03 December 2021

Fallacies of Memory - Mounts Whitcombe and Red Lion and Carrington Hut

We were sailing along on our circumnavigation of the North Island of New Zealand about 20 years ago when, with nothing else to say, I said to Jim the skipper of Karoro, our yacht. "Wasn't it funny on Mt Whitcombe when Mike left his ice axe on the summit and we let him walk down the ridge a bit before we told him. And then he had to go back for it." Jim looked at me and agreed. He remembered the incident well. "But how did you remember because you weren't there" he said. "Rubbish", I retorted, of course I was there. "No you weren't" said Jim, "You and Dave were climbing Red Lion the day Mike and I climbed Whitcombe." I stopped in my tracks - Jim was right - I remembered the day quite clearly. How could I have got the story so wrong?

What I'd remembered was what Jim had told us that evening over 40 years before in our snow cave on Erewhon Col, and subsequently. And then placed myself with them on Whitcombe.

Dave on top of Red Lion Peak (note ice axe)

en route to Red Lion - good place to have ice axe

It didn't take too long for me to sort out how it had happened.

The previous year, I'd climbed Whitcombe from Erewhon Col and by the same route as Jim and Mike, but with a different party.  A few years later Jim, Mike, Dave and I were up the Waimakariri Valley and left Carrington hut to head home down-valley. Mike did it again - left his ice axe - this time at the hut. Jim sidled up to me and said, "Mike's done it again, He's left his ice axe back at the hut." We grinned and agreed to let him go another hundred yards before we told him. Off he went, back to collect it while his miserable mates sniggered to themselves. Mean buggers, but Mike had to be cured of this bad habit of his.

Mike and Jim on lower Waimakariri (note Mike grasping paddle)

My theory about how this mistaken memory occurred is as follows. I'd put three seperate memories together and come up with one false memory. The first memory is that, with another group, I'd climbed Whitcombe via Snow Dome 12 months before Jim and Mike and the 'incident'. The second is that I'd heard the story about Mike from Jim at least on two occasions. And finally I'd been present on another occasion when Mike had left his ice axe behind. Somehow, out of these three instances I'd placed myself into the story - and, albeit nearly half a century later, got it wrong.

We all have little lapses of memory. Usually unimportant small things. They might be corrected and, more often than not, forgotten. But it worries me to think how many innocents might have been sent to the gallows - because of 'false memory'. At the beginning I was so convinced that I'd been present at the mountain top event - only the incontrovertible evidence of having been somewhere else exposed the fallacy.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating account, Barry.
    Not often your memory can be definitively challenged like that - and that you're then able to unpick it and work out how it was assembled. Should be compulsory reading for every juror!