Perfectly safe …

Not good weather

As a first year student I joined the university bushwalking and mountaineering club and found that one of the things Sydney bushwalkers did in summer was descend streams of all types, from paddling lazily on lilos down a river to abseiling down deep dark canyons. So one of the old experienced guys (aged about 22) taught a group of us to abseil. As he taught us to check and double-check everything that connected us to the rope and the rope to the belay point he said :

“It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget that it’s extremely dangerous”.

That bon mot lodged firmly in my brain, partly because of its delicious paradox and partly because it was so apt. He claimed that it originated in naval gunnery but I have not been able to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. (Google can’t find it anywhere except in something I produced myself, so maybe my mate himself was the originator.) It applies to so many things – from our simple outdoor activities to modern technological society where high-energy activities and equipment have the potential to go wrong and dissipate their huge energy catastrophically. For example, hurtling across country in a wheeled box containing 50 L of explosive fuel at about the same speed you’d reach if you jumped from the 15th floor. Not to mention 240 volts, air travel, chainsaws, gas appliances, etc, etc. Perfectly safe, as long as you don’t forget … But I digress.

The aims and objectives of Pandani, as expressed in the club constitution, include “To participate in, and promote, SAFE bushwalking and associated activities …”. Making sure that our activities are as safe as reasonably possible is the main reason that Pandani has a bunch of procedures and guidelines. In fact safety of members is pretty much the only reason that the club has any documentation at all other than the program. Most members don’t see much of that apart from the Information for Members document you would have received recently. However organisers see more, and the committee sees a whole lot more still.

So what are the dangers of bushwalking? They boil down to very few – physical injury, hypothermia, snakebite, or being caught out unprepared overnight (plus some others that are less likely in Tasmania). Of course many different things can lead to those outcomes, such as poor navigation, weather conditions, simple mishap (tripping), a party member whose ability is unsuitable for the trip, inadequate clothing or equipment, etc, etc.

Elementary risk management involves identifying the risks, taking actions to minimise the likelihood of the nasty event happening, and having a plan to minimise the consequences if it happens anyway. For example, to manage the risk of hypothermia you may choose to stay home if cold wet weather is forecast (minimises the risk to zero) and if you do proceed then pack enough waterproof and warm clothing for the worst reasonably foreseeable conditions (reduces the consequences from possible death to mere discomfort).**

The dangers of bushwalking are all manageable to some degree. You might not be able to eliminate the likelihood that a snake might strike at you but gaiters will pretty much eliminate the consequences of a strike. And most other dangers are much more manageable.

Have you thought through all the risks, minimisations and mitigations that you might encounter in your bushwalking activities? It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget it’s extremely dangerous.

**As I write this I’m sitting in a ski lodge on the mainland having a day off from back-country XC skiing because it’s about 2ºC with 50 km/h winds, total whiteout and pouring rain. No-one here wants to go out and get hypothermia, or even just wet and miserable. But on a good day bushwalking on skis is pure magic.

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