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THE PULSE - Your source for survival, skills, and more from Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe

Seven of Twelve Canyoneers Die in New Zealand Outdoor Centre Flash Flood

Stories emerge. Investigations begin. And the answers will undoubtedly mimic lessons already learned.

New Zealand is currently in mourning for seven canyoneers from Elim Christian College (high school) who were killed when a flash flood swept their 12-person group down the steep, bouldery Mangatepopo River last Tuesday afternoon (April 15th). Six of the dead were students, all 14-16 years of age. Also dead is their college teacher, 29-year-old Tony McClean. They were being guided by the Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC), located less than a kilometer from the gorge. Four students and the OPC guide survived.

The accident has jarred this close-knit island nation of 4.5 million people. Newpaper message boards are stuffed. Kiwi opinions generally fall into four categories: devout Christians who say it’s God’s will; people offering only condolences and cautioning against judgement; challenge fans who worry that socialist nannyism will eliminate adventure from our lives; and yet others – many of them area locals, outfitters, and private adventurers - who express surprise that the group was in any canyon at all when a major, drought-breaking rainstorm had been forecast for days.

The Mangatepopo is a short, 15km-long alpine river that begins in high tundra bowls on Mt. Tongariro and plunges steeply to enter a narrow, boulder choked slot canyon. This eventually opens up just above a hydroelectric diversion dam. It’s a technically straightforward canyon. Only one rappel is needed (over the dam), but most of the gorge above requires boulder-hopping, pool jumping, and swimming while pulling oneself along the cliff walls via cables and handholds. All students were clad in wetsuits, helmets and lifejackets.

Details of the incident are still emerging, but the basic timeline as reported by New Zealand and Australian media run thus:

--The weather service Metservice faxed a daily subscription weather report to the OPC at 6:15 am, mentioning intermittent showers and incoming weather, but not ‘thunderstorms.’ The storm front had been forecast for days. New Zealanders also have access to excellent satellite and weather radar imagery.

--The OPC guides meet at 8am. At 8:29am, Metservice issued an updated bulletin warning of  thunderstorms, rising rivers and flooding. Apparently the guides did not get it.

--The Mangatepopo group didn’t leave until after lunch, presumably noon or 1 p.m. at the earliest.

--It only took an hour for the group to walk a road to the river, go upstream around the dam, and get well into the slot canyon. It was an up and back trip, unsual for canyoneering adventures.

--The water came up fast, rising from 0.5 cubic meters per second at 3 p.m., to 18 cmps by 3:30. This was roughly 30 times its normal flow volume (perhaps triple the water height, with much more current speed). By 6 p.m., it was back to normal.

--The flood didn’t descend as a raging wall. The group had time to clamber onto a ledge (also described as a crevasse). Unsure whether the water would continue to rise, eventually they decided to swim for the far bank, down around a blind corner. This involved crossing to the outer bank of a river elbow, and catching a throw bag.

--Five people managed the swim, which would have been Class V-plus whitewater at that flow. The first three swimmers were not swept over the dam, and they survived. Two other survivors were swept over the dam but made it, although both were badly pummeled. One was carried more than a kilometer and had his helmet shattered off his head. The other seven were all swept over the dam and killed. McClean was the last to leave the ledge. He tied himself to a disabled cerebral palsy student  and went for it. (Very brave, but not recommendable.) Their wrapped bodies were found 3 km below the accident scene.

--The OPC is a well-respected outdoor centre with a generally good safety record. They've run thousands of students through the Mangatepopo Gorge.Their last fatality was 32 years ago. In 1976, a student drowned in Mangatepopo after being caught under a log in low water. In 1987, another student died glissading on snow.

--The OPC guide, Jodie Sullivan (age mid-20’s) had a bachelor’s degree in phys ed, and was an avid outdoor adventurer. She had been working at the center three months. All survivors say she performed admirably, even tying herself to a terrified student (again, not recommendable) and swimming first across the river. However, since the rainstorm was drought-breaking, Sullivan had never seen the Mangatepopo in high water.

--The call as to whether or not the trip should go is normally made by the OPC’s Field Director. Pre-disaster OPC press releases indicate his name is Kerry Palmer, who has 10 years experience at the center. Interestingly, his name has been entirely absent from press reports.

--Both the OPC and New Zealand authorities are investigating the incident. Formal judgements are months away. There have been no additional quotes or stories from survivors in recent days. Current news reports are concentrating on the funerals, with the usual media focus on heroism, bravery and related subjects like faith, God, and healing.

We Americans and our media tend to point fingers hard and fast after adventure fatalities, but Kiwis apparently follow the opposite philosophy to an almost surreal extreme. The prevailing New Zealand attitude seems to be that adventure requires risk, adventurers shouldn’t be coddled, the OPC is very professional, and no one could have predicted what happened. And I’d like to believe that, but it just doesn’t wash.

We’re not talking about adventure or adventurers here, we’re talking about high school students contracted to a commercial guide service for adventure training. When you combine risky pursuits, young guides, novice clients, and business volume, the standards have to be higher than ‘everyone knew the risk’ simply because everyone doesn’t. And that’s particularly true of canyoneering, which combines fun but risky activities like rappels, pool jumps, and whitewater swimming with sexy scenery and aerobic ease – the perfect combination for marketable adventure.

