October 1980, Rimutaka Forest Park.
A feature I remember on this one was the Reflex Tasking – and I will emphasise this here.
Saturday October 4 1980 was cold for the time of year, with a southerly storm through the Wellington region. Nevertheless the Wellington Baptist Harrier Club had set out on a Saturday afternoon club run, with about 18 of them heading into the Rimutaka Forest at the Catchpool carpark and setting off over the Orongorongo track. When they reached the Orongorongo River most decided to turn back, and just the three fittest and fastest in the group opted to continue to complete the old Trampers’ Marathon circuit which would usually have taken 60 to 90 minutes from there. This run was well known to these runners, and well known to most trampers and SAR people through that era, as there was a race over the course as a feature event in the combined tramping clubs sports weekend held in February each year. One Daniel O’Connell was held in awe through those years as being the course record holder and unbeatable down hill.
The three runners did not return to the carpark as expected and Police were called about 6pm.
From the end of the Orongorongo track, the route would have taken the harriers down the bed of the Orongorongo River for about 5km, with several crossings of the river – knee deep plus on that day, then steeply up a scrubby spur about 300m vertical to reach Cattle Ridge. Then north along the ridge with a final climb up to Mt Baker, 465m, and a long descent back to the Catchpool down the Butcher track, which in 1980 was down a prominent spur with gorse scrub. That climb up the Baker track from the valley is up a spur very exposed to the south, and although the ridge north from there had patches of forest, the whole route is nevertheless quite exposed.
A search HQ was set up at the Park office in the Catchpool Valley (field search controller TSC) and teams were sent in through the night to cover the running circuit. The weather was wet and cold, with frequent showers of freezing rain and sleet. About 40 new searchers and Police were on-site early on Sunday to scale up the operation and Peter Button was there with his helicopter. Still no clues through the morning although we did ascertain a new LKP for the runners – part way down the valley section, where they had been seen running strongly and having no problems crossing the river.
Around 1pm the bodies of two of the runners were sighted from the helicopter, on the ridge heading southwest from Baker, on the other side of the Matai valley from their ascent route, not far from the track. They had apparently taken a wrong turning near the top of Baker. This is where the Reflex Tasking came in, although I don’t think we called it that then.
Two dead apparently of hypothermia, and one to find. He could have survived and would almost certainly be in poor condition. Plenty of searchers already there in the field, or at HQ, and a helo available to get them up to the high ridges. An instant plan was devised and teams briefed at HQ, or briefed by radio, and ferried up to the ridge. We had to cover the high parts of the track where the first two had taken the wrong ridge, and also more of Cattle Ridge and down the Butcher spur, especially looking for any signs that someone may have deviated from the track. Everyone appreciated the urgency, and as the one leading the planning and tasking I felt under immense pressure. I remember the impressive and efficient assistance from Ivan Morrison, the local NZFS manager, in maintaining the detailed record of tasks, and adapting to the dynamic nature of the new plan. How quickly can tasks be prepared and disseminated to about a dozen teams and converted into action? Once the teams were all back on the re-arranged search, I personally felt a huge sense of relief and was suddenly rather tired.
The third runner was also found dead, spotted from the helicopter at dusk on Sunday, several hundred metres further down the wrong route than the others, and further from the track on that ridge.
Most of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy relate to how vulnerable we all are to hypothermia. These guys were all exceptionally physically fit, aged 18 to 21, but wore only ordinary running gear, and were counting on that fitness and youth to carry them through. Wet, wind and cold – take any two. They had all three and were prime exposure candidates.