As of this year, training in backcountry skills and bushcraft by the Mountain Safety Council will be a thing of the past. The organisation is cutting its volunteer-run courses to focus on messaging to the masses. Matthew Pike asks if this is the right direction in which to go
John Greenwood has been a volunteer instructor for longer than many of us have been alive. He began devoting his time to the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) in 1967, at a time when Keith Holyoake was in power and Brian Lochore was the All Blacks captain.
In this time he’s given countless outdoor enthusiasts the skills to confidently conquer their backcountry dreams and the ability to pass this knowledge on to others.
But the 76-year-old is flabbergasted by the organisation’s decision to stop courses in the likes of bushcraft, river safety and risk assessment, which it has run since it first formed almost 50 years ago.
Instead, the MSC has decided to focus on getting key messages to the millions who enter the New Zealand bush each year, rather than detailed instruction to a far smaller number. It has also decided to remove its regional offices.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Greenwood, who was first told of the changes around seven months ago. “I remember thinking ‘they must be out of their minds to get rid of the volunteer input’. It seems crazy to us.”
Greenwood believes there are certain skills and messages that can’t be learnt from a book or a sign. He uses the example of river crossings, where good heads got together in the 1990s to devise a safer way. They realised it was better to use the pack as a float and Greenwood remembers the first time he was taught this technique.
“The river was swift and deep, and three steps in it swept my feet off the bottom,” he recalls. “I was told to keep my feet moving like I’m pedalling and I came out the other side. I thought ‘by God, it works!’ After that we had an absolute ball.
“You can’t learn things like that from a book. You have to get your feet wet with guidance from an instructor.”
Greenwood believes instruction leads to lives being saved. “By doing the training you reduce the number of accidents. If we don’t do it, the numbers will go up again, I’ll bet you.”
But CEO of the MSC Mike Daisley believes the courses weren’t working on a national level because they only reached a small number of people, and numbers, if anything, were decreasing.
“In 2013 we trained 2500 people, in 2014 we trained 1800 people. This is a continuation of a trend of decline not just in the MSC courses but in outdoor education nationwide.
“We’re putting a huge effort behind putting messages in front of people. According to Statistics New Zealand, a million people regularly participate in the outdoors and three million do so occasionally. That’s the group of people we need to reach to broadcast how to be safer.”
The organisation already transmits messages to the masses, such as ‘Tell someone your plans – it may save your life’, and the message to hunters: ‘No meat is better than no mate’.
It wants to invest more resources to these campaigns, utilising a range of channels to achieve this, from big media campaigns to working more closely with partner groups, such as the New Zealand Alpine Club, to get specific messages to specific groups of people.
“By targeting people one person at a time, there’s no way we can reach the number of people we need to,” says Daisley. “The vast majority of people who head into the outdoors were never going to have gone on a course or interact with anyone who has.”
The MSC was set up in 1965 with representation from the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) and the education and tourism government departments. It has run outdoor courses ever since and it was the MSC board – made up of 27 outdoor organisations including DOC, FMC and NZAC – that made the decision to cut them. Daisley says the MSC has had full support from many of the board members. The organisation’s firearms training course will continue to run as normal.
But Greenwood refutes the claim that only 1800 people were trained last year. He says the stats ignore the knock-on effect of training, as many of those Greenwood has trained will then use that knowledge to train others.
“Each person influences a lot of other people. You can’t just look at the simple numbers.
“Tramping clubs have always run their own training courses to some degree but many leaders have been to the MSC bushcraft or alpine courses themselves.”
Mike Daisley says the ripple effect of training sounds more compelling than it actually is. “Learning experts from the Ministry of Education discovered messages actually dilute. You could head to five different bushcraft courses and each would be delivered slightly differently, as people emphasise different things.” He would like to see tramping clubs and other organisations run courses for those who want them.
One club offering annual training courses is Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club. Club member Antony Pettinger has been running these courses almost every year since 1985. He found a startling decline in numbers from around 50 in the late 1980s to just 11 in the late 1990s.
