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August 2014 Issue
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It’s the decisions you make that count

The Milford Track and Clinton River are highly accessible – but that doesn't lessen the importance of sound decision making. Photo: Supplied

Nowhere is the significance of the decision-making process more important than in the outdoors, writes Nathan Watson

Whether we’re at the beach, on our bikes, running around a park, climbing a mountain or striding through the bush, as a nation New Zealanders do a lot in the outdoors. In any given month more than a million people regularly experience New Zealand’s outdoors. That’s a quarter of the population outside, active and in the natural environment.

During the 12 months from 2007-2008 around 10 per cent of Kiwis aged over 16 had participated in tramping at least once and tramping was the 10th highest ranked sport or recreation activity by participation rate according to the Sport New Zealand Active NZ Survey.

Unfortunately, from time to time, things go wrong and we hear of a significant incident or tragic loss of life. This was the case in mid-May when 22-year-old Yessica Asmin was killed attempting to cross Pompolona Creek, which feeds the Clinton Rvier, on the Milford Track in Fiordland.

I heard about this incident not long after it occurred and it didn’t take much longer for the first media enquiries to come through. When someone dies on a Great Walk it’s a big story. How could this happen? Who’s to blame? Who made a mistake?

The thing about the outdoors is that it’s a game of risk. Every time you head into the hills you’re risking something. But risk isn’t always a negative, risk can (and often does) lead to positive outcomes. Risk is also about balance; if we led lives with zero risk we wouldn’t drive cars, fly in planes, talk on cell phones or eat fast food. We also wouldn’t find love, laugh out loud, take adventures or challenge ourselves. Without risk, life would be pretty dull.

We make thousands of decisions every day, most of them require no significant thought and have no long lasting or significant outcome. Other decisions require more thought, analysis and, on occasion, a lot of time. These decisions can have long term effects and consequences. Risk and decision-making are closely linked, every decision has an element of risk (positive or negative) and managing risks requires you to make decisions.

Nowhere is the significance of the decision-making process more important than in the context of the outdoors, and as the Pompolona incident has highlighted, a poor decision can lead to disastrous consequences.

As with any event of this nature there are multiple layers of complexity and nothing is straightforward. No doubt more information will come to light once the various investigations are complete and findings are presented. What we do know is the tramping party of three attempted to cross a swollen river, and the decision to attempt this crossing resulted in the most tragic of outcomes.

Arriving at the swollen Pompolona Creek, the group must have considered the options in front of them and gone through some sort of decision-making process. They then decided to attempt the crossing. Whether that decision was well discussed, thought-out or analysed, only those surviving members will know. They made a decision and placed their personal safety in their ability to successfully cross a swiftly-flowing river.

Of course, the sole decision to cross may not have been the only contributing factor and often it’s the build-up of many smaller decisions that lead to these events.

This incident has highlighted the importance of personal responsibility. You should never expect anyone else to look after you the way you should look after yourself abd you cannot expect other people to make decisions for you. You’re personally responsible for the decisions you make and actions you take.

The Milford Track is a highly accessible world class trip that’s well-promoted and recognised, but it’s still in the outdoors, in a very remote part of New Zealand that requires travel through terrain that’s susceptible to extreme weather. This is evidenced by the fact that 56 avalanche paths cross the track and when conditions are right these avalanches can run to the valley floor. Anything in their path, including bridges left over from the summer period, are destroyed.

If you’re going to embark on a trip like this you need to be prepared for all possible conditions, understand what you’re getting yourself into and, most importantly, when decisions need to be made, err on the side of caution.

Following the five simple rules of the Outdoor Safety Code to plan and prepare for the trip before you go is essential, but once you’re there, it’s up to you to make good decisions based on the information available. There is never a need to ‘have to’ cross a river, so stop, think, assess and make the right decision. If this means waiting, turning around or finding an alternative place to cross then do it, it could save your life.

– Nathan Watson was the outdoor land safety manager at Mountain Safety Council. For more outdoor safety information visit