To PLB or not to PLB, that is the question?

As I now hold double (dubious) honour of setting off the first WTMC beacon rescue, and the first time I have asked others to get me out of a tricky situation, I have been contemplating the necessity, or otherwise, of carrying a PLB.

It is only in the last few years I have started to carry a beacon when undertaking long solo trips into the hills. Partly as my trips have become longer into remoter areas of NZ, and partially as I feel obliged to carry one. According to Wilderness (Feb 2013 p11) there were 6000 more registered PLB’s in NZ in 2013 than in 2012. Currently there are 33,500 locator beacons in NZ, of which, only 27,700 are registered.

The double edge sword of carrying a PLB gives me more confidence to go solo into remote areas but has also increases the ‘concern from others’ in this age of technology. If I am not out by the due date, then I must need help and my intentions person feels they must do something. In days of old, if there was heavy rain, people assumed you would be late out of the hills, and give you grace of a few days watching the river level drop before thinking you might actually need some help getting home again. Nowadays if you are not out by the date on your intention sheet, they act a bit quicker. Even if SAR waits for 24 hours after your intended intention form return time has passed, people are more quickly asking for help.

This summer has seen an ever increasing number of SAR call outs from activated PLBs and some very interesting report comments in the press. The search and rescue of a local runner in the Tararua’s, who admitted to the interviewing TV journalist that he would do things differently next time in regard to leaving intentions, carrying survival gear and adequate clothing. The reporter questioning that everyone “should” carry a PLB.

A written quote in The Dompost (Feb 14pA3) for a different call out, quotes a SAR personal “that they were disappointed we were not alerted sooner” by a hunter who’s partner was late coming back from the bush near Turangi. The hunter used the old school style system of waiting 24 hours before calling for help in case the women returned on his own. The 62 year old women spend three nights out in the bush before being found.

The West Coast man who was charged for wasting SAR personal time and the cost of a helicopter, as he feared being late for a meeting and asked to be pulled out for the hills by activating his beacon, when he was not in a dangerous or injured situation.

Included in the public announcements of beacon activation this summer was my activated beacon; one line of speech in a TV3 broadcast while the search for the Tararua runner was happening. A ex WTMC member (currently a DOC employee at Makaraoa) announced my claim to fame when I met up with him a week after I had activated my beacon. The TV clip, filmed at the Rescue Coordination Centre just north of Wellington, showed a reporter (in front of a large map of the Landsborough with my red beacon shining red to indicate my location), talking to a rescue centre employee who announced that I was a “women trapped by rising water in the Landsdown River in Mt Cook National Park”. At which point I was grateful that the beacon was in the right place as I was actually in the Landsborough River in Aspiring National Park!

My use of the beacon in the Landsborough was an ethical decision due to an incident 18 months prior when on another eight day solo trip from the Wangapeka track to Golden Bay over Easter 2011. I had left intentions with a highly experienced mountain friend who was also given my seven days weather forecast, my intended route from the Wangapeka along the top of the ranges (Patriarch vie Gomorrah and Sodom to Mt Arthurs), my list of provisions ie map, compass, GPS, tent, fuel,how much food I was carrying, etc. I did not take a PLB.

The Kahurangi traverse was a planned six day trip, I took food for 8 days and said not to worry until the 9th day when I would run out of food. The trip went well and as I crossed Mount Arthur I asked a passing family to text a message out of my current location saying that due to the fine weather I would now continue to Golden Bay via Asbestos Cottage and not leave the park via Flora Saddle and hitch as my early intentions stated. My phone was on the Two degrees network and although DOC at Motuaka said there was coverage along the range, I never had any. There were four bars of reception for Telcom on the stranger’s phone, and I double checked the number on the phone it was sent from. Hence I felt happy my contact person would receive it and know where I was. I also asked that the text be resent again later in the day, which they said they would follow through with.

On my 9th morning I left Asbestos Cottage, signed out in the DOC intention book where the track met the Cobb Road, and hitched to Golden Bay (still no Two Degree coverage) and went rock climbing at Paynes for three days. Un-be known to me, the stranger’s text message did not get through. On day nine, my contact waited two hours after I said to call help and at 11am informed Nelson Police, who were then very quick at organised a search team for me. Luckily for them a quick thinking member saw my name in the end of road DOC intentions book where the Asbestos Hut track enters the Cobb Road and a full search and Iroquois helicopter were not needed. I heard about this after my phone came back into Two Degree coverage as I crossed eastwards over Takaha Hill into the Nelson area and my intentions person messages and call filled me in. The moral of the story, always phone until you talk to a real person and do not assume text messages are received. Or change your network provider.

Hence on my six to eight day Landsborough trip 20 months later, I borrowed the WTMC PLB so that if the need arose, only a rescue, not a more expensive search and rescue operation, would be needed if things went to custard. In the previous two years I had hired a PLB from DOC at Makarao when I had undertaken solo tips over Armstrong into the Makarao, Hunter Valleys and back via Cameron Creek. The year prior, when I tramped the lower Landsborough from Haast Pass to Fraser Hut, over Brodrick Pass, to the Huxley and north to Twizel.

