Area: Pompolona Stream, Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Activity: Winter tramping
Deceased: 22-year-old female tourist, inexperienced tramper
Date: May 2014
On their first day on the Milford Track, the woman, her partner and another person tramped with the intention of reaching Mintaro Hut (the second independent trampers’ hut on the track). The forecast for this first day, which they were aware of, was for heavy rain. They were well equipped, had recent information about the track conditions and had been told what to expect by a number of people. However, when they reached Pompolona Stream, they discovered it in flood after the heavy rain, and were surprised to find the bridge had been removed for the winter season, to avoid avalanche or flood damage.
The first person crossed the stream then crossed back, searching for a better crossing point. The next person crossed at the ford and waited on the far bank to assist the woman to cross. While assisting her to cross, the first person was swept off their feet, washed downstream, and was helped to get out by the third. In the meantime, the woman clung to a rock in the middle of the stream. Before the others in the party could assist her, the woman began to panic, lost her grip and was swept away. Her body was found two days later, two-and-a-half kilometres downstream in the Clinton River.
Cause of death: Drowning from cold water immersion.
The first person was able to cross the stream by themselves, so the whole party would likely have successfully forded if they had used a mutual support method. Mutual support reduces the risk of slipping, and people becoming isolated or swept downstream.
The party were aware of the weather conditions, but didn’t realise the heavy rain would cause streams to flood to dangerous levels. A number of locals, including DOC staff, had talked to the group about the track conditions. It is possible the inexperienced group did not understand the environmental context of what they were told.
Key learning points
Fording rivers has been a consistent cause of death by drowning in New Zealand. Flooded rivers are particularly dangerous. If in doubt DO NOT CROSS. Instead, wait for the river to subside – no one ever died of being late for work. This Backcountry Accidents column has covered fording techniques in a number of issues (notably in FMC Bulletin March 2012). Whichever technique chosen must be practised. The New Zealand backcountry has unique features that many overseas visitors may not be aware of. For example, many are not familiar with crossing unbridged streams and rivers, nor with how changeable the weather can be. When giving advice to inexperienced or foreign trampers, it’s important to emphasise this environmental context. Many overseas visitors do not understand the particular challenges of our backcountry but, more significantly, fail to realise that they don’t understand.
Conversely New Zealanders tramping overseas need to be aware of differing situations too. Hiking in North America, for example, means dealing with bears, moose and the need to filter all water – as well as the usual mountain challenges.