Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Art of Deception

“She was practiced at the art of deception, I could tell by her blood-stained hands” – The Rolling Stones

The Mingha-Deception route, famous for its role as the Coast to Coast’s mountain run course, draws some of the world’s best athletes, though not always the best outdoorspeople, into some of New Zealand’s toughest wilderness with occasionally disastrous results. With the 2013 race just around the corner, Mark Banham looks at the do’s and don’ts of this iconic trail run.

Arthurs Pass' Mingha River

On Friday 13th January, despite the inauspicious date and an ominous weather forecast, two groups of runners training for the Coast to Coast set off up the Southern Alps’ Mingha Valley into what would soon become a life-threatening situation – and an expensive and controversial rescue.

As the runners loped up the rugged 33 kilometre route, gale force westerly winds slammed into the mountains, dropping 65mm of rain, flooding the Mingha River and its tributaries and sending the wind-chill plummeting.

According to police reports, the first call for help came in around mid-day. The icy rivers, gale-force winds and driving rain had pushed one of the runners into hypothermia. To their credit, their companions recognised the seriousness of the situation, stopped at Goat Pass Hut and used the in-situ radio to call for help.

A Garden City rescue helicopter was despatched, battling headwinds all the way from Christchurch to arrive on the scene shortly afterwards. According to NZ Land Search and Rescue’s Duncan Hamilton, however, there was never any guarantee the helicopter would actually be able to reach the runners.

Hamilton, a West Coast local who has run the route more than 100 times and won the mountain run section of the Coast to Coast on several occasions, was one of the NZLSAR members on the scene that day. He says conditions weren’t as extreme as the West Coast can get, but it was certainly “a bit touch-and-go” for a helicopter rescue.

“There was heavy rain and strong winds, but fortunately the visibility was okay; it never got below about five kilometres and the cloud base always remained two hundred metres up.”

According to Hamilton, that’s a pretty close to the limit for helicopter rescues. He said if the cloud base had dropped by another hundred metres – which would take a mere a percent or two change in humidity – then search and rescue teams would have been forced to use much slower ground  based tactics.

“The next plan would have been for the helicopter to fly up as far as possible and drop us off, which may or may not have been alright,” he said, euphemistically.

In the end, the helicopter managed to sneak through the meagre weather window to collect the runners and transport them safely back to Arthurs Pass where one of the group was treated for mild hypothermia.

It was an embarrassing incident with a happy ending for the runners. For the rescue teams, the day was just beginning.

Before the rotor blades even stopped spinning a report of an emergency locator beacon signal coming from the same valley arrived – the second group of runners were in trouble.

Hamilton says one of the big risks on the Mingha-Deception route in rainy conditions is becoming trapped between rising rivers. “People who aren’t moving so quickly can get across the river at the bottom, but not the narrower crossings further up… and then by the time they get back to the first river crossing, it’s too high to cross as well.”

It sounds fairly benign, but it’s actually an extremely dicey situation. Statistically speaking, if you’re going to get killed below the tree-line around Arthurs Pass, a river is likely to be involved. Of the 93* non-aviation fatalities in the region since 1926, 28 have been due to drowning in rivers.

Sure enough, as the rivers rose the group found themselves trapped between two tributaries. As the precipitation increased their options evaporated until they were left with a choice: spend a night out in appalling conditions with no shelter and minimal food and clothing… or calling for a rescue – they opted for the latter.

So what went wrong?
Many observers simply blew the incidents off, describing them as just more examples of tax dollars being used to interfere with natural selection. But was it really that simple?

They certainly made some bad decisions, most notably going out with a heavy rain warning on the forecast, but simply saying they were idiots and leaving it at that seems a little too easy. In effect, it’s just a way of saying: “It couldn’t happen to me- I’m far too smart,” which is a dangerous train of thought indeed.

To try and make sense of it all we had a chat with Daryl Carpenter, CEO of New Zealand’s Mountain Safety Council. Carpenter’s job is to try and minimise these sorts of face-palm incidents. He says with any near-misses there are always lessons to be learned.

1 – You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.
The Mountain Safety Council have spent years developing and refining a set of guidelines for the outdoors - the Outdoor Safety Code; a five step process to make sure you don’t end up going home in a helicopter – or worse.

[In case you’ve forgotten, they are: Plan your trip, tell someone, be aware of the weather, know your limits and take sufficient supplies].

Each year the organisation goes to a massive amount of effort and expense to drum the idea into Kiwi outdoorspeople’s heads. So no doubt it’s a more than a little frustrating when people ignore them based on the spurious logic: “I’m running and the code is clearly designed for walkers.”