In 2012 I wanted to red line the Karangarua Valley, Mt Howitt, The Gladiator, Maori Glacier and the headwaters of the Landsborough to visit Townsend Glacier as the latter is a family name. I estimated it would be a six day trip, took extra take food for two wet weather days, which I knew I could stretch to 9 1/2 days and fuel for fuel for eight hot evening meals (one MSR bottle of 750ml is all I need). A GPS, four topo maps, compass, two route guides, updates about track conditions from DOC Makarora, Wanaka and Franz Joseph and a seven day forecast that only showed pink on two separate afternoons.

I started on Christmas Day and in warm, humid conditions that continued for three days, safely tramping east over the mountain peaks and glaciers of the Hooker Range into the Landsborough. The fourth day’s rain was heavier than forecasted and I decided on a rest day below Townsend Glacier where I enjoyed the glaciers and scenery. The following day it was easy downstream travel and a blue water crossing of Zora Canyon. I safely crossed all the streams mentioned in the guide that could be problematic. The rain continued all day and I picked up the orange waratah possum trail south of Hind Flat and anticipated being near the hut in Tio Tio Flats for the night. Alas I was bluffed 2km from the hut at 7pm. As the bluff was steep and the river had risen during the day, the waratahs were now in an island away from the bluff edge, and the steep bluff was covered in rotten wood, not a desirable climbing option at the end of a long days tramping. As I tried to sidle around the bluff base, my leki pole slide off my wrist and I made the call to stop before I made a mistake, even though there was only 200m more of difficult bluff to sidle. Bad decisions are often made when tired at the end of the day. I back tracked to camp under sheltering trees on slightly higher ground to cook a hot dinner in a safe, sheltered spot and pondered my options.

That night the rain steadily increased and in the morning the Landsborough was higher. Where I had attempted to sidle the bluff the night before was now below the water line. I knew I could not retreat my steps upstream as Zora Canyon would have become impassable and my bolt hole downstream to Toe Toes’s hut with a radio to charter a plane out on the grass runway, was now not an option. I knew if I waited more than a couple of days for the water level to fall I would be passed my intended return date.  My gut feeling was the forecast had changed. I have been in Fiordland where heavy rain has occurred and this was beginning to feel like heavy rain. The Landsborough was now going to take a few days to go down as boiling grey.

I decided to sleep on the matter and make a decision in the morning. A 9am on New Year’s Day I set off the beacon, a civilized time as many would have been partying to the early hours to welcome in the New Year and would not have appreciated a late night or an early morning call out. A three hour highly impressive thunderstorm started. I thought no one would come out in such weather and settled into sleeping bag, in my near dry tent with my three dry merino wool jumpers as my pillow to have a pit day reading a book.

3 ½ hours later a helicopter arrived, much quicker than anticipated. The crew announced it was touch and go whether they could have got to me that day as 500mm of rain were forecasted in the next 48 hours. I asked when the heavy rain warning was announced. Three days ago, was the reply. It was now day six of my trip and my gut feeling had been right, the forecast had dramatically changed.

The SAR policewoman in Wanaka police station was happy with me, even though I felt guilty as asked to be pulled out of the hills when I was not injured or in immediate danger. The reply was that I had all the right gear, left intentions that I had stuck to, done my homework before I went, had the right gear, spare food and fuel and done everything right. The weather had taken an unpredicted turn which was bad luck and that I had wisely got help out before the situation had turned sour.

After many hours of contemplation about the ethics of being pulled out in a developing situation, which only in hindsight, when the road was washed out and rivers ran high for days, did I become at peace with myself. Five days later another heavy rain deluge closed the Haast road to Makarora due to a wash out. Even I had tramped as anticipated on my intentions form, I would not have been able to hitch back into cell phone coverage to let my intentions person know I was safe with so many streams to cross and then a 30km road walk due to the landslip. Too many people die trying to cross flooded rivers.

What would I have done differently? May be come down the east side not the west side of the river. But I could easily have been caught out on that side as well with the change in the forecast. Carry a radio on solo trips? Far too heavy. Satellite phone? My budget does not reach that far. Spot checker? No thanks would be like a home detention strap, I go to get away from the world not for everyone to be voyager on my activities. Have a beacon with a range of outgoing messages? Yes. If someone knows the name of a PLB that admits a few message options ie safe but not moving, rescue me now as hurt, etc I would buy one if not too expensive. Or hire such beacons from WTMC and other PLB hirers.

Two and a half weeks later, with a seven day forecast of no rain, I did another five day solo trip into the mountains with a friends’ PLB. I cycled from Tekapo to Lillybank where I left my bike. Tramped up the Godley Valley and Butcher Glacier, crossed Twilight Col into the Haverlock Valley. Tramped up Carey’s Stream into Tom’s Stream, to Macaulay Hut and back to Lillybank for a bike ride to Tekapo. I was glad I had a PLB with me, and even happier I did not need to use it.

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