Tough questions raised about hiker’s unnecessary death

Rudy Zhang (張博崴) disappeared on Baigu Mountain (白姑大山).
By Hannah Hornsby, Special to The Wild East

Friends and family claim Taiwan police, search-and-rescue operations were negligent after failing to use critical information to find a hiker who spent nearly two months lost on Baigu Mountain

Many in Taiwan have seen the recent news regarding Rudy Zhang’s (張博崴) disappearance on Baigu Mountain (白姑大山). This story is extremely personal to me, because Rudy was my friend, my student, and son of my employer (with whom I am also close). I know Rudy’s father, and am friends with his sister.

Since his Feb. 28th disappearance, I’ve witnessed first-hand and on a daily basis the emotional turmoil this incident has caused his family, as his mother looked for answers, his father relocated near the mountain, and his sister, friends, and family members prayed for his safety. It’s been a truly heartbreaking and stressful time for anyone who knows Rudy or his family, and a tragedy in the deepest sense of its meaning.

Emotions aside, however, Rudy’s death highlights several serious issues in Taiwan, most importantly the lack of properly trained search and rescue teams, the inability of government to mobilize rescue personnel, and a general lack of delegation and organization within these services. Certainly many individuals must have cared about finding Rudy, but the facts of the incident show the overall incompetence and inability to orchestrate an effective search and rescue in Taiwan, highlighting the need for authorities to be ready and willing in future to undertake responsibility when the situation calls for it.

Negligence on behalf of the police is obvious when one considers the following information:

1) Rudy was given a permit to hike alone in an area known to be dangerous. In fact, approximately 2,000 people have got lost, died, or injured in this area. When questioned as to why a lone hiker would be given such a permit, the official response was that Rudy “insisted” on going. Does this mean that any individual can undertake dangerous actions just because they want to? Why would POLICE, of all people, break such a regulation?

2) Police and rescue workers searched for a combined total of 49 days, and when they wanted to stop, the family paid police NT$130,000 dollars (about US$4300) to continue the search. They looked, however, only along existing mountain trails, disregarding the fact that Rudy’s girlfriend — the last person he spoke with and told he was lost before his cellphone was cut off a half-hour later — repeatedly said she’d heard running water in the background and believed he was near a river. It seems obvious that someone who is lost will not be found on a marked trail, so why were rescuers searching this confined area? And why was the girlfriend’s report completely disregarded?

3) Huang Kao Su (黃國書), an experienced hiker known for assisting in rescue efforts and his ability to hike in dangerous areas, was able to find Rudy’s body in less than two days — approx. 7 hours of searching. He stated that Rudy had left clear signs such as broken branches to mark his path, footprints, and so on, and was in an area that was “to be expected” given where he’d been hiking. He also commented that Rudy was a very intelligent hiker, and had followed the textbook guidelines for someone in his situation. How is it that this man (with one companion) was able to accomplish the task in such a short amount of time, when almost 600 other rescue workers were stumped for weeks? Why are police, the public’s first resource in times of need, so unable to complete a task that one person, Huang, was able to do, in 7 hours? Do police need training in this area? If so, why haven’t they received it before? And what can be done to implement such training in the future?

4) Police failed to access Rudy’s cellphone records, a sure-fire means of locating him. When his family requested they do so, police stated Rudy’s ‘right to privacy’ as their chief concern, and even went so far as to speculate that Rudy may be hiding after an argument with his girlfriend. Rather than use key information they had to find him, police chose to err on the side of personal privacy, even though Rudy clearly told his girlfriend he was lost. Here, valuable rescue time was lost in debating a non-issue. Why didn’t police choose to err on the side of safety instead, and believe that Rudy was missing? If it had turned out he was indeed hiding, then his family would have been charged for misuse of police resources. So why assume Rudy is NOT in need of assistance first… unless perhaps you just don’t want to do your job?

Since media began reporting this incident, several key points have been misrepresented. Articles have erroneously claimed that Rudy was found by inexperienced hikers, or “luck,” or that his remains were bones by the time he was found. This is completely untrue; his estimated time of death was only 5-6 days before his body was located, and his mother said he was in “good condition”. Does no one check their facts anymore?

