SAR life member: keep an eye on the skies

Wanaka Search and Rescue stalwart Phil Melchior (centre) receiving a life membership of the...
Wanaka Search and Rescue stalwart Phil Melchior (centre) receiving a life membership of the organisation recently. Also pictured are former Wanaka police sergeant and search and rescue specialist Aaron Nicholson (left) and WanakaSAR chairman Bill Day. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
"Watch out for the weather" is the number one piece of advice those venturing into the Southern Alps this summer should heed.

That is according to the Wanaka man who has spent 15 years searching for and rescuing people who did not.

Philip Melchior (69) ends his time with Wanaka Search and Rescue with a life membership, awarded last month, and much kudos for setting the organisation on its feet.

He plans to leave Wanaka to live in Auckland in January.

Mr Melchior told the Otago Daily Times this week he believed overseas tourists, particularly from Europe and North America, can take the Southern Alps a little lightly - mainly because the mountains here are lower than they may have experienced elsewhere.

"Because none of our mountains are more than 4500m high, and in Europe especially 4000m is kind of the start point for serious climbing, there is a tendency to underestimate things."

However, he said, New Zealand mountains presented technical difficulties and challenges "every bit" as great as higher mountains, aside from the issues that came with altitude.

"But there is certainly a tendency to underestimate the degree to which the weather can change very severely and very quickly."

Mr Melchior's forecast website of choice is although, he said, it required an ability to interpret weather maps.

"Our weather forecasts in general are very good, but of course people have got to look at it, and having looked at it they've got to take notice of it."

Mr Melchior said one of the factors creating issues in the mountains was "weekend syndrome" or "deadline syndrome".

It was where someone wanted to make a trip, had only a certain amount of time, and was unwilling to give up the idea or wait for the weather forecast to improve.

"It is certainly not limited to people from overseas.

"It is a factor that's common with many people that want to do these things."

The rescue of Australian army lieutenant Terry Harch from Mt Aspiring last month was one that had brought the weather issue into sharp focus.

Bad weather prevented rescuers getting to him for three days after he set off his personal locator beacon.

But while Mr Harch has been condemned for wasting taxpayer money and the time of volunteers, Mr Melchior is not overly critical, happy to see people test their boundaries, just as many search and rescue volunteers have done.

"What we urge is that first of all you know your limitations so you are very much aware of when you are pushing the boundary and when you are not, and that you are capable of making the decision between something that's just stupid and something which is maybe a bit of a risk but a considered risk."

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