Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise in the north branch of the Matatapu Valley

Every year at this time just before we enter the busy season in the outdoors we have what is called a SAREX [Search and Rescue Exercise], so all various skills needed get a refresh. This year there were three scenarios: alpine cliff rescue, white water searching/rescue, and the one I went on loosely known as bush, where we search then bundle the patient[s] up for evacuation to the appropriate resource.

This year I decided to have a go at documenting the many aspects from start to finish…

On the Friday night the Incident Management Team made a plan ready for us to implement. We started kitting ourselves out with clothing, GPS, radios, torches, stretchers, ropes/anchors and tracking kits at the new Police Station in Wanaka at 7.30am…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

Then we assembled for a briefing…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

I always like to photograph the white board as you never know out in the field what you might need to recall, and if comms. are problematic, as they often are, then it’s good to have all info on hand…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

All names are real, but as it’s only an exercise I feel comfortable displaying them here as there won’t be any worried families re media considerations to consider…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

The good thing about the white board is that any off us can just walk in and gather info. without needing someone’s time to brief us. And of course it’s not accessible by the public in the real thing…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

Next we drove up the road towards Aspiring National Park to the Aspiring Helicopter’s new hanger, and here the first load is in the air. Their first “tasking” is to land on a central high point/mountain and set up a radio link box, with solar panels, batteries and aerials, then test same. This then becomes a “repeater” so out in the field deep in the complex valleys we can talk to search HQ in Wanaka, and advanced field HQ, helicopters and other teams. Getting the placement right is critical and sometimes this takes trial and error, and valuable time. Then working with same, even then can be complex as there are different frequencies for different jobs. In a worst case scenario the helicopter pilot can become the “relayer”, but this is not ideal…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise Aspiring Helicopters

And then it’s our turn. My team leader Heather in the front ready to make decisions on where to land near a hut so as not to contaminate the scene. Our first tasking is to gather “intel” such as did they stay in the hut, is their gear still there, did they leave an “intentions” note, what gear might they have with them etc…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

Pilot James…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise Aspiring Helicopters

The next load in…
sarex-out-of-LR.jpg

While we searched in great detail around the hut, they headed off immediately downstream. The other link box team having successfully set up the radio repeater had gone up-steam. All three parties contain people with tracking skills…
sarex-out-of-LR-2.jpg

As a sub tasking Eric, an old mate from way back that I ski with a bit, and I have to “cut” a 50 meter circle around the hut, looking for entry and exit signs. We have to try to also find the direction of travel [DOT] of anything we find. While doing this we mark our own tracks by scuffing and tying coloured paper to whatever, and also endeavour to NOT walk in the obvious easy places – which often sees us jumping from tussock to tussock so as to not disturb clues. This is painstaking but worthwhile intel gathering, and as it turned out we found every track they’d left, even to get water from the river, or toileting, but we were always looking for DOT…
Aspiring Helicopters

While Eric radios in a good footprint “find” including it’s size, I GPS it and we note the latitude and longitude. We of course wonder if it’s there from a water filling trip to the creek, or did they cross and head off hunting!? We decide on the former, as there were no signs of scuffed grass on any possible exit points on the opposite bank. So we have dry feet and the crossing looked a bit sketchy anyways at this narrow point. It’s very “electronic” these days too, and we even use very small radios for comms person to person over up to 1 Km apart – very handy as we’re then not cluttering up the “bigger picture” network, but of course none of this gear likes being submerged so there goes another time consuming dry-bag task/detail to be attended to when crossing!
wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise north matatapu

We also found an old Emerates sachet, GPS’d it too, despite it looking quite old. In some scenarios that could be a clue to be followed up to learn more about our client’s arrival in NZ etc. and luggage/intentions they had etc….
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

I really love these high country rivers, but they’re never warm enough to swim in for long, even on the hottest summer day…
sarex-out-of-LR-6.jpg