The media’s primary focus, at this point, seems to be ‘who’s to blame?’ Taipei police blame the Taichung police, Taichung police blame the Taipei police, military officers blame weather conditions for having had to call off the day’s search a few times, and the most recent articles to circulate blame ghosts and spirits in the area. This, however, does very little to actually solve the problem.

One recent article I read suggested that in the future maps should be sectioned off and each section assigned to a particular person. It’s been stated that the people doing the search were being paid regardless of the outcome, and had no emotional investment either way. This would give individuals motivation to actually search their assigned area. While this is one approach, I think the primary focus still needs to be on education. Clearly, if rescuers were informed about what signs to look for, Rudy might have been saved. In a country with so many mountains and a ‘hiking culture’, properly training search and rescue teams is one critical solution.

Another particularly troubling issue was what happened once Rudy’s body was found. When asked about retrieving it, police told Rudy’s mother that it was “not their responsibility.” They told the family to find and hire a team of people to retrieve him by themselves. Rudy’s mother replied, “What would happen if I was poor? Would you leave him on the mountain?” After performing such an incompetent search that left Rudy to die a slow death alone, and taking the family’s money, how could police be so callous as to not want to support the family in this wish, and prove that they did, indeed, care about the outcome of this tragedy? Taiwan has a strong ‘ghost culture’, and without a proper burial ghosts are believed not to be at rest. Leaving his body on the mountain certainly causes the family emotional distress, let alone poses a potential health hazard, and is a completely disrespectful response, on many levels. Being able to give Rudy a proper burial was the last comfort the family could receive in this particular situation, so why deny them even this last assistance? This again raises the issue of who in fact is responsible for what duties and responsibilities.

Rudy survived 44 – 45 days on his own on that mountain, long after police (and even family members) had believed he was capable of surviving. It is a truly tragic situation that needs to be addressed. Changes to the way police approach such a situation, their sensitivity toward the family, and their actual ability to perform tasks that are assigned to them need to undertaken. Nothing will bring Rudy back, but his death need not be in vain if we can learn from it and prevent such an awful situation from ever occurring again.

17 thoughts on “Tough questions raised about hiker’s unnecessary death

  • December 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Victim’s Family Po Wei (博崴)’s mother’s statement

    Dear All:

    When speaking of mountaineering accidents, we all have different points of view and opinions. However, there is one indisputable fact in front of us. When we discovered that mountaineering accidents occur too often and the rescue efficiency is far too low, there is a problem within the system and we must change and reform it.

    Po Wei (博崴) traveled to the United States in 2007, and to Canada in 2009 . He participated in mountaineering training summer camps and climbed mountains in Canada, the United Sates and in Taiwan. It was in Taiwan’s Yaming Mountain(陽明山) that Po-Wei strength trained by climbing its’ trails over and over again. Sadly, Po-Wei lost his life in Baigu Mountain(白姑大山) in Taiwan, but only after a long and futile 51-day search by Taiwan’s Government. Ruben(From New Zealand魯本) had climbed up to 50 mountains in New Zealand, Australia, and France, but was lost in Ali Mountain(阿里山) in Taiwan. Lee Jun Sun (李俊生), another experienced climber, had been missing for 46 days before he was found. Lee Jun Sun had been missing for 46 days, and Po Wei for 51 days: Both of them were found by Huang Kuo Shu (黃國書), a private rescuer, in just two or three days. As for suburban mountains, Chen Deng Song
    (陳登嵩) had been missing for 26 days. Private rescue teams found him in less than three days. Can the government still shift the responsibility to others when the contrast is so obvious and clear? The government has been encouraging people to become involved more in outdoor activities and to hike the Small Top 100 peaks. In the past four months, there have already been 7 mountaineering accidents that I know. 5 dead, 1 seriously injured and 1 missing. What they all have in common is that- they got lost. The primary reason behind the accidents is poor management of the mountain trails by the Forestry Bureau. Since 1994 till now, the National Mountaineering Seminar has been held for 16 years. Numbers of mountaineering experts have requested that the Forestry Bureau manage the mountain better and to have organized mountaineering service management. Nevertheless, the Forestry Bureau remains to be a stubborn, close-minded, and powerless aged cow. No such measures have been put into effect.