But canyons are also very committing. IMHO, slick pouroffs, whitewater currents, undercut boulders, logjams, rockfalls, flash floods, and difficulty of retreat make them generally unsuited to volume guiding or team-building exercises. And the New Zealand version of ‘canyoning’ differs greatly from American-style ‘canyoneering.’ Canyoning often involves precision pool leaps from high cliffs, or necky whitewater swims above the brink of waterfalls, risks that American outfitters would never incorporate into their operating plan.

I’m a firm believer that sudden accidents rarely happen suddenly. With a little forethought and a few case histories under your belt, you can often see accident situations setting up hours, days, even weeks in advance. I’m not interested in doing a long distance Bill Frist/Terry Schiavo diagnosis here. Lessons will indeed be learned from the investigations now underway. But I suspect those lessons were already in plentiful supply. And as evidence, I offer the following recent canyoneering incidents, each with a brief outline, news links, and perhaps a few details that never made it into the media. The similarities are obvious. The gist? Hike safe mate. --Steve Howe

--March 2000, South Africa, Storms River:  13 canyoneers in mini-rafts die when a flash flood overtakes 4 guides and 20 clients traveling through the popular Storms River Canyon. Survivors cling to ledges and boulders for 36 hours until helicopters reach them.

--July 1993, USA, Kolob Canyon, Zion: Five teen Boy Scouts and three adults are ‘trapped’ after rappelling into the narrows of Kolob Canyon by high water released from an upstream irrigation dam. The water was five times the flow considered safe. Group leaders say NPS rangers failed to warn them, but signed permits say otherwise. Despite the dangerously high water, the group proceeds, hoping for a more open spot downcanyon. One adult is trapped on a rappel, another dies while saving him. The group continues, losing 6 of 8 waterproof backpacks and making only 150 yards in 2 hours. Another adult is swept to his death.  The remaining adult and five boys spend five days and four nights trapped on a semi-flooded ledge until rescuers cable-haul them out. Some of the boys develop bone problems from the long immersion, cold water and tight wet suits. Surviving relatives sue the NPS and irrigation company for a reputed $1.5 million. (ednote: Expert witnesses I know who visited the accident scene report that this group could have exited the canyon in several places, and were safe at the base of their first rappel. They blame the incident on poor group leadership.).

--August 1997, USA, Antelope Canyon, AZ:
Eleven tourists with a photography group are killed when a flash flood originates 40miles above the famous shoulder-wide slot canyon near Lake Powell. They had visited the canyon earlier, and left it due to reports of storms, but reentered the canyon in order to finish up their film. The flash flood arrives seconds later. All but one in the canyon are killed.

--September 1996, USA, White Canyon, UT:
Thirteen members of a Utah County church group are caught by a flash flood in the watery, narrow Black Hole of White Canyon. The novice group (incorrectly described as ‘experienced’ according to my interviews with the county sheriff) enters the canyon despite strong rains the night before. Whenever they became unsure about whether or not to proceed, they stop to pray, then proceed, apparently secure that their prayers were heard. The flash flood had been flowing toward them for nearly 12 hours from an overnight thunderstorm near Natural Bridges National Monument. They could have watched it if they’d merely driven further upcanyon along Highway 95.

--July 1999, Switzerland, Saxeten Gorge:

Large volume commercial outfitter Adventure World, out of Interlaken, has 53 people in popular Saxeten Gorge despite dark, black clouds and obvious thunderstorm activity. The last of the groups enter Saxeten about 4p.m. – late afternoon in thunderstorm-prone mountains. A massive flash flood rolls through and kills 21. At the time, AW had run over 35,000 people through the canyon.



