Can we save them from themselves?

Search and Rescue  are not impressed with inexperienced and ill-prepared tourists.

Land search and rescue spokesman Phil Melchior, of Wanaka, said inexperienced alpine tourists were an ongoing problem and accounted for 30 percent of back country fatalities.

“People come to New Zealand and don’t understand just how fast the weather can change,” he said.

The six Australian tourists were caught out in heavy snow, a week after venturing into the mountains. They had no guide, avalanche beacons or probes, snow shoes or skis and only one shovel between them.

“There are extremely lucky to be alive in the circumstances, the chances of the rescue party finding six corpses were at least as high as finding six live people.” Mountain Safety Council avalanche programme manager Steve Schreiber said the tourists were foolish and needlessly endangered the lives of their rescuers.

“The weather we’ve had is just diabolical,” he said. “They were asking for trouble.” Mountaineers needed to take more responsibility for their own safety instead of expecting to be bailed out, he said.

The trouble is people don’t know what they don’t know and those who are experienced trampers or climbers in their own countries may not understand the differences between our conditions and climate and those they are used to.

We did a day walk in the mountains on the Liechtenstein – Austrian border, prepared as we’d need to be at home with food and water in our day packs. About three hours in to the trek we came across a cafe in the middle of nowhere. We remarked then that if this is what Europeans are used to it’s no wonder they get in to trouble when they come to New Zealand.

A friend backed this up with his story about coming across a group of English trampers on the third day of a five day tramp on Stewart Island. They were almost out of food becasue they’d taken only enough for a couple of days thinking they’d be able to buy more en route.

But how do you protect people from their own ignroance?  The Press has some suggestions:

Education must play its part in driving this message home. Overseas climbers must be made aware that although New Zealand’s mountains have a scenic grandeur, they can also be highly dangerous. Perhaps the most glaring example of this reality being ignored was the group of Indonesian climbers who believed in December 2003 that ascending sand-dunes was appropriate preparation for scaling Mount Cook.

Climbers and all other mountain users must also be reminded that those who underestimate the risks put not only themselves in danger, but also those who are called out to rescue them, most of whom are volunteers.

A good idea – but how do you get to them before they set out?

Unfortunately, however, it is human nature that some of those who most need to be dissuaded from climbing will ignore all advice and proceed, perhaps because of the time and money they have already invested in their expedition or because they have an inflated belief in their abilities.

Physically preventing ill-equipped or inexperienced climbers from going into the mountains would be difficult to do in practice and for legal reasons, but financial sanctions have been mooted in the past and should again be considered.

One possibility is an insurance mechanism based on risk. Another is a bond which could be returned to those overseas adventurers who do not get into difficulty or who encounter problems not of their making and which could not have been reasonably foreseen.

A bond could be set at a level which was not so high that it was a disincentive to activating an emergency beacon, but would still send a financial signal to avoid rash behaviour and help recoup part of any rescue cost.

Such a bond could be confined to overseas climbers and mountain users, on the basis that New Zealand taxpayers already contribute to search and rescue costs.

Administrative issues would have to be sorted out before such an approach could be introduced. Just what sort of outdoor activities would require a bond and how would the collection system work, especially for people who were not part of an organised expedition?

There would also be the risk of non-compliance, although part-charging for rescues could be introduced for those who evaded payment. New Zealand has generaaly steered clear of cost=recovery, but the latest drama involving the Australians means this should be looked at for rescues which have been necessitated becaue of poor planning, inadequate equipment or share stupidity.

It’s difficult to protect people from their own ignorance or stupidity, but making them insure against, of charging them for the costs of the consequences might make them think twice before endangering themselves and the people who’d have to rescue them if they got in to trouble.

One Response to Can we save them from themselves?

  1. Rob Hosking says:

    It is very very hard to get through to even quite aware people from overseas just how wet NZ conditions can be, and how quickly the weather can change.

    I’ve seen people get caught out of sheer stupidity/lack of preparation; but also, in one case, where I sat an overseas in-law down and told him ‘you will get wet, you will get cold, and it will be worse than you’ve experienced in Holland’.

    He took it on board, and was in fact a fairly careful type. He took my advice to ditch the jeans. But even then, he got caught out by a sudden change in the weather. If there’s nothing in your experience like the NZ weather, you just don’t get it until it happens to you.

    So yeah, so long as it isn’t done in a way which says ‘bugger off’ I’d be in favour of some sort of mandatory insurance.


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