    Secondly, I want to elaborate more about why I said the rescue system here is 0+0 system. Zero! On January 1st, 1992, the National Fire Agency, Ministry of the Interior officially established the rescue command center for mountaineering accidents and sea disasters. However, the National Fire Agency doesn’t have a professional coordinated organization. When an accident or a disaster occurs, the rescue unit is a fragmented and unorganized team. Nor can the plane communication system be integrated, even the commanding system on ground does not work. Are the Fire Departments of all districts considered ultra-extreme iron men that are able to carry out any given tasks? In fact, the rescue system is like a bowling system. Is the National Fire Agency risking people’s lives? Since the day of the incident, the fire department has not demonstrated any sympathy the sorrows of stricken families’. They claim these strategies are simply attributed to “everyone’s bad luck”. Alright! Here we each have a large, medium, and a small bwabway(擲神杯a tool for seeking divine direction in Chinese folk religion, to ask for gods’ help). The large is one for the National Fire Agency, the medium one is for the Fire Department, the small one is for the fire brigade. When there’s another accident or disaster that occurs, shall we all use the bwabway. Won’t that work?
    The fire department didn’t show any sympathy for the families’ grief, yet, before submitting the report to Legislator Tien(田立委), the department called Sen Ying (神鷹)Rescue Team for a consultancy meeting. At the meeting, Sen Ying Rescue Team pointed out two major flaws in the Fire Department’s rescue. First, there is no commanding center; second, they didn’t set up a front commanding office. The report the Fire Department submitted to Legislator Tien, had no word of the massive oversights mentioned above. Sen Ying Team(神鷹隊), you should think deeply where this money is coming from — not from the Fire Department, but at the cost of Po Wei’s sacrifice, and the hard-earned money of the people!

    The night of Po Wei’s disappearance, Po Wei’s father told me: I packed clothes for one night and it’s enough. We’ve already called and reported to the police, Po Wei will come back soon. Do not worry! When we reached the mountain the facts were frighteningly clear. The chief commander did not even know where the entrance of the mountain trail was. He didn’t even know how to apply for a communication record, not to mention to ask for help from outside resources. The firefighters followed aborigines up into the mountain, but the firefighters lacked strength, and they easily fell, got bruised, or fractured bones. Later, the information that the rest of the private rescue teams received was that both sides of the valley were searched completely and thoroughly. While all this chaos was happening, Po Wei was alive and waiting for rescue. It was amidst this chaos that he lost his life. Po Wei’s father blames himself deeply with endless regret. He saw the problem but was shy to express his doubt in their abilities – they were after all ‘professionals’. He believes that his son’s life was ruined by his own cowardice. I personally experienced the process of the accident, so I know the suffering of a victim’s family bears. Also, by collecting the information and data of mountaineering accidents, I am also worried about the safety of a 5 million mountain climbing enthusiasts. I hope and expect that all mountaineers can one day carry a satellite cell phone a tracker when they climb a mountain. I hope to greatly improve our rescue search responses. However, in order to improve the official rescue system we must invest a huge amount. Therefore, my wish for the future is to establish the Chang Po Wei Mountain Facing Foundation(張博崴山難基金會). The first goal is to provide help to the victim’s family. The second goal is to help the government to provide effective rescue in the various mountain s in Taiwan. Let our love to this land be continued from generation to generation. Bless our descendents, we are all in this together.

