volunteered to write reports. Johnny recalls, ‘During the 1980s my mates and I were cutting their teeth in the hills and avid readers of the accident reports. My interest in the reports was not that of morbid curiosity but more self-preservation; there were valuable lessons to be learnt from the unfortunate tragedies.’

His first column appeared in June 2003 FMC Bulletin, under the new name ‘Backcountry Accidents’, during Rob Brown’s editorship. He was motivated by ‘a desire to give back the knowledge I had gained from previous accident reports and my own outdoor experiences.’ By that stage Johnny had gained considerable SAR experience and was working professionally in rescue helicopters. He had observed that most accidents result ‘not from technical errors’ but more from ‘desire overruling judgement’.

Johnny made the decision not to publish the names of accident victims (in his words ‘no naming and shaming’) and to adopt a carefully constructed, non-judgemental tone. ‘The objective is to provide a learning resource so we can understand what happened and avoid similar tragedies in the future.’ There were no sub-committees and no attempt to cover every accident that occurred. FMC patron Arnold Heine and the Bulletin editor provided a check on each column before they were published.

Johnny also introduced a theoretical robustness to his analysis, by providing readers with the latest thinking on accidents. Knowing about ‘heuristic traps’, for example, provides a way of judging the real, rather than perceived, risk of a situation (June 2008 Bulletin). Just because the hut is close, it does not mean that the terrain between you and it is safe, as one Otago climber found to his cost crossing an icy chute in running shoes when Liverpool Hut was in sight. He fell to his death. Johnny’s professional rescue work provided plenty of opportunity to talk to survivors of outdoor incidents, and concluded there is as much to be learned from near misses as by fatal accidents. So he introduced ‘Survivor Stories’, and even contributed his own 2002 story of an epic retreat from Mt Whitcombe in a severe storm (November 2010 Bulletin).

Recognising that prevention is better than cure, columns also covered such things as safe river fording, how to deal with anaphylactic shock, pain relief and even treatment of blisters (August 2011 Bulletin). Broadening the column even further came when he interviewed rescue helicopter crew member Jon Leach to provide his perspective.

Backcountry Accidents continued to be one of the most read columns in the Bulletin and its reputation grew. Other publications, national media and academics referenced the reports. Te Araroa, New Zealand’s Trail, adapted ‘The Outdoor Safety Ten Commandments’ for their website and coroners often refer directly to the column as an ‘expert opinion’ in their recommendations. With Johnny working overseas for three years between June 2012 and 2014, there were no accident reports until Otago tramper and FMC Executive member Nick Plimmer wrote two for the March and November 2014 Bulletins.

Backcountry Accidents in 2015 – Moving Forward

With Johnny’s return to New Zealand, there’s an opportunity to rethink how FMC tackles accident reports. Johnny and Nick will continue to write columns as will other FMC members, but all columns will be moderated by a third party. This is to ensure a robust process for the columns, which often deal with sensitive matters. When Johnny is not the author of the column, he will take on the role of moderator. If Johnny is the author, the moderator will be a person appointed by the FMC executive, preferably someone who would pass the test of ‘expert opinion’.

(This article first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – March 2015)

Wilderlife