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Apr 19, 2009

Nice post. Just read about the Escalante slot canyon accident and also note that there were two groups caught underground in seperate incidents in the Long Churn cave system in the UK last year. On the day of the Mangatepopo accident it was interesting to note that Black Water Rafting and Waitomo adventures both had groups underground and rafting operators were operating around the North Island. None subscribed to the Met Service free email alerts (mainly because the Met Service hid them on their website on Page 4 of the Rural Weather page). The Met Service has also refused to comment on the fact that even if the forecast for the day had the mistake corrected, it was still bore no resemblance to the isobaric map (stationary front with a tropical conveyor belt bringing significant rain). The severe weather warning was issued 3 1/2 hours prior to the event and no one at OPC was aware the warning had been issued. This is similar to the Long Churn situation where instructor left for the cave before the weather warning was issued. Little has been made of the fact that OPC was undergoing a safety audit at the time of the accident. This audit had been arranged while the Field Manager was spending a month in Australia and the first he knew of it was when he met the auditor in the carpark at 7.15 on Monday morning when he returned to work. The audit meant that normal duties such as reading emails and monitoring weather web sites weren't able to be undertaken(so even if OPC was registered to receive alerts, they wouldn't have been read due to the audit). There is wide spread opinion that if the audit hadn't been undertaken on those two days, the accident is not likely to have occurred. It is correct that the instructor had limited experience, but it is more difficult to make the assumption that this is what led to the accident. She was told while getting her students ready for the trip that the river had the potential to rise very quickly, she then informed the FM that she would play dam games at the entrance to the gorge instead of doing the trip (the river level was still very low due to the drought). She spent another 40 minutes getting ready in a tin roofed shed and for 30 minutes of this time it rained very heavily (so loud it was difficult to hear the briefing). She then left the shed and spent 30 minutes walking to the gorge entrance down a track that clients described as "like walking down a waterfall". Then she decided to complete the full gorge trip rather than "play dam games". When she got to the turn around point she noted that the river was starting to rise and instead of getting up on to the half way ledge and getting out via the escape route, she decided to return to the entrance. OPC has been fined for failing to prevent the instructor from hurting clients. The way that OPC has traditionally operated means that instructors have significant responsibility to make independent decisions. It is difficult to manage most activities remotely, especially as there can be up to 20 groups in the field (and the FM and Training Officer have other duties). OPC has long recognised that its initial training is insufficient and its continuing training to run technical programmes and corporate activities is also very limited or non existant. Recommended changes are likely to involve multiple instructors on some or all trips(doesn't seem to have worked with Escalante), increased training, and re-analysing the actual risk in all activities and re-thinking their management. Its hard not to think that in this case the instructor was fairly determined to enter the gorge and some analysis of why this would be has occurred. This may in fact be the significant root cause and the findings are likely to be relevant to all organisations conducting training to new instructors.

Aug 20, 2008

I have only just read this article today and I would like to point out a few things.
1) I was on the exact same trip a week before t he tradgady with Jodie Sullivan and she was an amazing instructor. I wouldn't have asked for anybody else because she knew our limits better than we did and she was the most professional person you wouldn've ever met.
2) Everybody has to start off at some point new. EVERY instructor had only been in OPC for 3 months at one point.
3) OPC DIDN'T get those warnings for more then 3 days at the very most. I know because when we were there all the instructors talked about was when the brought was going to beak.
4) OPC runs by the moto: Challenge By Choice which means the activity won't go through if it hasn't:
A) been approved safe by the director
B) been proved safe by the instructor
& C) been approved by all the students in the group

5) Nobody said that Kiwis think that adventure needs danger. That's NOT true! Whoever told you that was mistaken or maybe there's something you don't understand about the term; Flash Flood?
6)I know that gorge and the distance needed to swim wasn't that far. It was an acceptable distance and the vines hanging along the side made it look safe.

Lastly, Sandy, let your daughter go to OPC. It is the most amazing trip she will ever go on and it will change her life. I garentee you will love it.

Jul 24, 2008

Its called being between a rock and a hard place when your child still wants to go to OPC, im hearing the words, Fun & challenging etc etc but still no guarantees on safety "element of risk & freak accidents" are written on the letter before agree to let my Daughter go. This is winter and our NZ weather is sooo unpredictable. We are talking Hypothermia, Hypoglycemia, colds, chills, frostbite,possible fractures, experiencing fear, and extreme tiredness, The loss of family is extremely tragic, we should never temp fate, I feel under these un-predicable conditions extreme outdoor activity camps must wear the responsibility & accountibility- safety must out-weigh all risks not the other way around.

Kieran Mckay
Apr 24, 2008

Opinon at any time is important. At present lets not confuse opinion as fact. I am very close to the tragedy, my friends and coleagues work at the centre. I worked at the centre for 6 years and I was involved in the recovery of the students.

This is not like the swiss tragedy where a commercial company was pushing more and more people through a canyon for big dollars; here is an outdoor centre who has been adding to the value of peoples' lives, they have been trying to do more good!

I have my own opinions on what happened, they are mine alone, at this moment though it is a time to stand beside those affected in support, if it ever happpened to you wouldn't you want theirs? I would! I also believe we need to suport and trust the enquiry process that OPC is going to go through now, I think if we don't the outdoor industry as we know it is screwed

Apr 23, 2008

Kelly Swanson-Roe, one of the reporters presenting the accident on a New Zealand TV channel, was a survivor from the Swiss disaster - her husband was killed in the flash flood. She was visibly upset when reporting on the Mangatepopo tradgedy and had some angry comments regarding the decision to proceed with the trip.

Steve Howe
Apr 23, 2008

Super thanks for the kind words mate. Especially valued since they come from NZ (helluva backyard ya got there). I was worried about offending. I'll check out your site.

Yeah, it's all about pre-recognition and avoidance. As the SAR vets say: "It's just new people making the same old mistakes." The on-off switch for this tragedy was flipped hours before the group entered the canyon.

The Adventurist
Apr 22, 2008

Nice post. I posted about the same accident in New Zealand last week and my personal opinion at that time was "How did the guides not see this coming?". We can all look back in retrospect, but in order to protect future incidents, people must look at the recent past and the present, along with the future. With a risky situation, it is best to study it from all possible angles and outcomes, then be prepared for the worst. Nice post. I am really enjoying these new 'Backpacker' Blogs!


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