Tramper cleared of misusing personal locator beacon

Last updated 13:00 13/06/2013

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A Nelson tramper has dodged a hefty fine after wrongly being accused of misusing a personal locator beacon while tramping on the West Coast in February.

Ben Winnubst, 67, activated the beacon on the third day of a five-day off-track tramp in the Hooker Wilderness Area, south Westland.

The tramper was not named in the official investigation, but the Nelson Mail subsequently confirmed his identity.

He told Solid Energy rescue helicopter's crew who airlifted him out that he was struggling with the challenging terrain and had underestimated the time it would take him to tramp out.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) launched an investigation into claims Mr Winnubst activated the beacon because he was running late and wanted a ride back to his car.

In February, Maritime New Zealand said a tramper "who appears to have activated his personal locator beacon simply because he was running late and wanted a ride to his car wasted time, taxpayers' money, and potentially put others at risk".

Maritime New Zealand's general manager of safety and response services, Nigel Clifford, said the man, who had written books about tramping, agreed to plan future expeditions more carefully to avoid underestimating the difficulty of terrain.

No further action would be taken.

"He had encountered more difficult terrain than anticipated, despite carrying out extensive research of the area, and felt that he would be putting himself at considerable risk by attempting to walk out of the area.

"We are satisfied that in the particular circumstances this person was justified in activating their emergency beacon."

If he had continued tramping, it was likely a search and rescue operation would have been initiated because he would have been overdue and the area's conditions would have made it difficult to find him, Mr Clifford said.

"We certainly do not wish to discourage people from activating beacons when they are in distress but it is not a decision that should be taken lightly."

He reiterated the need for people to be prepared, saying beacons were not a substitute for good planning.

"People going into wilderness areas should be aware of weather forecasts and carry suitable communications equipment such as a mountain radio. Cellphones should not be relied upon."

Radio regulations stated beacons should only be used in emergencies.

Penalties for misuse ranged from a formal warning to a prosecution with a maximum fine of $30,000.

At the time, Mr Clifford said the rescue of the tramper had cost $10,000 and tied up the helicopter for two and a half hours.

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Mr Winnubst did not want to comment further when contacted by the Nelson Mail today.

He is a life member of the New Zealand Alpine Club.

The club's website said Mr Winnubst remained supremely fit in retirement and continued to go climbing every few months. It said one of Mr Winnubst's most significant contributions was taking over the writing and compiling of the Kaikoura-Kahurangi guidebook.

- The Nelson Mail

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