Loopies, by Definition, are Indestructible

Late in the day in early September, two loopies [loopy/(lu:pi) / 1. noun. an ignorant tourist, historical from tourists walking loop tracks. 2. adjective. strange, unusual or silly] eschewed plentiful and sometimes, it would seem, determined advice from locals that their street shoes, jeans, cotton T-shirts and cotton hooded sweatshirts would likely get them killed as they perambulated up Mt Ngāuruhoe in the snow to take selfies from the top. They didn’t have ice axes.

Finally, at the end of a great day out, they were rescued by a helicopter that a concerned party had called in to avoid any calamity. Happily the loopies apparently did not have a good grasp of English and so would have been impervious to the subsequent wrath unleashed in their direction in online media, thereby avoiding any embarrassment. Apparently they got their selfies too.

Proof that indestructible loopies do exist; Photo credit:  Robin McNeill

What most of the enraged social media posters overlooked is that loopies, by definition, are indestructible. This is not quite true, in part because every law has its exceptions, but given the hundreds of thousands of ill-equipped loopies that have descended on Enzed and wandered blithely off into the Hills over the years, one cannot overlook the fact that hardly any of them actually died there.

Those clamouring for more warning signs pointing out the hazards of tramping tracks forget that our above-mentioned friends and many other loopies won’t necessarily read signs that are written in an incomprehensible foreign language. Even if they did, one could surmise that if loopies won’t listen to warnings from experienced trampers armed with Google Translate, they are equally unlikely to heed a sign.

This problem is universal:  I was in Queensland recently and noticed that many of the swimming holes had signs up proclaiming ‘Danger! Achtung!’ along with a cartoon depicting a big lizard rescuing a drowning swimmer. I don’t speak Strine fluently so I didn’t attempt to read the fine print, but I could deduce that perhaps the lizards are sort of like duck dogs that are used to rescue swimmers who get out of their depth. I find this very reassuring. As it turned out, I didn’t see any of these lizards, so I presume the signs only apply in the lizard season, whenever that is. At any rate, it was too cold for me to swim and I didn’t see any bathers and certainly none in need of rescue.

A few years back I was en route to a conference in Utah and passed through Bryce Canyon National Park. I caught the park shuttle bus and disembarked to wander around the ten-minute loop track. There were a lot of signs admonishing readers to carry a prescribed volume of water (some gallons of it, as I recall), wear a sunhat so you won’t die of sunstroke and so on. But as I was only doing a ten-minute walk that advice seemed somewhat excessive.

Half an hour later, it was clear even to me that I hadn’t got back to the road. Some friendly Germans showed me where I was on their map (I didn’t have one) and my best option seemed to be to carry on to the bottom of the canyon, climb up the other side and emerge onto another road used by the shuttle bus. This I did, after manufacturing a Gumby Hat from a clean hanky so my brain wouldn’t hurt. To cut an unnecessary and very long story short, because I wasn’t carrying any gear, water or food, I was able to climb breezily out of the canyon in 105°F an hour or so later, passing struggling, perspiring Americans who were each weighed down by gallons of water.

A close reading of identical warning signs at the far brim of the canyon revealed that I should have been dead, though I never felt better. So much for warning signs. I find our local ones are no exception:  I remain confident that most warning signs exaggerate, as I have never blown up any petrol station by absentmindedly using a cell phone on the forecourt in spite of proclamations announcing the likelihood of such an eventuality. I don’t expect ever to do so. QED!

Verbal advice is always fraught in foreign countries. What Kiwi tramper in France would know that the directions ‘à droit’ and ‘tout droit’ mean quite different things? Does an arm-waving German-speaking ski instructor in Austria exhorting, ‘Sie müssen vermeiden, auf die nächste Piste zu fahren!’ mean ‘You shouldn’t ski over there skiing go!’ or ‘You should over there skiing go!’? It remains a mystery to me, too, though I don’t recall any mishap when I did.

Back to our loopy friends on Mt Ngāuruhoe. As my axiom correctly predicted, they came to no harm. If the concerned climbers hadn’t dialled 111 for a helicopter, then some other intervention – be it from St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, or some other source – would have come to the rescue. That’s just how it is, and I find it very reassuring to know this when I wander around foreign countries myself.

Heine–McFarlane–McNeill Risksetting Model

At the turn of the century, Arnold Heine and Andy McFarlane (both sadly no longer with us) and I came up with a model to help understand risk in the outdoors. The details can be found in FMC’s Managing New Zealand’s Wild Lands, ed. Kelvin Lloyd, 1991. But in essence, the model assumes that people who go to difficult places are no more willing to die than those who don’t; that people do like to probe the edge of their ‘comfort zone’ (but not always); and that as trampers develop their skills, they are able to deal safely with more and more challenging settings.

The model suggests that a group of novice trampers may be reaching the edge of their comfort zone on a difficult Great Walk; but as they gain more experience and skills, they can enjoy harder and harder settings. The model also tells us that it is possible to ‘tame’ the difficulties imposed by the setting with huts and tracks, meaning that Tiger Country may be achievable for quite unskilled trampers if they are on a good track. A case in point is the Milford Track, where walking 500 metres off the track wouldn’t be too enjoyable for many of those who happily traipse along the track itself. The illustration also tells us that if the weather goes bad, the risk of calamity may increase markedly.

A model is always just a model and there are always simplifications and assumptions that may or may not mean that the predicted results are insightful. Indeed, our model cheats a lot, because we use straight lines for our risk curves and I have seemingly chosen 50 percent as the edge of the comfort zone (which is rubbish – it’s more likely to be 0.05 percent). But I still think it provides enough insights with which to persist.

Models can also challenge us: I think we can all agree that there is a difference between real and perceived risk, but how should we show it in the model? Tilting the comfort zone line might do the trick, but which way? A novice tramper who uses their own benchmark from which to form their opinion may well consider that an experienced tramper who is well within their own comfort zone in a wilderness setting has a death wish.

Models also have limitations. You could argue that luck has a part to play in whether you come a cropper or not – for an individual, certainly, it is bad luck if a rock comes loose and hits you, but maybe the terrain has a part to play, too? The model doesn’t say much about individuals, but by definition, neither does ‘risk’. The model also doesn’t say anything about people who, because of ignorance, don’t realise that the setting they have just got into is far more dangerous than they realise.

The good news is that, on the whole, people generally operate well within their limits for the settings they tramp in, which is probably why so few of us do come a gutser in the outdoors. A case in point is climbers: climbing-wall climbers will generally push themselves far harder in the gym than when they are in the mountains, because they trust man-made belays more than rock belays. I hazard that most people tramp and climb well below their abilities and in much less challenging conditions than with which they could really cope. That’s not bad, and I maintain that there is a lot to be said for a good night’s sleep knowing that the following day is in the bag, as opposed to a sleepless night worrying about how to get out of the predicament you have spent the day getting yourself into!

Put another way, who doesn’t enjoy a cruisy trip, at least from time to time?

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill

This article was re-published from the November 2023 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountryWe will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.