Hindsight:  learning from bad experiences

Hueristic traps can negatively influence outdoor decision making. Maria Hamelink recalls a few learning experiences which cemented her vow to “never cross a river just because someone says its ok.”

Back in June 2013, (as it turns out the weekend before the big flood in Dunedin) I was tramping in the Silver Peaks with my regular tramping partner on a track we had had completed many times. Our usual trip was 4hrs tramping each way, using the same track in and out to the hut.  On this weekend we did a loop that involved two additional small streams.

Getting to the hut was uneventful, but on the Sunday we woke to a heavy drizzle. Unperturbed, we headed off down the track as planned. The normally small stream just below the hut was now running quite fast. It wasn’t deep, but we instinctively held on to one another to cross it. That should have been our first clue. Mistake number one.

We carried on, upwards over a steep ridge. The heavy drizzle had set in, and soon the track along the tops had small torrents running down it.

The track becomes a torrent..

We arrived at a hut, which was not far above another stream. There, we had a bite to eat and continued on down the hill to the stream. The track down was very muddy; we practically slid from tree to tree rather than walked the track! We had crossed this little stream many times in the past without getting wet feet, but not today; it was running like a huge torrent.

Its not a wide stream, but with a considerable flow its a significant hazard

My partner said; “We can get across this, its not so bad.”

I said “okay…”

Like I usually do, I trustingly following the advice of my companions, without really making a conscious decision for myself.  Big mistake.  Perhaps the biggest tramping mistake of my life, which I was lucky to get away with.

We linked up in the normal way, him upstream and me down. I had taken a few steps and knew that the current was strong. I was trying to take the next step, and as I knew there was a large flat rock in front of me, I was trying to step over it rather than on top of it. (I was worried that the flat rock was going to be too was slippery) Now I am 5’4″ and my tramping partner 6ft. I could not step the same length as him and as I tried, the current was too strong and I felt myself slipping away. The next thing I knew I was swept down the stream, bouncing through the rapids. Fortunately for me, I had recently done river crossing training with the tramping club and knew what to do.  As the rapid tried to flip me however it pleased, I flipped myself the right way, feet first and onto my back at least three times. I eventually found myself at the edge about 30 metres downstream, though it felt like much further. I climbed up through prickle bushes then bush bashed back to my partner who somehow successfully completed the crossing.

Shaken, but otherwise un-hurt, we had a short walk up to the road then a half hour walk down to the car. As it turned out this rain continued for five days resulting in massive flooding in the streets of South Dunedin.

Taking a moment to collect our thoughts after being swept away…

The few days following the incident we talked about what we could have or should have done.  Our options before we crossed were;

  1. Cross the stream,
  2. Go back to the  hut just up the hill and wait it out,
  3. Go back to the first Hut (7 hrs) and tramp out the way we came in.

Maybe we spoke about it, but I do not recall having the discussion. My partner felt guilty for putting me in danger and my dreams had rushing water in them for several months. How many of the hueristic traps could have influenced our decision making? Although I am no longer haunted by my experience, I do recall the incident every time I come across a significant water crossing. Now I am extra cautious, taking the time to assess the crossing and the options for myself.

Fast forward to 2018…

I was on a 8 day trip round the 5 passes with the club. We had a mountain radio and checked in each night to hear the weather forecast; we knew rain was coming 3-4 days ahead and had a river crossing the day after. After discussion with our group of 7, we made a plan to miss our rest day and do a huge 14 hr tramp to get right down the valley and over that river before the predicted rain.  It was a huge day and we reviewed our plan along the way to make sure that everyone was still happy to continue. The following morning after 9 hours of torrential rain, thunder and lightning (not good for sleeping in a wee tent) the river we safely crossed the night before was raging and the river it joins (the Dart)was even bigger; bank to bank like a stormy ocean.

The Dart river; bank to bank

We knew the rest of the route was along a bush track but there were still three side creeks to contend with.  Before we even got to the side creeks, there were a few low lying gullies which had water up to our knicker line (for the short people). We were unable to use the usual marked track so we found ourselves following a trap line. At each of the side creeks we stopped and discussed our options, then followed the creek upwards until we found a crossing that we all agreed on.  At each stop we discussed the option of sitting it out; we all had food and essentials for two more nights, but the crossings seemed safe enough to continue on.

The last crossing  was the worst for me, a brown torrent of water leading to an even bigger raging river. We found a large tree fallen over the creek, which formed a perfect natural bridge.  Two of the guys checked it out and returned to say it was a good option. It looked safe enough, though as I crossed the creek on the tree my heart was thumping in my mouth with terror. One of the guys was at the waters edge on the other side, at the ready to grab us and to offer the encouragement we needed.

“Walking the plank” in the Dart valley

The whole time we were tramping alongside the raging river and side creeks I recalled my previous experience.  This helped keep me very aware of what has happening and rightfully cautious. I was aware that although I knew what to do if I fell in, the river was 100 times bigger than my previous episodes and it just was not an option to fall in.  But at no time on this trip did I feel unsafe;   I was grateful that I was with experienced trampers who communicated well and ensured everyone was within their comfort levels, as well as encouraging and looking out for each other.

The trip really cemented my vow after my previous experience: I would never cross a river just because someone says it is okay, but instead I would check it out and make my own decision!

All smiles from the author on the banks of the flooded Dart.

Maria Hamelink is a member of the Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club.

To learn more about river safety, you can take a look at the information about river crossings in our Wilderlife Manual.

Water safety, river crossing and rescue courses are available through a number of organisations throughout New Zealand, and through many tramping clubs.  A few organisations are listed below; If your club or group offers backcountry river crossing courses, then get in touch, so we can publicize your courses through our Wilderlife ‘Whats on’ events calendar and the FMC facebook page