Orange track markers

I have never liked DOC’s imperious little orange triangle track markers, always preferring the serviceable permolat oblongs that had hitherto guided me along tracks and routes. My colour-blind friend Scott can’t distinguish orange triangles from the surrounding greenery, so I wasn’t alone in feeling aggrieved by their introduction. My opinion was reinforced the other month when fellow Patunamu Tramping Club member, Claudia, and I headed down the Princhester Track in the dark. Neither my bright LED headlamp, nor Claudia’s dim LED torch, could successfully illuminate the sparse triangles.

Upon reflection, there’s a scientific reason for this: white LED bulbs utilise a blue LED to excite (a technical word in this context) a yellow phosphor coating that in turn emits photons at a number of frequencies visible to our eyes, so as to imitate white light. However, the specific frequencies emitted by the phosphor don’t match those reflected by orange markers, so the triangles sulk against the tree trunks unless the illumination is bright enough that you can see in colour. Deer have this problem all the time, as the receptors in their eyes are not sensitive to orange, which is why bright orange hunters’ jackets don’t stand out to them. Clearly deer don’t follow DOC track markers when they amble along DOC tracks. (Human eyes are doubly sensitive to orange, which is the other reason why hunters wear orange).

What to do? It turns out that in some parts of the country, hunters have long known about this shortcoming and stick reflective stickers on the triangles on routes that they can expect to regularly follow in the dark. Another Patunamu Tramping Club member, Gaz, has a mountain bike light that cost him a fortune. It solves the problem with brute force, being so bright that you can read a map lit by its reflection off distant snowfields, but most of us can’t afford that luxury. Reverting to real white light headlamps lit by incandescent bulbs is on no-one’s agenda. You could take a soldering iron to your torch and somewhat improve red/orange performance by substituting a ‘warm white’ led diode for the much more efficient ‘cool white’ diode fitted – well, maybe not.

Wrong person!

In my last column, I mangled my words to imply that Kennedy Warne was tramping with Aat Vervoorn’s daughter. No, he was tramping with his own daughter. I apologise for the confusion.

Risk awareness

In August I spent ten days in one of my favourite destinations, Samoa, visiting my daughter. As I wandered around one of the resorts heading towards the bar, I came across a workman doing something that resulted in a tangled coil of wire lying on the footpath waiting to trip me up. Of course, because the footpath was somewhat uneven and, by palagi standards, in need of maintenance, there was no chance of my feet ever getting entangled because my eyes had been searching for hazards on the ground ever since leaving my room. Sipping a niu (drinking coconut) once I got to the bar, I concluded that warning cones, danger signs and safety tape would have been mandatory for someone in New Zealand undertaking the same work. How was it, then, that we escaped injuries? I believe I have just answered that question: because I know that footpaths in Samoa are one extended hazard, so I’m always alert to potential stumbles. In New Zealand, avoiding doggie-doos is my chief concern. Maybe we need the warning signs here, simply because encountering hazards is the exception, as opposed to many other parts of the world, or even New Zealand 60 years ago?

Big data

Affordable, big computers have created the possibility of analysing vast quantities of data (so-called ‘Big Data’) to find hidden truths. One could, for example, analyse the hundreds of thousands of ACC accident reports generated each year, and ‘drill down’ to find out what causes trampers to hurt themselves, with a view to fixing the problem.

There are two faults with this. The first is summarised by the computing acronym, GIGO, which translated means that garbage in gives garbage out; i.e. you can’t get good results from bad data, no matter how big. The other problem is to properly interpret the good data you do get. A nice apocryphal big data story has it that during World War Two, Bomber Command decided that if the thousands of shell holes in returning bombers were mapped, any weaknesses in the aircraft could be identified and those areas armoured to improve aircraft survival. A lot of the holes were in the fuselage and wings and apparently the plan was to armour those parts of the bombers. Then someone pointed out that there were hardly any holes in the engines, or around the cockpit. The researchers realised that holes in the wings and fuselage were common because they didn’t cripple the aircraft, but a hit in an engine or on the pilot was probably fatal and the aircraft wouldn’t return to base. In other words, an absence of holes was a much more useful guide to vulnerability than an abundance.

