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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

GR: Mt Wilson 497 897

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We start with a photo which is a plot spoiler: this is how the walk turned out. Here's one of our party being choppered out after having a fall. So let's backtrack. The plan was to walk from the Bell's Line of Road down the Jinki Ridge and into the Jinki Gully, checking out the old coal adit on the way, and then down into the Grose Valley to walk along the Grose River until we reached Burra Korain flats, where we would pick up the track that goes up through Victoria Falls. Then cab back to the car, dinner, and home. It was a party of five, three regulars and a couple of visitors from the UK and Germany. We set off from the ridge and, passing some spectacular views, descended into the gully. At one point we went a little too far west and hit the cliff line, but there was really only a couple of hundred metres in it. We made our way to Jinki creek and found the track to the coal adit, and then started to head down the fairly steep slope that would take us down to the river. It was very slow going, in part because of regrowth, but mainly because this is just very hard country. Lawyer vine blocks your path constantly, walls of saplings "impede progress" as they say in the guide books. We made it down to the river, but it took nearly five hours for the approx. 2km direct distance. Maybe we walked 3k and 300m down, but that comes to around 500m an hour. Actually not a bad rate for that kind of country.

Lesson 1: in unknown terrain that's steep and untracked, think very carefully about not just expected progress, but also plausible worst case progress, and have a plan that works if the plausible worst case eventuates.

There is a segment of the ABC science show Catalyst about the ecological impact of the old coal mine we passed on the internet here. It was made in 2008 and, as one of the speakers says in the show 'We wouldn't be getting through here if it wasn't for the big bushfire'. This partly explains how tough the descent was - since then we have had the three wettest years for decades to get the undergrowth going, but still no decent sized trees to shade anything out.

Once at the river we started to walk down. Like most bushwalkers we've walked along the Grose river many times, but never this high up the valley. A short way above Burra Korain Flats it stops being a river become is basically a canyon - a series of waterfalls and pools flowing around boulders the size of houses. The banks are far too steep and vegetated for walking and we realised that best progress would happen if we just waded down the river, and climbed the banks only at the biggest waterfalls.

Lesson 2: Remember lesson 1; if we had inspected the map more closely we might have expected waterfalls, and impassable banks. The worst case scenario for progress here, combined with the worst case for the gully, wouldn't have got us to the known track beginning by dark, and shown us this was an impractical daywalk. So actual lesson 2: study the contours, and elevation change of watercourses very carefully. And remember that a river you think you know well can be very different just a few hundred meters from the bit you do know well.

At this stage we realised we weren't going to get out of the valley by dark, but we did think that we could get to the beginning of the track by dark and walk out with headlights. Since we were equipped for a daywalk we didn't consider stopping so we soldiered on past the waterfalls.

Lesson 3a: if you don't have a comfortable shelter, your decision making will be biased towards getting out in the day, even when it would be safer to make camp.

We ploughed on and came to another waterfall, where we detoured around it on the bank. And that's where the accident happened. One of our party was crossing a large mud-slide between two rocks, and put her foot on what looked like sound wood, but it was rotten and gave way. She fell three to five metres, sliding with her back against the rock and then hitting a large bit of wood, causing damage to her lower left flank. Probably this accident would have happened regardless, but one of us was very likely to get injured given the terrain and our sense of urgency to get to the track by dark.

From here on all went well. Paul had recently completed a remote area first aid course. This turned out to be crucial, because he was able to make a reasonable judgment that Kristie was in a condition that was likely to be safe to move a few meters to a place where she could be made more comfortable, and where there could be a fire. If we hadn't been reasonably sure of this, then it would have been unwise to move her, and that mud-slide would not have been a good place to try to survive the night! Maria found a flat place that just fitted the party, and we moved Kristie to it and got her into dry, warm clothes and a silver emergency blanket. Paul briefed Darrell and Maria on how to alert the emergency services, and sent them to try to walk out before dark with a map reference and details of the injury. We had no cellphone reception, so David climbed up the side of the canyon to higher ground to try and find some. Eventually eureka: two bars on the cellphone. It was very shaky, but he finally got via 000 through to police rescue. By the way, 000 does not seem to have improved their call centre since they failed to help that kid on Mt Solitary. They kept asking for towns and roads when he kept telling them we were in deep bush. But once he got through to the police they were amazing. He was able to tell them the grid reference of our location (Mt Wilson 497897) and they reassured us that help was coming. Back at camp Paul headed out to stop Maria and Darrell from the now unnecessary and hazardous trip out, and bring them back to camp, and then got the fire going, while we all scrambled to find dry gumleaves under rocks (mini lesson: this went well, but note to self, bring fire-starters even on daywalks!). With a good fire going we shared out our remaining food - 1/5 of a banana and 2/5 a piece of mountain bread each, and a handful of scroggin - leaving a muesli bar to share in the morning! Fortunately we did have tea and a billy. The patient had plenty of warm clothes, and the rest of us had enough to survive and not be majorly miserable if the fire kept up, which it would: we arranged shifts to keep the fire alive.

