Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tim Holding’s slide and Xer pride

It took a surprisingly long time for the media to run a plausible account of how Tim Holding came to be marooned at about 1100 metres (I am guessing this elevation from the vegetation and lack of snow shown in the rescue-winch video) on the north-west face of Mt Feathertop. This puts him about 800 vertical metres below the summit, and also well below the two huts (Federation and MUMC) on the west face – in forest far too thick to have slid down through/to, even if one tried – yet even after today’s press conference, the Age is running an updated story that gives no more particulars than Holding’s previously-reported slide near the summit, on icy terrain.

In fact, this icy-slide detail was known even before Holding was found, when bushwalker Ray Kennedy was quoted in media reports that went to press Monday night. Apparently Kennedy (and party) checked whether Holding was okay after his slide (same URL), and after being assured that he was, his party summitted. In an earlier report, apparently also quoting (but not naming) Kennedy, on their return from the summit, the party noticed that Holding’s footprints showed him heading downhill, but not on a track. For whatever reason, this account (which I have cohered from two separate reports) gained little media traction, however. A post-today’s press conference story on Ninemsn, quoting Holding, corroborates the going-way-downhill, off-track story, yet without commenting on its eyewitness/third-party media antecedents.

This (barely-reported) truth doesn’t make Holding look good, for at least two good reasons, neither of which concern the media’s current hobby-horses – whether Holding had good-enough gear, or shouldn’t have been hiking solo in the first place. I would have thought it was obvious that going off-track, below the treeline at least, is a bad, bad idea. The Ninemsn story gives this account:

“The minister said after sliding down the ridge he came into contact with a group of hikers with snow boots who asked him if he wanted to go with them. ‘I decided it was better to [go back down the hill] and return to the treeline.’ But Mr Holding said he became lost as he tried to follow a river to the bottom of the mountain.”

In mitigation, Holding:

(i) was probably in shock from his slide below the summit (having myself summitted Feathertop in winter, Holding is not exaggerating to say that he easily could have died from the fall alone – i.e. impact injury);
(ii) was probably wise not to go up (again), even in the company of others. Why another, compromise option – such as waiting for the group to return from the summit, and then walking down the mountain (presumably on the track!) with them – was (apparently) not considered by Holding may well relate to his pride as a fit and experienced walker, a pride compounded, in my view, by his being an Xer;
(iii) was not taking a ludicrous risk, as far as going off-track to the treeline (i.e. about 1400m) goes. But he obviously didn’t consider the “Then what?” (another common Xer foible, I can personally attest) – in particular the approximate 800 vertical metres (that’s 240 storeys) of bush-bashing between the treeline and the Harrietville valley (= civilisation/safety). If Holding really thought that “follow[ing] a river” (particularly in forest between 600 and 1200 metres elevation) was going to help here, he was either (a) concussed, or (b) not nearly as experienced a walker as the media have generally given him credit for.

Finally, what may have also helped undo Holding was another characteristic Xer behaviour tic – that of the Heroic Side-Trip. Holding pointedly did the Feathertop walk on his way back from opening a cross-country ski race at Falls Creek. Only an Xer, I think, would throw in a 22-hour* (including overnight sleep time) stroll up and down Mt Feathertop in winter as an incidental deviation to one’s main journey.

Update/Correction 3 September 2009

It now appears that my inference – that Ray Kennedy and party’s offer of assistance to Holding may have been conditional on Holding accompanying them to the summit – was incorrect, and that the offer was, should Holding accept it, to go straight down (and thus cancel their summit plans). My earlier confusion here was because I didn’t realise that Holding’s reference to his reluctance, after his slide, to go back “up” actually refers to his being below track level; i.e. the only conventional way down the mountain meant going temporarily up the dangerous, slippery ice. That Holding grudged this side-trip, or failed to assess that his chosen alternative was actually much riskier than going up the ice for a bit, seems to be the decisive factor in his subsequent predicament.

Perhaps Holding wasn’t comfortable with having an audience watch him get back up to the track. In any event, it should be noted out that Holding made his fateful decision to go down alone off-track on the back of two streaks of incredible, coincidental luck: his not having his mobility (at least) injured in his slide, and his having company (at minimum) for his descent, should he choose.

It is an axiom of mine that windfall-luck impairs one’s judgment, particularly when it comes to apparently small decisions. Had Holding been less “lucky” – or, for that matter, had he been less experienced/fit/adequately-equipped – then the climb back up to the trail would surely have been a foregone conclusion.

* On my calculation, Holding left his car in the Harrietville valley at about 2pm Sat, and expected to return to his car about noon Sun.

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