Losing people, lessons learned

(written after interesting long chats with Susan Gardner and Urszula Stanny)

A while ago Susan Gardner organised a walk to Marriotts Falls on which a comedy of errors accumulated to the point of considerable tension and embarrassment. No blame attached to anyone here but there is a useful lesson. Two sides to the story:

Susan reports that all went well until the return when five people were lagging a bit and did not appear when those in front paused at a track junction. Susan headed back up the track calling and whistling, without success. She returned to the rest of the group at the track junction and waited another 40 minutes, still with no sign of the missing walkers. This was starting to get serious.

There was no phone reception at the track junction so they left a note and returned to the cars. From the carpark Susan was able to call the club Search & Rescue contact and asked what to do next. He in turn contacted Simon Kendrick who recommended that most people should go home but two should wait at the carpark while Susan and Robert walked back up the track for an hour. There was only about two hours of daylight left so a longer search would have been unwise. However just as they were setting off back up the track the missing five arrived – all good.

Urszula Stanny was part of the group that became separated, all of whom were experienced walkers. Somehow the party had spread out and a gap opened up – the walker in front of the rear group could not see those ahead. And then where the track turned sharply to cross the creek there was also what looked like a well-trodden track straight ahead. (Haven’t we all fallen into that trap at some time?) So the rear group took what seemed to be the obvious route, until (after quite a few minutes) it became equally obvious that it was not the route. A fair bit more time was then spent in reassessing where they were and where to go.

On backtracking they found that the change in direction at the creek crossing was quite clear when seen from the different angle so they resumed the correct route. Susan’s note left at the track junction further down had mentioned the lower falls so the tail-end group took a detour to those as well, adding further to their delay in returning to the cars.

So a series of minor events added up to a big time gap between the two groups and a great deal of uncertainty for Susan as organiser.

On one view this is a mildly interesting anecdote and we can all move on and forget about it. On the other hand there is a useful lesson here for both participants and organisers:

EVERYONE has a responsibility to keep the group together

The organiser can’t do that from the front, although they certainly should pause to re-group now and then (as Susan did).

  • Every walker should make sure that they can see both the person in front AND the person behind
  • If you can’t keep up with the person in front, call out (don’t be shy).
  • Look back every now and then and if you can’t see the person behind pause until you can AND pass the word forwards that the whole group should wait.

Perhaps all that is obvious, until it gets overlooked and things turn to custard. Stay together, stay safe.

4 thoughts on “Losing people, lessons learned

  1. Indeed. We often like to think “It can’t happen to me / my group.” I can assure you from personal experience that it can – sometimes with very serious consequences. They may be rare, but they happen. Staying close-ish is one way to ensure contact is maintained, and help can be quickly provided if it is needed. It is worthwhile from time to time to read accounts of what did happen, just to remain mindful that risks rarely change in the mountains. The Tasmanian Coroner’s reports for the deaths of Guy Bandenhagen and John Patrick Boyle make for interesting reading.


  2. Pingback: Togetherness | Pandani Blog

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