Snow goers urged to ‘be sensible’ after nine rescued at kunanyi/Mount Wellington

From sea level in Hobart, the view of a snow-covered kunanyi/Mount Wellington is stunning and, for many, tempting.

Hikers, trail runners, families and tourists headed up the mountain in their droves on the weekend, keen to experience the snow for themselves. 

But social media photos often belie the truth: that things on the mountain can go very wrong very quickly for those who are unprepared, as nine people found out when they had to be rescued from freezing, windy conditions in three separate incidents. 

They were lucky.

But the process of a rescue isn’t simple, or fast, and there is a range of factors that can affect whether a rescue will be successful.

What happens when someone needs to be rescued?

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Tasmania Police navigate treacherous conditions to rescue the hikers and walkers.

Unlike a search-and-rescue situation in the wilderness where someone might set off a personal locator beacon, police were actually able to communicate with the people on the mountain at the weekend, as they all had phone reception. 

Senior constable Callum Herbert said that made the job a lot easier. 

“”Where are they?’ is the first question we usually ask and if they don’t know, we have to try and figure that out,” he said.

He said sometimes getting people to describe their location is enough for police with local knowledge to figure out where they are.

Sometimes people have emergency location apps that allow them to send their latitude and longitude, or GPS location, to police. 

“We also have an ability to send you a text message with a link to it, and if you click on that link that will show us exactly where you are, using a specialised search-and-rescue program,” Senior Constable Herbert said.

snow on the summit of a mountain
The City of Hobart webcam showed just how much snow still blanketed the summit on Monday afternoon.(Supplied: City of Hobart)

Two of the people rescued at the weekend were disoriented and sheltering behind a rock in a blizzard when they called police after dark. 

“We’ve got specialised mobile phone technology which can put a latitude and longitude on where they were, and we found out to the metre where they were.”

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Police also ask who is in the group, what they’re wearing, what their level of experience is, and how they got to where they are.

That determines how urgent the situation is, whether someone can be walked out, or whether paramedics will need to take part in the rescue, as they did with the pair sheltering behind the rock.

“Because by the time we got to them, their condition was unknown and we may well have had to stretcher them down the mountain, piggybacked them down the mountain or erected shelters where they were and kept them warm overnight until we could rescue them in the morning,” he said. 

People in bright green clothing walk through the snow
Ambulance Tasmania’s wilderness crews were involved in the rescue efforts on kunanyi/Mount Wellington at the weekend.(Supplied: Ambulance Tasmania)

How long does it take to be rescued? 

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Police knew that the two women sheltering behind the rock were in a “very urgent situation” when they spoke to them at 7:30pm on Saturday.

But that didn’t mean they were rescued straight away. 

“In search and rescue, we don’t have a full-time squad sitting around the station waiting to be deployed,” he said.

Police and paramedics needed to be called in, (although the forecast meant they were expecting there might be calls on the weekend) and gear such as snowshoes, radios and satellite phones needed to be gathered for them.

The conditions that challenge members of the public are also challenging for rescue teams, who need to put snow chains on their vehicles and open up gates on the mountain.  

“In this case, it actually took almost three hours from the time they made the call to when we were with them giving them medical aid, and that was doing the best we could,” Senior Constable Herbert said.

He said while police had access to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, it was “out of the question” that any chopper rescues could have taken place on the weekend, given how windy it was on the mountain. 

Hypothermia risks: ‘They may well have perished’

An Ambulance Tasmania officer in the snow
Paramedics are trained to deal with blizzard conditions. (Supplied: Keith Macqueen)

Senior Constable Herbert said people often underestimated what sort of clothing they would need for mountain conditions, with some people sporting shorts and sandshoes rather than weatherproof pants and hiking boots.

He said even the “Tassie tuxedo” (black puffer jacket) wasn’t helpful in severe conditions, because once they get wet, they lose all of their thermal properties and become “quite useless”.

Apart from getting lost or injured, one of the biggest risks to unprepared hikers and trail runners is hypothermia. 

Senior Constable Herbert said people usually started shaking if they were cold or experiencing mild hypothermia, but might then start making irrational decisions or stop shaking as moderate hypothermia sets in. 

“Confusion, soreness in your muscles, lethargy, they’re the kind of symptoms,” he said.

Police cars in the snow on the side of the road
Police had to help deal with a summit traffic jam on Sunday afternoon.(ABC News: Mahalia Carter)

He said search-and-rescue teams carried specialised gear for the people they were rescuing and needed to prioritise getting people warm.

“The people up there were just ill-equipped for it,” Senior Constable Herbert said.

“We’ve had to provide them with warmth, thermal blankets, thermal clothing and then we could escort them out.” 

He said the pair sheltering behind the rock were “quite hypothermic”.

‘Don’t be afraid to turn around’ 

Snow on a road with trees either side
Footsteps and vehicle tracks on Pinnacle Road on Hobart’s kunanyi/Mount Wellington at the weekend.(ABC News: Ellen Coulter)

Despite the busy weekend for search-and-rescue teams, Senior Constable Herbert doesn’t want Tasmanians to stop enjoying themselves when they’re lucky enough to get snow. 

He said people just needed to be prepared, and know that Tasmania’s weather, particularly on the summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, could be unpredictable. 

“Once you get onto the summit … that’s when the wind is over 100kph and gusting higher, and the snow is forming into drifts that are impassable,” he said.

“We love the outdoors and we’re lucky to have it on our doorstep, but just be sensible, and don’t be afraid to turn around.

“There’s no shame in turning around and going, ‘this is a bit beyond me today’ or ‘this is too dangerous’.”

Tips for snow-time

In a post on its Facebook page, Ambulance Tasmania provided a safety checklist:

  • Familiarise yourself with your location and have current maps
  • Tell people where you are going and your return time
  • Check current and coming weather forecasts
  • Carry appropriate warm and waterproof clothing
  • Have emergency supplies, a torch, shelter and consider a personal locator beacon
  • Cold can deplete phone batteries, so carry a charger and power bank
  • Be aware that darkness falls early and quickly this time of year

They also reminded the public that rescue crews may be hampered by the conditions in their efforts to find people.

An Ambulance Tasmania vehicle in the snow
Several summit hikers had to be taken down by ambulance including two women police said could have died.(Supplied: Ambulance Tasmania )

Posted , updated 

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