A Canadian runner with huge experience in multi-day races is expressing severe safety concerns over the recent Southern Lakes Ultra, which saw six competitors evacuated by chopper amidst extreme weather conditions near Arrowtown.
Monique Dube tells Mountain Scene she’d ‘‘never witnessed such poor and treacherous conditions’’.
‘‘I had taken additional gear based on my experience and was tested to the extremity of my training and experience to get to safety.’’
In a letter to the Department of Conservation (DoC) director-general, WorkSafe chief executive, Rescue Coordination Centre ops manager and local council boss Mike Theelen, she’s critical of the race organisation and believes significant improvements are needed before it should be held again.
She’s also critical of the ‘‘poor condition’’ of part of the DoC track between Roses Hut and Macetown which athletes ran on.
An emergency medical responder with 35 years’ experience leading expeditions in remote wilderness, who’s also run ‘‘extensive numbers’’ of races, including multi-day stage races around the world ‘‘under extreme conditions’’, Dube believes a qualifying race should be required for all Southern Lakes Ultra runners ‘‘to ensure some level of experience in mountainous regions’’.
Or else the six-stage race could be shorter or ‘‘altered to be audience appropriate’’.
She’s critical only one physician supported the race.
Her biggest concern was over ‘‘absent and inadequate communications’’ during the emergency.
‘‘There is no excuse or technology limitation that justifies the communication breakdown that occurred during this incident … ‘‘The [external] communications were misleading as to the true nature of the situation.’’
Dube also doesn’t believe race organisers truly understand ‘‘the seriousness of the experience for those caught out on the mountains (let alone those caught in the stream crossings going to and coming back from Arrowtown), the associated risk to life, risk to search and rescuers, cost and the liability to organisations involved’’.
She also believes race director, Queenstowner Kerryn Bell, was too stretched.
‘‘The capacity and competency constraints associated with one individual with too many responsibilities played a significant role in this incident.
‘‘This is not to say the race director and crew did not do their very best under extreme circumstances, but the best in this case did not meet the bar required for health and safety and incident response.’’
Dube’s also indirectly critical of Bell, in last week’s Scene, deflecting blame onto ‘‘the perceived inexperience and poor decision making of the racers’’.
She’s calling for a formal debrief ‘‘to support the victims most affected by the incident’’.
‘‘Many communicated signs and symptoms of trauma including re-enactment, disbelief, excessive fear, anger and disassociation.’’
She fears if lessons aren’t learned, ‘‘the next time, lives may not be spared’’.
‘‘Near-misses are the greatest lessons for improvement, and my intent is to assist the organisation and those that support it to do better.’’
Another Canadian comes to organiser’s defence
Utrarun organiser Kerryn Bell says race critic Monique Dube’s ‘‘entitled 100% to her opinion, and it will form part of our debrief, without doubt’’.
However, she says, ‘‘I’ve probably got 30-odd messages and emails from people who did the event, all praising what we did’’.
Among them is an email ‘‘from someone with equal experience, also from Canada, which is completely contradictory’’.
Jim Mandelli, in an email to Bell, says he’s also had over 30 years of racing experience, including all the long adventure races around the world.
‘‘In virtually all these races, we were placed on far more dangerous terrain in far worse weather in far more remote locations with no more support than what was provided on this race.’’
Mandelli, who’s also been a search and rescue member in Vancouver for more than 20 years, says ‘‘while Monique appears to consider this ‘incident’ as something extreme and dangerous, I share a different opinion’’.
He stresses all ultras are, by their very nature, risky.
‘‘I was never led to believe this race was going to be an easy one.
‘‘Kerryn constantly stated the long day would be very tough, remote, would take a long time and would be completed by most in the dark.’’
It comes down to risk levels, he says, bearing in mind the race website stated: ‘‘You must be confident in the backcountry, on trails.’’
‘‘These mountain ultras require some level of risk tolerance, or else one would likely never attempt one.’’
Mandelli points out this mountain stage was run on an established track, though he agrees more markings would have helped in some places.
He also agrees with Dube there should be at least two doctors and maybe even more for this stage, and that having satellite phones or other means of communication with camps on all stages is important.
Meanwhile, Bell also shares an email from American couple Garth and Lisa Reader, an athlete and a crew member, respectively, who also believe the challenges on this stage were handled well.
Their only recommendation was to have available satellite phone communication with remote checkpoints.
Concerning Dube’s challenges on this stage, Bell questions why someone of her experience, if she was unwell, didn’t stay in the last checkpoint/hut — ‘‘we had other athletes stop overnight and continue the next day’’.