In that light I reviewed some ACC results recently summarised by MSC into wonderful infographics. I discovered that some 245 mountaineers injure themselves in Auckland each year. Perhaps ascending Mts Eden and Albert deserve rather more respect than I have hitherto accorded them?


FMC has formal and informal relationships with the Coroner, and accidents to local and overseas trampers give cause for thoughtful introspection by us all. I am starting to believe that the cause of many backcountry accidents can be traced to people’s inability to anticipate – or contextualise in advance – the conditions that they may experience. Sandbagging is one extreme, where the person describing a route deliberately understates the difficulties to egg the other person on, though never to the point that someone would find themselves in real danger. Sandbagging is considered great sport in the climbing world and is what keeps pushing climbing standards up.

More concerning is where translation doesn’t work. What exactly is meant by a river crossing described as ‘a bit challenging’? (Indeed, I confess that Moir’s Guide South is full of such descriptions). I suspect that many of us don’t rate our abilities very highly, and so we would be reluctant to definitively state that a crossing may be impossible, unless it really is a shocker by any standard – deep down we know that just because we think a crossing is beyond us doesn’t mean to say that a young Mike Gill would have given it a second thought before ploughing through. You could call it modesty, but that wouldn’t be accurate.

Someone with English as a second language is even less likley to understand the nuances. For that matter, someone from another part of New Zealand, unfamiliar with the terrain, may not detect nuances either. A DOC signpost stating that a track is only for ‘experienced trampers’ won’t necessarily deter someone whose has tramped every Great Walk and who has indeed acquired a lot of experience, of a sort. Conversely, someone who routinely hauls themselves up Fiordland snowgrass hand over hand is in for a rude surprise if they try that technique in the European Alps where the snowgrass has no tensile strength and is only fit for chewing by goats. I speak from experience.


I had an interesting discussion with Geoff Gabities of the New Zealand Alpine Club about how to run alpine instruction courses without recourse to professional guides. Unlike lighting a fire in the rain, some outdoor skills are vitally important to get right, as opposed to being nice to get right: using an ice-axe and crampons is one such skill. But do you need a guide or qualified instructor to teach these skills? I have a good friend who climbs very hard routes because, in my opinion, his route finding is so bad that he
can’t recognise the easier routes. He would be a useless instructor, but this is not a problem as, to my knowledge, he has zero interest in instructing. Potentially useless instructors usually don’t instruct.

In the alpine world, all mountains of any note are graded up to Grade 6, and I posit that if you can consistently climb mountains and routes of a certain grade, your technical skills are adequate to instruct on climbs a grade below that grade. Indeed, this is how universities operate: the teacher holds a qualification at leastt one degree above the level being taught. It’s consistent with the ‘Guild Model’ I suggested in an UJCC earlier this year.

However, as any teacher will tell you, knowing your subject is not the same thing as being able to teach it. I don’t think that is the end of the world: a competent technician who can’t teach will, at worst, waste the instruction weekend, but is unlikely to pass on bad technique. A mildly competent climber who has climbed a swag of Grade 1 climbs and who enjoys teaching is probably going to be all that is needed to introduce bush trampers to the joys of alpine tramping.

I suggest that below the bushline, river crossing technique is the only ‘hard’ skill that is critical to get right. Can my model work here? The kayakers’ six-level grading of rivers is not useful for those of us who take a perpendicular route to that taken by a kayak. I have no idea how you could grade a river for trampers, and welcome your thoughts.


Researchers at the University of Glasgow have catalogued 421 different Scots words for snow, edging out the 50 words apocryphally claimed for Inuit. The most obvious is ‘snaw’, but I like ‘sneesl’ – to begin to rain or snow. We have endured Welsh in the mountains for decades (e.g. cwm) so we may like to start learning the following in preparation for next winter: ‘feuchter’ – of snow: to fall lightly, to come down in odd flakes; ‘skelf’ – a large snowflake; ‘spitters’ – small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow; ‘blin-drift’ – drifting snow; ‘snaw-pouther’ – fine driving snow; and ‘flindrikin’ – a slight snow-shower.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill
‘Altagore’, 85 Sunrise Drive, Seaward
Bush, Invercargill 9812.

This column was originally published in the November 2015 FMC Bulletin. We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.