Stepping out for the lost and missing

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If you are lost in Queenstown’s backcountry, LandSAR volunteers will be out looking for you in a jiffy. This dedicated bunch helps cops in search and rescue operations. Louise Scott looks in on training.

Can you name the four categories of the missing-person matrix?

That’s the first question posed by Wakatipu LandSAR chair Ed Halson.

It’s pissing down outside so orientation training has been swapped for an impromptu quiz night at Queenstown’s cop shop.

Halson says search and rescue theory is as important as practical elements.

Some questions raise eyebrows and lead to befuddled looks from those seated in the room.

The safest method of crossing a river? One LandSAR wag quips “use the bridge”.

There is banter and chatter but vollies are well aware of the importance of training.

In October LandSAR responded to three operations inside a week.

Aussie tourist Robert Galdamez was found on Ben Lomond after being missing for about 30 hours.

A couple were airlifted from Dynamo Hut, near Skippers, after activating a personal location beacon.

And a woman in her 60s was choppered from the hills above Arrowtown after spraining her ankle.

Searches are coordinated by local police but are also reliant on volunteers.

Senior sergeant John Fookes, who’s in charge, says Queenstown is lucky to have such committed recruits – there are about 100 to call on.

It means cops can go into the field with confidence.

A wide range of people sign up. There’s an IT specialist, geologist, yoga instructor, environmental engineer, mum and a builder.

It isn’t just Kiwis – there are Brits, a German and a Swede.

Queenstown Resort College teacher Jenny Jordan has volunteered for the last few years.

She’s been called out about 10 times.

On arrival at the police station she has a gander at the ops board, checks what the situation is, is briefed on the missing person and awaits further instructions.

Once in the field the training comes into play. One search method is a “sound line” – standing in a line within shouting distance – another is a purposeful wander.

The approach depends on the terrain and time.

Jordan: “If you are near a river it is harder to hear so you are closer together. If it is mountainous your distance may also be tighter. If it is at night you may use light techniques.”

Jordan was one of 16 pre-paring for a weekend training session near Glenorchy.

Kit includes radios, batteries, maps, wet weather gear, hi-vis vests, personal locator beacons, torches and a chest pack housing essential comms.

Fluorescent clothing alone is $1200-a-pop.

Halson warns them to be careful during training.

He knows his stuff – he’s been doing it for 25-odd years.

“There is a lot of snow damage out there. It is not going to be easy.

“Make sure you have the right gear and I’d suggest a walking pole and safety eyewear. It will be tough and you should be prepared for anything.”

Halson’s full of praise for the vollies. Training is weekly and they give up huge chunks of their time.

“We had a callout the other day – I did a call around and nine people were available at 1.45 in the morning.

“They were willing to get out of bed and search for someone. That is what a volunteer is – someone who is prepared to give to their community.”

Fiona Rowley, one of those taking part in the Glenorchy expedition, says the focus was on off-trail, backcountry navigation, using maps, compasses and GPS.

It was done near Lake Sylvan and Sugarloaf, where real searches often happen.

“It was really hard,” she says.

“There were a lot of trees down and in general the area was pretty horrible because of the wind.

“It’s steep and pretty dense bush – you find lots of surp-rises that aren’t on a topo map.”

One supposedly “flat” area was full of bluffs.

“A lot of our training is focused on the core elements of search methods and navigation but a second objective is getting familiar with team members.”

Jordan says finding someone safe and well makes cold feet and tired bones bearable.

“It makes time walking in the rain, or snow, or up a river or creek worth it. It is what we are here to do.

“Whether or not we are part of the team that finds them or not, that is irrelevant.”

Oh, and the four categories of the missing-person matrix? Mobile, immobile, responsive and unresponsive.

louises@scene.co.nz