    Next, what I want to address is the problem in our education. “Mountain Educational Philosophy” affected education has been effect in Europe and the United States for nearly a century. The core of its value is: “Education is vital, dynamic and allows students to have time to think deeply. It emphasizes on practical and moral learning. Students enjoy learning bases on high learning motivation, thus learning is effective.” This lack of education is something that the Ministry of Education is aware of. Unlike education in Taiwan, students carry loads of heavy sand bags. I’m asking the Ministry of Education, if you already knew the importance of Mountain Education 16 years ago, why have you done nothing about it? “Mountain Climbing Education” is part of “Mountain Education, “ and the education of mountaineering safety should be known by all people in Taiwan. However, students in Taiwan do not know how to read maps, yet European and American students learn basic survival skills and earn to read maps by the time they leave elementary school. How many people in Taiwan will ever think that they would be separated from their loved ones just by climbing a mountain? This is the problem of our education. In the 16 years of the National Mountaineering Seminar, the attitude of the Ministry of Education is neither prohibiting nor encouraging! Could this kind of burying one’s head in the sand attitude solve the problem? After 16 years the National Mountaineering Seminar we still have not created an effective way to educate our people, instead we push the problem further from the surface. The Japanese government spent 40 billion of their budget to promote mountain education; the Korean government also put in mountaineering education to their national policy. By popularizing all kinds of mountaineering cultures, Korea’s mountain climbing skill is now one of the best-known in the world. How about our Ministry of Education?

    I got the chance to know Jesus Christ because of Po Wei. Because of his grace, I was able to come this far. Thanks to Mrs. Tsai Shu Ya(蔡淑雅女士), Mr. Lin Juin Hong
    (林俊宏記者), Councilor Juang Rey Hsung(莊瑞雄議員), and legislator Tien Chiu Jin(田秋堇立委) and the mountaineers’ help. God gives me courage and wisdom. He changed who I was. I already accept the truth that our family lost Po Wei! At the public hearing today, I hope that you could all show your sympathy. Let us turn the Zero rescue system into Zero error rescue system. The mountains in Taiwan are the future economic base of Taiwan. They are asleep because of the continuous mountaineering accidents. Save the mountains in Taiwan, let no more mountaineering accidents occur anymore. This is a big and important responsibility for all of us!
    Sharon Tu
    Aug. 8/2011

  • June 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Sad story, but trusting the Taiwanese police to do anything? I am not at all surprised that they are not competent in searching the mountains. Have you ever watched them just direct the traffic? After being just few months in Taiwan, rainy, foggy evening in Taipei, I was almost hit by a car when I followed the direction of a policemen to turn left. What he was actually doing was signalling STOP by stretching his arm forward, his luminescent nightstick, however, pointing horizontally, thus effectively signalling me to GO.
    Recently I was being persuaded by a policemen not to report a small theft (apparently there’s a lot of paperwork).
    I am always very worried when I have to depend on someone in a uniform in Taiwan…

  • June 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Unreal story– thanks Trista for publishing this. You are doing a great job here getting this kind of story out there. And sympathy to the friends and family of this unfortunate young man.
    But on the other hand, Wild East for sure… You’re on your own out there

  • May 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    As Obiwan said, ‘Remember this is a society where you cannot do wrong.’

    Seniors are always right. Teachers are always right. Don’t talk about Rights. Don’t’ criticize. Police can do anything. Media can eat you. Politicians can numb you…

    This is Taiwan: Ghosts make yearly rounds here!

    Professionally trained journalists have to forget everything but the words of their employers. ‘Do exactly what you are told, OR you are out!’ Some complain that they were asked to sell advertisement space or go!

    Police, Politicians and parliamentarians love to perform on the screen! The more they are criticized more paints they receive from media, more lovable they become to family members and more shameless they become everyday.

    The tragic death of Rudy Chang raises many questions but teaches one lesson. Ruling out a companion for the daring mission courageous Rudy Chang made a huge mistake.

    Peace to his soul.

  • May 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    1) Everybody is responsabile for himselves. I do not agree with your point. Every time there is a problem, Police should shut down the area so no one dies. I think the problem is that the guy went alone. It’s not the problem of the Police (and God knows how incompetent I think they are), but the problem of the hiker.
    Because of this kind of unprepared hiker, people are forbidden to go to this area, including me…

    2) This, I totally agree. Rescuers in TW do not use their brain, and the Police is so affraid to lose one of their men that they don’t send them to other places. Some rescuers are probably willing to go, but the leaders are all politicians before being professionals.

    3) The government does not want to use ressources. During 2008 typhoon, the government refused help and prevent professional and experienced people to help rescuing. The result that they sent some young guys doing their service, with no other training than cleaning toilets everyday or standing in the sun one full day. Those guys had no training at all. But thanks to them, we had funny videos everyday on the news of people trying to cross a river with a rope.

