PLB ‘so small but so important’

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 49, December 2015

A long-term plan to tramp the Pyke River Track in Southland turned into a sodden and dangerous journey for a Dunedin man, picked up by Southern Lakes Helicopters in mid-August in a rescue organised by Maritime NZ’s Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand.
Paulin Creek
Southern Lakes Helicopters ©2020
John Lambeth of Southern Lakes Helicopters assists Warwick across Paulin Creek.

An experienced solo tramper, Warwick Ross is replacing his tent and plans to take a survival blanket with him next time to help reduce heat loss. But one item he was very thankful to have strapped to his belt was a personal locator beacon – which he describes as “so small but so important”.

Winter on the west of the South Island’s main divide is often the driest time of year, so Warwick planned his low altitude walk for when the days were beginning to lengthen, but before the spring thaw swelled rivers and creeks.

Preparation is key, he says, but sometimes conditions don’t work out as planned.

In the first two days’ trek to Olivine Hut, Warwick waded in waist-deep water around the edge of Lake Alabaster, crossed creeks higher than expected, and fell backwards into the Black Swamp. His pack was heavier than he was used to, with a tent and 12 days’ provisions, as he planned to carry on to Hollyford Track. Warwick was muddy, cold and fatigued by the time he reached the hut – where dry wood and a fire helped improve his prospects for the next day.

However, after using the cableway over the Olivine River, he had to cross several more rivers and navigate around Lake Wilmot. Flooding had washed away part of the route which made progress difficult.

After crossing the Pyke River, Warwick found a sign pointing to Big Bay, three hours’ walk away. Anticipating an easy leg in the morning, he prepared to make camp for the night. But it had started raining, and Warwick did not realise the plastic bag his tent was in, strapped to the outside of his pack, was ripped and the tent soggy. The wind blew onto the end of the tent once pitched, pushing rain between the inner tent and the fly.

After a wet night, Warwick packed up in the rain, but soon realised, after crossing another swollen stream, that he was suffering from hypothermia. Warwick had ended up in a spot where he felt he could not go back or forward due to rising water. After some consideration, he pulled the PLB off his belt and pressed the button.

Warwick says: “I felt a little better, having done something positive to deal with my situation. It was also a bit anti-climactic.” Once he was safely in the helicopter, Warwick contemplated the small yellow beacon that may have saved his life.

Apart from changes of equipment, Warwick says he would not plan much differently another time. He accepts that if he had been tramping with others there may have been more dry gear between the group, and crossing the rivers may have been easier. However, Warwick says he hikes alone so he can go at his own pace and not be concerned about holding up others, or pushing the pace too much for slower trampers.

“Knowing I am alone tends to sharpen my focus and lift all my skills into play. I do not think there is a problem with hiking solo, as long as appropriate preparations are made, and alternative plans are considered as part of that.”

He reminds other hikers that ensuring that you carry a properly registered and serviced PLB, close to your person, is essential to that safe preparation.

Warwick thanks the RCCNZ and Southern Lakes Helicopters for coming to his aid.

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