Monday, June 09, 2008

Another tourist/tramper dies in NZ

On May 31, Polish tourist Jacek Gryzbowski, an experienced hiker, went for a day walk in the Rimutaka Forest Park near Wellington. His plans were ambitious, but he was well equipped and had done lots of hiking before. He was 28 years old.

A week later, after several days of searching, rescuers found his dead body in a log jam in a river. River crossing is a common part of tramping in New Zealand, but it's also the most common cause of tramping-related death.

It's not really clear why this particular river crossing ended so tragically, but it's possible that Gryzbowski underestimated the amount of water flowing in the mountain stream. He seems to have chosen a very bad place to attempt to cross. Once pinned in the log jam, it would have been very difficult to recover.

People come from all over the world to experience New Zealand's amazing parks and tracks. So it's always disturbing when someone loses their life doing it. Often they are unskilled and unprepared, and get into trouble because they haven't got the skills to tackle the trails they have chosen. In this case, however, it was someone with every reason to think he could handle it.

The more of these stories I hear, the more it reminds me how much riskier the wilderness becomes when you go in there alone. If anyone had been with this guy, he might be alive right now, laughing about his tumble into the river over a beer. It's hard when you're travelling alone to find people to hike with, but if you can I think it's a much safer way to go.

For anyone who is considering a trip to New Zealand, and hoping to do some tramping while they're here, this is my advice: find other people who want to do the same trip as you and go together. Or find the local tramping club, and see if you can go on one of their organised trips. Having someone around to raise the alarm, go for help, or pull you out of a tight situation, is priceless.

I know that a lot of people like the solitude of tramping alone. I get it. But it comes with a much higher risk or getting into trouble. Well, maybe the risk of getting into trouble is actually the same, but your chances of getting out of trouble are greatly reduced!

If you're interested, there's coverage of the Jacek Gryzbowski story here.


Dawn said...

It is always sad when someone dies in those circumstances. It is though a case of weighing up the pros and cons of solitary walking. People walk alone for a variety of reasons. For some they just enjoy the peace and solitude and are normally quite gregarious people. A few of us walk predominately solo because they are normally solitary type of folk. For a minority few, myself included, we walk solo because of discomfort around people. One of my tags is 'outcast'. That is just one of those facts of life. One of my greatest worries in walking solo is the hassle it would cause others if I should die in a wilderness area. Fortunately maybe, I have no family, no one who would worry greatly if I should vanish. In all probability no one would even be aware that I was missing for some length of time. Possibly I ought to request that my bones ought to be just left where they be. Maybe that sounds morbid but it is not intended in that light. Dawn

Mike said...

I don't want to spread unfounded rumours, especially given the event, so I'll say up-front that I don't actually know the exact circumstances here and this post is definitely not an informed account of what happened.

I noticed it reported that he was found in Turere Stream, however. Do you know if it's established that he was actually trying to cross the stream, or did he just get swept into a log jam afterwards?

The one and only time I've visited Turere Stream, I left with a bad impression. Our group was bashing down the bank on one side, and for the whole time I was getting increasingly paranoid that we were going to have a serious accident. The Orongorongos seem to have a reputation of being a fairly safe place compared with other ranges (even amongst people whom I see as quite conservative), but the stability of the bank we were on above this particular stream was utter crap! (I hope I'm allowed to say that on your blog.)

It was fairly steep and without much in the way of variation in gradient to allow for places to stop or take a breath. Virtually any vegetation available to grab (eg. tree roots, branches, bushes) was rotten or very weak and would break easily, which made it unreliable to trust anything for holding weight. The ground itself was loose and we were constantly dislodging rocks which would just roll and roll and roll and roll a very long way (luckily not hitting other people in several cases) before tumbling off a 2-3 metre bank at the bottom into the stream-bed. I'm fairly confident that if any of us had fallen over too badly, it would have been difficult to stop falling and we could have been in some trouble.

To top it off, we'd made a silly nav error (missing the spur we'd been intending to find), and ended up having to sidle around this wasteland for some distance, often trying to push through some quite thick and stubborn stuff that occasionally felt rather close to some significant-enough vertical drops. In hindsight it really felt like an accident waiting to happen if things had gone differently, and I was relieved when we finally reached the stream and could go up the other side towards the McKerrow Track (I think), which wasn't anywhere near as bad.

It might have been the particular part of the bank or stream that we were at, and it could well have been much better slightly further up or further down -- we never found out in the end. That said, when I heard that this poor chap was found in Turere Stream, the first thought that crossed my mind was that perhaps he simply fallen over somewhere on the bank further up, and ended up at the bottom.

It's just my thoughts, though. Obviously the SAR people would know what happened in more reliable detail. Perhaps he was trying to cross at the log-jam and got stuck, as the media report implies.

Mike said...

Just about the solitary tramping thing in addition to my previous commment, I think it's worth mentioning that one of the mistakes that I think this person might have made was to not inform anyone of where he was going or when to expect his return.

After leaving for his walk on Saturday, I don't think he was even reported missing until someone wondered why he hadn't shown up for work on Monday, and presumably after that there was still confusion (eg. maybe he's just sick and din't call in) before someone actually figured out he'd probably been missing in the bush for several days without any overnight gear.

Furthermore, it wasn't clear where he'd gone and there was only with some luck that his flatmates were able to look at the web browsing history on his home PC to discover he'd been researching the Rimutakas shortly before he left. The fact that he'd even gone somewhere was only confirmed by finding him on surveillance camera footage around the railway station.

Somebody probably would have found him eventually, considering that he was located in a stream-bed that people probably walk up and down from time to time, but it seems a real credit to everyone involved in the SAR effort that they were even searching in the correct mountain range, let alone able to find him.

From what I heard it sounds unlikely that finding him sooner would have saved him, but it's really sad when something like this happens, both for the family (obviously) but also for everyone involved in the search effort who give up a lot of their time, and some of whom I've seen get affected quite badly. I guess it just helps to emphasise how important it is to actually tell someone trustworthy where you're going if and when you do go out.