Seldom were the pleasures and pitfalls associated with
venturing into New Zealand's great outdoors so emotionally
highlighted as in this week's tales of two adventurers.
Wellington runner Alastair Shelton was lost for two days at the
weekend in the rain and windswept Tararua Range after becoming
disoriented while on a lone mountain run.
He was found by a Wairarapa helicopter pilot, part of a
search and rescue team of 95 people and three helicopters, on
Monday morning after fearing he would die in the mountains.
Mr Shelton seemed remarkably lucky, receiving only cuts to
his hands and face, and a broken toe, despite being only
lightly clad in running gear, spending one night in the open
in near-freezing temperatures, the following day in
torrential rain, high winds and low visibility, and falling
several times - including at one point ''going under'' in the
flooded Waiohine River.
The 33-year-old was also lucky to find a hut and some food
which saw him through the second night. The joyous scenes of
relief and gratitude from Mr Shelton's partner, children and
family upon his safe arrival at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton
showed it was the best New Year present they could have hoped
But the stunning and often inhospitable New Zealand back
country and alpine environment are capricious beasts. They
don't always give back alive and they don't always give back.
On Tuesday, New Year's Day, another family received the worst
possible news: the search for their loved one - missing
Palmerston North teacher Alastair Levy - had been called off.
The 54-year-old experienced tramper was last heard from on
December 23, after reaching the summit of Mt Owen in the
Kahurangi Ranges near Nelson and texting his family. Poor
weather hampered the extensive ground and aerial searches of
the challenging terrain, which failed to find any sign of
Every year adventurers lose their lives climbing and hiking
in New Zealand's mountains and back country, pursuing their
dreams or simply indulging in their favourite pastimes. Many
are experienced, many are well-prepared; some are not. Some
deaths are the result of tragic accidents, risky terrain, bad
weather and conditions or fatigue; in others, errors of
judgement and lack of adequate equipment, clothing or
supplies may contribute.
For the family and friends of those who die, there is often
some comfort their loved one died doing something they loved.
But the price is nonetheless a high one to pay - for
individuals and those they leave behind. This time of year -
when families are often holidaying together and celebrating
the festive season, the year that has been and the year to
come - seems to make a death even more poignant. There is no
doubt there are risks involved in venturing into the great
outdoors - and for some that is part of the challenge. But
minimising those risks is essential.
Viewers of reality television show High Country Rescue, which
filmed Wanaka land search and rescue volunteers over two
summers and provides a vital insight into the challenges
faced by rescuers, will surely now understand the importance
of wearing and carrying high-visibility clothing and
equipment to aid searchers, and how much faster a search can
be launched - and with a greater chance of success - if an
emergency locator beacon is carried and able to be used.
Because for those who do become lost, injured or trapped in
inhospitable terrain, police and search and rescue volunteers
are often their only means of survival. LandSAR Wanaka and
Wanaka police alone are involved in 40 to 50 search and
rescue operations a year, the majority of which occur during
summer. In New Zealand, there are about 60 LandSAR groups
with more than 2500 trained search and rescue volunteers who
provide support to the police.
Although a family is now sadly starting the new year mourning
the loss of a loved one, it is worth remembering all the
individuals and families who have relied, and will continue
to rely, on the kindness of strangers - those thousands of
volunteers, searching in difficult conditions and in all
weathers, often putting themselves at risk, to rescue those
in need, or returning bodies to their families to help
provide closure when the worst is confirmed.