Tourist trampers ignore advice and pay ultimate price in Fiordland National park

Louis-Vincent Lessard, left, and Etienne Lemieux died in Fiordland National Park when an avalanche swept them away on ...
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Louis-Vincent Lessard, left, and Etienne Lemieux died in Fiordland National Park when an avalanche swept them away on the Kepler Track.

Two Canadian tourists killed by an avalanche while walking the Kepler Track ignored repeated advice against doing the tramp due to the bad weather and avalanche risk, a coroner's report says.

On about July 6 last year Louis-Vincent Lessard and Etienne Lemieux, both 23-year-old Canadian tourists, set off to walk the Kepler Track in the Fiordland National Park.

Southland Otago coroner David Crerar's report into the tragedy says the two men spent the night of July 8 at a DOC shelter called the Hanging Valley Shelter, but the following morning they were engulfed by an avalanche while walking along the track towards Luxmore Hut and Lake Te Anau. 

They were swept several hundred metres down the slopes by the avalanche snow and both died of suffocation.

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Crerar's report says the two men underestimated the hazards they encountered, as had other visitors who had lost their lives in the back country and high country of New Zealand.

"They did not understand the dangers they were facing and, more significantly, did not understand the fact they did not understand these dangers."

Authorities did not know Lessard and Lemieux were missing until their parents alerted police when the pair did not arrive home on their scheduled flight to Montreal.

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Investigations began into their whereabouts and searchers recovered the bodies on July 27.

Service station operator Diane Holmes had recommended to the two men on about July 7 they not attempt to walk the track due to the "very bad" weather, the coroner's report says.

The sky had snow clouds, it was dark and sleeting  and the forecast was for the weather to worsen.

The men told Holmes the weather got much worse in Canada and they were used to it, the report says.

Diane Holmes said: "It was my impression they didn't take my advice seriously and they were going to do this tramp," the report says.

Beverly Thorne, who hires out tramping equipment, said the two men, speaking to her before the walk, discussed the needs for ice axes and crampons  and told her they were experienced in snow and ice conditions.

She told them there would be snow on the track and it would create an avalanche hazard and advised them to check on conditions at the DOC visitor centre and leave advice about their intentions. They did not hire any equipment from her.

Former track guide Shirley Mouat said the two men told her they intended to walk the Kepler Track and she told them: "Oh my god, don't do that, it is too dangerous."

She told them there had been far too much snow and she would not consider traversing the higher sections of the track, the coroner's report says.

They told her they really wanted to walk the track.

Karin Doughety-Van Amerongen, a DOC ranger at the Te Anau visitor centre, said she told the men the Kepler Track could not be done at that time of year due to the snow and advised them of alternative tramps.

She showed them maps detailing avalanche paths on the Kepler Track and told them the huts were unserviced, the coroner's report says. 

The men's failure to heed the advice given to them was a major contributing factor to the accident.

They were dismissive of verbal warnings and ignored warning signs at the track entrance, billboards at the visitor centre and they did not accept the weather/avalanche forecasts provided for them, Crerar's report says.

They did not record their intentions to do the walk and there was no entry in any hut book indicating the two men had stayed in any huts in the area. They were evasive and deliberately concealed their intentions, the report says.

The two men carried no avalanche receivers, shovels or probes, considered mandatory for alpine travel during the winter. They did not carry ice axes, crampons or an emergency locator beacon, the coroner's report says.

It also says the Mountain Safety Council provides a back-country avalanche advisory for 12 areas of New Zealand  but no specific Fiordland forecast was provided for the Kepler Track area at the time because there was no suitably qualified forecaster available for recruitment.

Crerar's recommendations in the report suggest an "enhancement to existing practices" at the visitor centre at Fiordland National Park.

This includes future Kepler Track management and a focus on the management of avalanche hazards.

He endorsed DOC recommendations which include a proposal to upgrade the ability of visitor centres to give current information to track users on avalanche hazards and to investigate the rollout of security cameras to record staff and public interactions.

Crerar also adopted a suggestion by the dead men's parents that DOC investigate the installation of signage on the Kepler Track identifying to trampers the areas of acute avalanche risk.

However, he did not accept the track should be closed in times of avalanche danger, saying national parks must always be open for everyone to enjoy.

MOUNTAIN SAFETY EXPERTS SPEAK OUT

Mountain safety and tramping experts, speaking in the wake of the coroner's report, say they are concerned tourists are heading into national parks without proper experience and knowledge of the terrain, putting themselves in danger.

Lessard and Lemieux's deaths showed some overseas travellers were taking variable New Zealand weather conditions too lightly and not heeding advice given by seasoned and experienced professionals.

DOC director of operations for the southern South Island Allan Munn said trampers were often making decisions based on an experience they'd had, but that was not necessarily comparable with the conditions of the trip they might be planning.

People's experience in the outdoors was declining but their expectations of how the tracks and huts were being maintained were increasing, he said.

"The combination of those two things are a worry."

One of DOC's jobs was to make sure accurate and timely information around the Great Walks was well communicated, something which Munn felt his team had done correctly when Lessard and Lemieux were swept away.

"They (DOC) did their job but [the victims] didn't make the good decisions."

Following the accident, Munn said he received a "particularly sad" letter from the parents of one of the trampers.

"It just expressed the sadness of the parents and just [about how they were] concerned about the circumstances behind it [the accident]," he said.

Changeable weather conditions needed to be seriously considered when tramping in New Zealand, with temperatures more stable in North America and Europe.

"Here it can be 20 degrees at 3pm but by 6pm it can be -2," Munn said.

"Our weather is so much more changeable."

Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeill said contextuality was a big problem when it came to assessing whether to tramp in certain conditions.

McNeill said he would have tramped in the same weather conditions as Lessard and Lemieux but he would have not done it on the Kepler Track itself because of the avalanche risk.

"Avalanches are a bigger problem than perhaps is probably being addressed," he said.

McNeill felt there was no blanket solution to preventing such tragedies, noting mountaineers were always pushing boundaries to reach the next level.

"If you push the boundaries it increases the risk of something coming unstuck," he said.

"It would have a been a great adventure [for the men], and that's the great tragedy ... they just about got away with it."

New Zealand Alpine Club general manager Sam Newton said people were using non-traditional methods such as social media and the internet to to find out about safety information.

"Sometimes they can miss important information and can be prone to ignoring [advice]," he said.

Travellers heading in to the Kepler Track in winter, and any other kind of bush walking, needed to make sure they were well prepared to deal with emergency situations and variable weather conditions.

"[People] need to be aware of the avalanche danger and respond flexibly... [and] need the skills and experience to identify avalanche danger," Newton said.

He thought cheaper winter rates for the Great Walks and less bookings could be contributing factors for tourists wanting to do the walks but said it was "absolutely not" worth the risk to tramp in unfamiliar terrain.

Police did not respond to questions.

 - The Southland Times

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