Great risks in great outdoors

Alastair Shelton
Alastair Shelton
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 for.

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 him.

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.