Wilderness has paired with with the Wanaka Search and Rescue team on a four-part series reviewing basic backcountry skills. Part II looks at winterWinter conditions up the ante,” says Gary Dickson, a professional mountain guide and search and rescue (SAR) veteran of 40 years, 20 of which have been with the Wanaka SAR team. “Winter conditions take you into another world, where there are different risks, and those risks are greater.” The challenge is that winter conditions can happen at any time in New Zealand, through changing seasons, a southerly blast or by gaining altitude. Trampers who might normally avoid serious winter adventures can find themselves caught out, which is why familiarity with winter conditions is important for every outdoor enthusiast. Winter gear and how to use it We’ve all seen the images and movies of people wearing and wielding ice axes and crampons with ease, and that, according to Aaron Nicholson, is dangerous. Nicholson has been with the police for 30 years, and a SAR coordinator for 15 years. He is in charge of coordinating rescue efforts in the Wanaka area, which is no mean feat. “I see crampons and ice axes as specialist equipment requiring specialist training, because you can get yourself into more trouble with them than without them,” he says. Because it’s easy to hire ice axes and crampons, it’s easy to perceive them as generalist equipment. But if you’re going into areas where you think these tools might be required, that should raise a red flag, Dickson says. “You must know how to use them, there’s no other word,” he says. “I see people wanting to rent crampons without the ice axe and you just go: ‘uh oh…’.” The Cascade Saddle Track, an alpine crossing between the West Matukituki and Dart Valleys, is an area that’s well known to the SAR team, for all the wrong reasons. “Ninety-nine per cent of the Cascade Saddle is fine. There’s usually about 100m of snow, or verglas [a thin layer of invisible ice], and that’s what’s been the issue,” Dickson says. “People go up close to the edge to take pictures, and they don’t even realise they’re standing on ice. The run-out is the big difference: if the saddle didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be visiting it so much. DOC is very reluctant to say: ‘You should take ice axes and crampons’, but if they don’t, how does a person know there is going to be a hazard? And okay, they take crampons and ice axes, but they don’t know how to use them.” [caption id="attachment_30098" align="aligncenter" width="1280"] People often get too close to the edge at Cascade Saddle, slip and fall. The run-out is terrible, and often lethal. Photo: Lee Rowley[/caption] What to do 1) You have to be situationally aware. “You have to consider: what are the consequences of falling in that environment?” Nicholson says. “It’s like a river crossing: depending on what’s downstream, if you get it wrong, you could just be wet and cold. Or you could be swept into a gorge for the rest of your life. Think about what happens if you slip and start to gain momentum – is it worth the risk?” 2) Get trained. “Our recommendation is that you have formal instruction on how to put on crampons and how to use them and an ice axe, preferably in a real environment, like a ski field, which is a good training venue with low or no consequences,” Dickson says. “Professional outfits offer courses, and it’s worth investing in one to make sure you cover the basics.” 3) Make sure you have the bases covered. “Self-arrest is a must,” Dickson adds. “That’s the most basic thing you should know.” “What if you’re an average tramper cruising along a track in winter, and you come across some avalanche debris. You have to pass over 10 metres to rejoin the track. What happens if you slip? Do you know how to stop yourself if you do slip? And where will you go once you slip – into a river, or off a cliff? This is why it’s important not just to carry the equipment, but to have the understanding of how and when to use it,” Dickson says. Other recommended basic skills are:
- Knowing whether or not crampons fit your boots.
- Knowing how to deal with crampons balling up with snow – both the risk that situation presents, and how to recognise and deal with it.
- Knowing that you can trip or be blown over, and how to deal with it.