It’s BIG country I realise…
sarex-out-of-LR-5.jpg

At this point we learn via the radio that 1] the most experienced hunter has been found some distance away and is currently being airlifted out via the ACR team’s assisting with a strop, and 2] our downstream team has found prints. So we are then picked up and dropped down stream further so that our three teams now leap frog each other until we either find the other missing two, or find tracks where they left the river or went up a side creek. And this is what the underside of a two ton helicopter looks like flying away from us…
IMG_9797.jpg

Then it’s all quiet again…
sarex-out-of-LR-7.jpg

But while Eric and I link up to cross the river Sparky and Heather find the best print yet. We have DOT! We also carry acetates and felt marker pens to trace the outline – this can be invaluable in a some search scenarios to help identify who maybe where…
Search and Rescue Exercise Tracking

Again I note it’s BIG country as I look back upstream! Who would have guessed so close to town and Treble Cone ski area…
North Matatapu

In the last drop-off we were alarmed we’d acquired an extra pack – as it turns out it was full of ropes, and I’d unloaded it by mistake. We could have split up it’s contents as the pilot decided not to return, but Sparky offered to carry it on his front for awhile. Here he jokingly points “onwards” team. And you know what; he was pointing exactly in the direction of the two missing boys…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise

But having found a print, we then got picked up again and deposited at the confluence of two branches of the river, with another team. As we were starting to get on top of each other, and the barbecue was to be at 4 pm, we knew we were getting hot. And we found more prints in the area, and none down stream, so we looked up, and Heather spotted, believe it or not, a brief glimpse of an elbow up in the nasty bluffs to right. She grew up in the hills, the daughter of a high country farmer up at Makarora… so she knows her stuff [and is one of my special friends]…
North Matatapu

Just as I was beginning and near the last person, the rather awkward ascent up all-too-slippery snow grass, the helicopter returned to unload the stretcher so I went down to it to help with carrying parts of…
Aspiring Helicopters Squirrel

Paul took on one of the more awkward loads…
Wanaka Search and Rescue ExerciseEX Ferno Washington Stretcher carry

On arrival and after a rest, I got asked to help a bit with a belay, and suggested we have two of, as the direction of travel was to change just under where I was standing. The others did a great job First Aid wise and were preparing to walk one of the young men down [sprained ankle], and had “stretchered” the other who had had a diabetic event…
Wanaka Search and Rescue ExerciseEX Ferno Washington Stretcher lower

Steep yes, but mostly slippery due to old snow-grass stalks. Bad enough in good weather but lethal if it’d been wet…
Wanaka Search and Rescue ExerciseEX Ferno Washington Stretcher lower

sarex-out-of-LR-15.jpg

At this point I headed down in time to be close to the first load flying out to the sausage sizzle. Having proved the “lower” was do-able, the patient was evicted from the stretcher above and we all made our way down and home…
Aspiring Helicopters pickup

Another good friend Mike K looking like a bull thar. He used to muster wethers on this block 30 years ago, so he was right at home…
sarex-out-of-LR-18.jpg

For the flight back I had a front seat so it was just the best bonus as we flew up to towards Treble Cone and across alpine tarns and river flats I’ve actually ski toured on years ago…
Treble Cone above the north Matatapu

Coming over the ridge to End Peak I realised we’d been quite high all day as I looked across at Lake Wanaka and Diamond Lake in the foreground…
sarex-out-of-LR-20.jpg

Debrief and sausage sizzle back at the hanger…
Wanaka Search and Rescue Exercise de-brief

What impressed me on this wonderful day out was how effective tracking can be, and interestingly it’s very effective at night when you can shine a good torch beam across a detail so the shadows give more relief. Of course in this type of country it may have been possible to locate the missing people faster by helicopter on such a good day, but good days are not always the domain of emergencies!

If I’m ever unlucky enough to get into trouble in the hills, then I want it to be near Wanaka – my friends in SAR have very strong and diverse skills, and I’d be in the best of hands! So-much-so they set a standard that always inspires me to try harder to add to my own tool-kit.

About this Like Minds Blog Donald Lousley