    4) Noone wants to take any decision. If they are wrong, the family can sue them, a bad heritage from USA culture to sue everyone, everywhere, for everything… No one wants to take the responsability to make a mistake, so in this case, they prefer doing nothing, at least, they didn’t do wrong. Remember this is a society where you cannot do wrong. They don’t think that failing is a good way to learn how to succeed in the future.

    As to media, if you are in Taiwan for over 3 months, you should know that sources are NEVER checked, and they write things the way it attracts the more readers. They don’t give a shit about the truth or professionalism. Most of journalists, by the way, do not come from a journalist school, therefore have no ethical concept of journalism. Sometimes, it is even students doing this as a part-time job…

    I think ghosts are guilty, as always………. 🙂

    Rescuing is not something you do for money. You do this if you are some kind of modest hero. Police in Taiwan are definitely not heroes, and do not even wish to be heroes… Money? They already earn so much… why would that be an incentive for them.

    Taiwan just needs professionals, that’s it. The island should stop pretending they have something to protect people just because they have some guy at the entrance of a mountain trail giving permits…

    Poor guy, and sad story.

  • May 16, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Ithink this issue shows a lack of education on both sides – the public, who need to educate themselves, and the government, who are not training the police or educating them to notify people like Huang Kao Su. Either way, things need to change before more lives are lost,

  • May 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I don’t know why the guides and mountain experts aren’t called in from day one. Seriously, it saves tax dollars and apparently it gets the job done. Being a mountaineer isn’t a requirement for police service, so although they were negligent, I don’t know that we should be surprised at their incompetence in this arena.

  • May 11, 2011 at 12:48 am

    @ Ejdacent: This ‘eulogy’ has way more facts as a TRUE STORY than the lamestream media coverage of what happened. Why try to undermine it?

    FROM HANNAH: For those of you who have been following the story about Rudy on and check out the Chinese newspapers today, a similar story happened to another family near Keelung, who lost a relative due to the negligence of police and who were able to find the body only after contacting Huang Kao Su who recommended a mountain guide to do the job. Time to wake up, Taiwan!

  • May 8, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Who would believe the police report now? They obviously won’t admit to their negligence. Please, although this is a personal story for me, I did not embellish fact. I got information from the family and Huang Kao Su directly.

  • May 5, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    This is not the true story. It is a sad story. But since you know him you have written a eulogy not a news story. The facts on the ground were different, as you will find out when the police report comes out.

  • May 5, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    “Does this mean that any individual can undertake dangerous actions just because they want to? Why would POLICE, of all people, break such a regulation?”

    What regulation?

    “It seems obvious that someone who is lost will not be found on a marked trail, so why were rescuers searching this confined area?”

    What incentive do they have to find him, other than empathy for Rudy’s family? They’d already been paid.

    “Why are police, the public’s first resource in times of need, so unable to complete a task that one person, Huang, was able to do, in 7 hours?”

    The cops don’t know what they are doing and quite possibly don’t care very much. Huang knew what he was doing and cared about finding Rudy.

    “Changes to the way police approach such a situation, their sensitivity toward the family, and their actual ability to perform tasks that are assigned to them need to undertaken.”

    No. What “needs” to be undertaken is both greater care by hikers and the setting up of professional search and rescue teams – not throwing more money at the cops. You don’t need cops to do this kind of work and they’re seemingly no good at it anyway. Let people who can do the work do it.

  • May 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    What a senseless tragedy. Hopefully changes will be made to stop this happening again.

  • May 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    He was injured internally from a fall and broke his arm, but he did everything the guidebooks told him to – find water, mark your trail once you realize you are lost, and wait for help. He had fallen near a steep cliff, so climbing back up was not an option.

  • May 3, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    He was apparently injured, although I’m not sure this would make it a more fundamentally important question to answer…

  • May 3, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    Can you answer the far more fundamental question about how someone could be lost for 45 days in an area that could be walked across in 7?

    • May 29, 2015 at 9:51 am

      And why is this questions so much more fundamental than any others that the author raises?

      FYI, I believe he was injured and not mobile.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *