On New Year's Day two years ago, a South Island mountaineer, Anton Wopereis, fell and died on Mt Cook while taking what sounds like a calculated risk. He was an experienced climber, a guide, and was roped to a client when he decided to climb above their anchor peg without a "belay" (a precaution in which the client would feed the rope through a friction device that would check a fall).

Because Mr Wopereis worked for a guiding company, Aspiring Guides, his death was investigated by the Labour Department under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. The department's conclusions, obtained under the Official Information Act and reported in the Weekend Herald, illustrates the dangers of applying today's excessive safety principles to our adventure industry.

The department chides the industry for resisting a requirement to take all practicable steps to eliminate or at least minimise the risk of harm. It complains that the industry prefers to manage risks rather than try to eliminate them. Eliminating them may be the language of the act but it is not a practical rule for mountaineering or many other outdoor adventures.

As the chief guide for Aspiring Guides told the Weekend Herald, "It's easy to eliminate risks totally and not go. But we choose to go; we choose to put ourselves in harm's way."

The department's report acknowledges the conflict between the law as it stands and the attraction of activities that involve risk. The issue is being examined in a review of adventure tourism undertaken for Prime Minister John Key and due by March 31. But if the Wopereis decision is an indication of the Labour Department's contribution to the review, wiser counsels must prevail.

The department has no idea why the guide decided not to use a belay at that point of the climb, nor does the client or the department's consultant. The client said he was not given a reason and an outdoor safety auditor, Ray Goldring, an experienced climber, makes no criticism of the decision.

"There are no guidelines," Mr Goldring told the officials, "which state a guide must undertake a type of practice at any given time or place on any mountain anywhere in the world. This expectation would would be both impractical and unrealistic." He trusts that a mountaineer of 54-year-old Mr Wopereis' experience would have had good reason for deciding not to belay.

Despite that advice the department concluded that the deceased failed to take all practicable steps to prevent harm to himself and its report attempts to reconcile the principles of risk management and risk elimination with some classic gobbledegook. "The mountain guiding industry," says its report, "still has an opportunity to further and actively blend these two approaches to better ensure that a holistic best practice safety and health system will prevail ..."

The industry should do nothing of the kind. Any attempt to eliminate risk would eliminate the industry. Conceivably it would be possible to rig a mountain with so many ladders and pulleys and nets that it could be climbed in complete safety. But who would bother?

Managing risk is the most the mountain guiding industry should have to do. It hires guides who know the ropes and puts clients through drills to ensure they are up to it. After that, it is a matter of applying skills and judgment to the conditions the climbers find. No code of best practice can dictate what they must do in every situation they might find.

Accidents will happen and they should be considered a known hazard the participants have willingly faced. We have taken health and safety too far. Adventurers who challenge the prevailing law restore our spirit.