But, since the club has adapted the courses to better suit the user, numbers have risen again; this year 55 people signed up – one of the biggest groups Pettinger’s been involved with.
“We used to do a practical weekend camp which ran from Friday night to Sunday night,” he explains. “There was quite a time commitment for people, it was expensive and the numbers dropped off.
“So we adapted it and it’s now held in four evenings over four weeks. The cost is low – we’ve got it down to $20 – and people pick and choose which parts of the course they want to do.”
The course is informal and there’s no pressure for those who take part to become members, though each year around 30 per cent do sign up.
Pettinger says courses like this are vital for those looking to take on something more advanced than the Great Walks, but not every tramping club will be able to provide the service.
“It’s important for clubs to do it – a lot are struggling and it’s a good way of introducing people to the club,” says Pettinger. “We wouldn’t have much of a club left without these courses. But it needs someone at the club who really wants to do it. I’ve run the course here for years and am passionate about it.”
Pettinger says backcountry courses give people the confidence that they’re carrying the right gear, wearing the right clothes and making the right decisions. He fondly remembers a story from non-members who attended a river crossing course who made a potentially life-saving decision.
“They turned back from a high creek because they remembered what we’d said about the risks,” he says. “The decision possibly saved their lives and it’s great they had the discipline to turn back – it made us feel good about what we’re doing.”
FMC president Robin McNeill believes the changes the MSC have proposed offer opportunities for tramping clubs: “The opportunity arises for our clubs to run instruction courses themselves. It offers our members the chance to provide private courses so people can enjoy the outdoor experience. But the issue with club instruction is that it depends on where you are in New Zealand.”
McNeill also questions the idea that messaging will make things safer: “The struggle is always how do you get the message across,” he says. “People don’t want safety shoved down their throat. Judgement is needed. How do we improve that? Messages are not necessarily the way to do it.
“We’re surrounded by safety messages. For instance, in every petrol station it says ‘no cellphones’, but do you know anyone who turns their phone off when they fill their car up?”
John Greenwood, likewise, doubts the effectiveness of messaging. “I don’t think the MSC’s proposal will make much of a difference to people’s safety in the bush,” he says. “I’m worried about the future for young people.
“I’m hopeful that the eagle will rise from the ashes and a new instruction organisation will spread throughout the country – maybe from small beginnings.”
Luckily for Greenwood and like-minded folk, there’s a determined bunch of former MSC volunteers who want to take the organisation’s place when it comes to a nationwide standard for backcountry instruction.
Heather Grady used to be the MSC’s Manawatu branch chairperson. She’s one of the drivers behind Outdoor Training New Zealand (OTNZ) – a new group made up of MSC volunteers from around the country that aims to provide a high level of training accessible to everyone – no matter where they live.
“As it became clearer what was happening with the MSC, we came to the understanding that the only way to continue was with a new organisation,” Grady explains. “And different groups around the country were thinking the same way.”
There are already at least 120 MSC volunteers around the country keen to join and Grady believes it’s essential to keep the service going because it saves lives.
“We provide quality instruction. We’re not saying tramping clubs can’t do it, but we’re concerned as to whether all of them can. If there’s no group facilitating training in a cost effective way, a gap will occur very quickly and we don’t want that to happen.”
Grady doesn’t want the knowledge of senior instructors to go to waste and would like to use some as roving instructors to train other instructors across the country.
She says it’s particularly important to have an organisation helping kids work their way through the Duke of Edinburgh awards. “You can purchase bushcraft skills through a private company, but a mum and dad helping their child through Duke of Edinburgh can’t necessarily afford that and we try to keep the costs down.”
Grady hopes OTNZ will eventually fund itself but money is needed initially for insurance and compliance costs. The FMC has given some money and the MSC has indicated that some of the regional funding may be sent OTNZ’s way.
Setting up a national-scale organisation from scratch is no easy task, but with the level of determination Grady and others have to make this work, there’s every chance the transition from MSC to OTNZ outdoor skills training could be a success.