Area: Cascade Saddle, Dart River, Mt Aspiring National Park
Activity: Solo tramping
Deceased: 36-year-old female, inexperienced
Date of Incident: 31 December 2008 (remains found 14 November 2009)
The deceased left Aspiring Hut on the morning of New Year’s Eve 2008, intending to cross Cascade Saddle and continue down to Dart Hut for the night. It was raining heavily with a forecast for more rain. She was advised of this by the hut warden and a tramping party she met, who were descending from the saddle. She continued, commenting along the lines of “You have to take what you get”.
She did not arrive at Dart Hut that evening as expected. Search and Rescue were alerted by the Aspiring Hut warden and the next day searching commenced. On 5 January her damaged pack was discovered in the gorge some 300 metres from Dart Hut, indicating that it had been torn from the user by force. The conclusion was that she had been washed down a tributary stream into the Dart River. Water flow information showed a sharp rise in river levels at the time she was estimated to be crossing side creeks in the valley.
A specialised search team with a dog found her remains in November 2009. Despite the delay between finding the pack and finding her body, no quicker action taken by SAR could have altered the outcome.
Cause of Death
Side Streams Crossing rivers presents one of the greatest hazards in the mountains. Most trampers are naturally wary of large rivers, which clearly have a high volume, and are often uncrossable without bridges. However some unbridged tributaries, barely noticeable in dry conditions, become fast moving, steep torrents, able to tumble, injure and sweep people into main rivers.
Weather New Zealand’s mountains are subject to weather extremes. Significant amounts of precipitation can fall in short periods, causing rapidly rising rivers, avalanches and accelerated snowmelt.
To cross or not to cross, that is the question This requires judgement gained from knowledge and experience about environmental factors (flooding or fresh, glacial river dynamics and run outs) and human factors (group size, strength and experience).
The coroner commented: ‘If there is any doubt as to the ability of a tramping party to cross a flooded river, the best alternative is to sit and wait for the river levels to fall as they invariably do. Trampers and climbers ought never to be on such strict time constraints that it becomes imperative for them to cross a flooded river in dangerous conditions.’
Flooded rivers usually fall as quickly as they have risen – be patient. If in doubt, peg the river level and check periodically.
Trampers cross side-stream, Dart Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park. At normal river levels such streams pose no risk, but after heavy rain they can prove lethal.
Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography
Heuristic traps (FMC Bulletin 172) may have contributed to her decision to cross a flooded tributary: Another party had been through; her desire to get dry and warm at nearby Dart Hut; her concerns about being overdue; she was on a recognised track described in a guidebook.
None of these factors had any bearing whatsoever on the objective danger of crossing the flooded tributary.
Going solo generally increases the risk There is no one else to support your decision making or to render aid in case of an accident. Ways of reducing the risks are to:
- Sign a DOC intentions card and hut log-books; tell hut wardens and other people your clear intentions, including when you are expected out. A search will not generally get under way until the morning following your ‘Due Out’ date. Always let someone else know your plans so that action may be initiated earlier if needed.
- Remember to sign out! Carry a form of mountain communication or a Personal Locator Beacon. Tramp to your level of experience and abilities. Be well prepared with route knowledge, clothing, food and equipment, including extra rations in case you are delayed.
- Always check the weather forecast. Regardless of what is forecast, you are the best judge of the current conditions and your ability to cope with them.
Guidebooks and route descriptions: The Lonely Planet guide the tramper was using was inappropriate as a detailed route guide and gave insufficient warning about the conditions and possible dangers. Route guides and descriptions can be difficult to interpret, things change, and the current conditions affect routes dramatically.
Always seek current local knowledge from sources such as hut wardens. In the end, regardless of any route description or advice, all that counts is your own ability to deal with the current conditions.
This article was re-published from the August 2010 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry. The Backcountry Accidents Column, in one form or another, has been a feature of FMC publications since 1938. Read Shaun Barnett’s article on the history of the column to understand the thinking behind this highly regarded series of articles.