Carpenter says “If you’re trail runner you’re simply moving at a greater speed. If you’re a mountain biker you’re moving at an even greater speed. The rules apply equally whatever discipline, whatever terrain.”

2 -Timing is everything
One of the most common traps Mingha-Deception runners fall into, Carpenter says, is just not allowing themselves enough time.

“If it’s your first time through, double your expected time. If you’d normally run that sort of thing in four hours, then first time through, you might want to think about eight hours – because you’ll get lost in the rock garden.”

“If you’re with a group of four, generally you end up travelling at the speed of the slowest person. If they’ve niggled their knee, you might be able to do it in four hours but they do eight – guess what you do.”

Rumour has it that the Friday the 13th runners had been told the bad weather would arrive around lunchtime, giving them just enough time to sneak over the pass before the door closed behind them.

As it transpired, they were slower than expected and the weather arrived sooner than expected – closing the door in front of them.

3 - Bring enough stuff.
Carpenter says “As a trail runner you don’t want to prance around with too much gear, but there are some fundamentals.”

For this sort of mountain run people should think about bringing a polypro top and bottom, hat, gloves, a light raincoat and a survival bag - basically the Coast to Coast’s compulsory equipment.

He goes onto underline that’s just a starting point. “That gear will be different from the Kepler run, which’ll be slightly different from the Routeburn run, which will be slightly different from the Port Hills run.”

Plus it’ll change depending on the group. If you’re a fast runner travelling with a group of plodders, you won’t generate the usual amount of metabolic heat, and so you’ll want extra insulation and extra food. If it’s cold you might need still more.

Of course that gear will make you safer, but not invincible. As NZLSAR’s Duncan Hamilton pointed out; “[The Friday 13th runners] had the minimum clothing recommended for doing training there… But that minimum equipment won’t keep you alive if you’re outside indefinitely.”

5 - Know when to quit.
Another trail runners’ trap on the Mingha-Deception comes when, despite the best laid plans and sunniest forecasts, the deluge sets in and the rivers come up.

If you’re training for the Coast to Coast, chances are you’ll be running the route as a final shakedown squeezed into a narrow window of opportunity in January. And chances are you’ll have travelled for hours or days to get the chance to get familiar with the course, so the pressure to just give it a go anyway is tremendous.

Carpenter says if you find yourself in that situation, he has three words of advice: “Pull, the, pin.”
“People bleat and say ‘Aw but... Aw but…’, but hey, that’s life,” he says. “You need to start thinking ‘What’s my backup plan?’”

He says there’s no shortage of options in the area that don’t involve dicing with deadly rivers “You can just run up and over the road to Arthurs pass. Or you can whip over to the West coast and run some of the tracks. If it’s your boulder hopping you’ve got to worry about then jump into the Taramakau and run up and down that for a while.”

Even better, he says, is to have a backup weekend – plan to hike it in December so if the weather’s no good in January (as is often the case) you’ve still had a chance to get to know the route.
He says staying clear of the Mingha-Deception’s river crossings in bad conditions is good outdoor wisdom for anyone but especially for trail runners.

“Most trail runners are pretty lean and trim; you don’t have a lot of body fat to call on, so they’re actually powering through the resources of their body a lot quicker. So as soon as you enter the river, and repeatedly do so, the cold sucks the life out of you.”

But that still leaves one mystery…
The troubling question surrounding the Friday the 13th rescues is: why did two groups of experienced runners head out onto one of New Zealand’s hardest running routes with a weather forecast that clearly told them it was a bad idea?

Could they have not looked at the forecast? That seems unlikely. Perhaps it was group-think, with people shifting risk management responsibility onto a leaderless group? Perhaps it was the hubris that comes from being lucky in the outdoors for too long? We’ll never know for sure as the people concerned have understandably slipped back behind the veil of anonymity.

However one factor that may have had an influence is the ease with which both parties called for a rescue. There is a theory that emergency locator beacons and mountain radios can sing a siren’s song to outdoorspeople, telling them to push their luck because rescue is only a gadget away.

Carpenter says although their story had a happy ending with everyone being whisked to safety just in the nick of time, pushing your luck then pushing the button for a rescue isn’t a strategy that works in the long term.

“A really good rescue service is the wrong end of the spectrum to look at,” he says. “A really good prevention strategy means you’ll be fronting up at the start line.”

*Statistics from Arthurs Pass Mountaineering ( The most lethal accident category is falls with 48 fatalities; however this included a large number of climbing and mountaineering incidents. Below the tree-line the threat from rivers is likely to be higher than indicated. 

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