We also set off our newly acquired SPOT satellite messenger. We were not at all sure it would work in the narrow canyon, but Darrell took it to the area with the best view of the sky we could find. Having just bought this thing it really wasn't set up to go, and in particular our emergency contacts weren't fully briefed. We had planned to do this later before the first multi day trip with it. So we knew that those emergency contacts - Lisa and her partner Linda in Canberra - were going to have a rough night of it. But at least we were now reasonably sure that assistance would come; even though we lost reception on the phone we were confident that enough info had gone out, and there was a good chance the satellite beacon would successfully transmit - which in fact it had. We expected, though, that the best case scenario would be that a party would be sent to look for us at first light, and that once they assessed the situation on the ground, a chopper would be called out for K. We had even set up a visual signal our in the riverbed, since our campsite was under the trees. Imagine our surprise, and delight, when at midnight we heard whistles! We whistled and cooeed to them in bursts of three, and in no time the headlights of the Police Rescue and SCAT (Special Casualty Access Team) guys hove into view. These amazing guys had walked for five hours in the dark, with the last two hours walking up the river, clambering over rocks, climbing waterfalls, cutting through vine all at considerable personal risk. They immediately got work on Kristie, stabilising her, giving here a drip and enough morphine to be comfortable. They set up a tarp around her, and moved the rest of us down to a lower level where there was some flat land and enough sky view for an evacuation. They set up more tarps, and gave us sleeping bags and food. Amazing.

Lesson 3b: quite apart from its effect on decision making, on a challenging daywalk always bring shelter and enough insulation for tolerable comfort rather than survival. It'll make all the difference, and how much does a little extra weight matter on a one day walk? A tarp and some extra insulation really doesn't weight much. Tarp, one more layer of warm-when-wet, and a superlight bivvy all comes to under 800g.

Next morning all went to plan. They choppered in a winch operator, and then sent in an ambulance chopper that went to Nepean Hospital, and another chopper took the rest of the party out. Kristie is well, and has at worst a cracked rib. She wouldn't have been able to walk out, so thanks so much to those guys for getting her our! But recovery ought be swift. But aside from what we should learn to do better, it's just as important to remember what we did right and keep doing it! What was most crucial was that the party worked well as a team. There was no panic, no discord, we just did what we had to do. Thanks guys. As Paul said: can't imagine better people to be stranded in a muddy hole with! Also, we knew where we were at all times, and were able to transmit that info effectively. The first aid was great. We managed to set things up so that even had our electronic methods failed (in fact the SPOT device and the phone call both worked) we ought to have been OK. We would have got through the night, and sent out a party of two to get help.

If anyone is reading this blog who isn't just one of our friends, at least take this advice: get a personal locator beacon. That thing may one day save your life. If you do a lot of walking over thirty years or so what's the chance that once it will save your life? It only has to be once. The amusing thing in some ways is we bought our beacon last week and used it on the very first walk. After thirty years of never once being unintentionally out overnight! Before that we only borrowed or hired one for very serious walks. And second: get some lightweight emergency overnight gear and take it on daywalks.

Also: brief your emergency contacts very thoroughly. We hadn't set up ours at all, so Lisa and Linda had to figure out if this was a serious emergency without even knowing we were walking! It must have been horrible. But even when briefed do it thoroughly: complete route, grid references expected at different times, names and phone nos of the next of kin of everyone on the party, details of the party including their ages and any salient medical facts (allergies, illnesses, medications an ambulance team might want to know about), estimates of their fitness and bushcraft and so on). Also do a trip intention form even if you aren't passing a police station; you can fax them in. Don't rely on those forms you fill in at trail heads! At least in this country the best place for all the details is the police search and rescue. And even better, include on the form all the info about your emergency beacon. If like us you use a SPOT device, turn tracking on, and give the police the password and website on the intention form. This is one occasion on which you really want big brother watching you!
We end with a photo of the party safe and sound at the other end, but before then a tribute to the emergency services, and to the SCAT and police guys. They were amazing. It's a real boost to your confidence in human nature. And the emergency services operators were extraordinary. They were constantly on the phone to our emergency contacts, and to Kristie's parents keeping them informed hour by hour as to the progress of it all. So here we are safe as promised next day:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that's—having walked with this solid party—a gripping story, and some solid advice. Good write-up, and good work to the team. Sounds like a scary fall, even before the challenging predicament. I'm relieved she was promptly evacuated and repaired, and pass on my hope that she's feeling better.


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