Coroner endorses safety advice after solo tramper's death in 2020
Media Release | Embargoed until 5am on 15 June, 2023.
A coroner's findings into the death of a British tramper in the Mt Aspiring National Park in 2020 provides important safety lessons for those tramping solo in New Zealand.
Stephanie Simpson, 32, a tramper with a high fitness level, was living and working in Wanaka. On February 8, 2020, she set off from Fantail Falls Carpark to Brewster Hut in the Mt Aspiring National Park.
The Brewster Track is classified as an advanced tramping track and climbs steeply into alpine terrain before reaching Brewster Hut at an elevation of 1140m.
After reaching Brewster Hut and having a break, according to the data recovered from her Garmin watch, Stephanie left the track, and headed towards Brewster Glacier before turning around and returning a different way. This was initially back towards the hut, but for unknown reasons she descended into a steep valley.
Police were contacted on February 9 by a pair of trampers she met on the track who noticed her car was still parked at Fantail Falls Carpark, and again by her employer on February 10 after she did not turn up to work. A search and rescue operation commenced on February 11.
On February 14, her pack was found by helicopter crew. Then, 800m downstream of Pyke Creek where search and rescue crew found her boots on the river’s edge, Stephanie’s body was located.
MSC provided a report to support the coronial investigation, this included identifying contributing factors specific to Stephanie’s death and provided recommendations to prevent future similar tragedies.
Although the reasons for Stephanie’s deviation from her return route back to Brewster Hut are unclear, the MSC report noted possible reasons and challenges she may have faced during the day, including; navigational errors and environmental challenges, and a potential slip or fall.
The Coroner Alexander Ho stated that Stephanie likely tripped or fell as she approached the creek and subsequently drowned.
The coroner endorsed the NZ Mountain Safety Councils' recommendations for the purpose of preventing future deaths.
MSC recommended all hikers and trampers heading into the backcountry to consider the following:
- Choose the right trip for you. Make sure your experience level matches your objective and that you are well prepared for your trip. Tramping offtrack requires experience and skills, especially in terrain such as the area towards the Brewster Glacier. Make sure objectives like this sit within your comfort zone, particularly if venturing alone.
- Understand the weather. Be prepared to change your plans due to the hazards which weather can bring. This does not just mean being prepared for rain or snow; warm and humid conditions can also be hazardous, and cloud cover can affect visibility, leading to navigational challenges. When changing your plan, weigh up the risks that may be involved in the new plan, particularly if it involves going off track.
- Pack warm clothes, extra food and a backup means of navigation. Maps on phones or watches are excellent for getting around terrain, but it’s important to have a backup in the event the primary method is unusable. A protected paper map and compass are typically the most reliable because they do not need batteries or electronic signal.
- Carry emergency equipment such as a first aid kit that includes a survival blanket and an emergency shelter, especially when heading above the bush line.
- Share your plans. Leaving detailed information about an itinerary with a trusted contact will allow search and rescue teams to be activated and reach the location sooner. Online resources such as Plan My Walk offer an easy way to do this. It is also useful to leave clear intentions in hut books, even if not staying there overnight, to narrow down search parameters and provide hut occupants with a reference point when concerned about a person’s plans or whereabouts.
- Take ways to get help. All trampers should carry a distress beacon (either satellite messenger or Personal Locator Beacon) particularly when intending to travel in remote areas with no cell coverage.
- Take care of yourself and each other. Focus must be maintained throughout your trip, particularly when off-track. Pacing, route-finding and other techniques may have to adjust to being physically and mentally tired. Paying attention to where you have come from can greatly assist if needing to backtrack.
In addition to the above recommendations, MSC highlights the risks of tramping solo and how it can impact the ability to call for help, self-evacuation, self-monitoring and decision making. A further recommendation was made for those heading into terrain such as that around Brewster Hut and Mount Armstrong to travel in small groups instead of solo.
The MSC extends its condolences to Simpson’s family and friends.
Contact Communications Advisor Rebekah Wilson with any other queries, for data and photos.
Notes for journalists:
Between July 2008 and May 2023 there have been 40 fatalities to people who were tramping solo in Aotearoa. Of the 40 fatalities, 16 were on a day walk.
The most recent solo tramper fatality was that of Petr Cech, who was walking Te Araroa trail in the Richmond Ranges.
Photo: Brewster Hut. PHOTO/TOM HARRIS