Yesterday afternoon, I received this email from a good friend who is an experienced guide in Tongariro National Park. The initial target audience was the visitor information centres around the Central Plateau – that audience has now grown…
To whom it may concern,
I am an alpine guide, currently working on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is my fourth season on the TAC. My primary duty of care is to the safety and well-being of the clients on my trip, however I am often asked by freedom walkers for information and advice. Far too many people recreating in Tongariro National Park are uninformed about the hazards on the TAC and are unprepared for the conditions they will encounter. In some cases, people are putting themselves in harms way or endangering those around them and I feel obliged to intervene. This is actually quite common, but most of us guiding in Tongariro see that we act as kaitiake for the people and the land and don’t hesitate to offer assistance. This is an ongoing problem and the number of people putting themselves in danger increases exponentially each season. This is a problem that many people involved in tourism, recreation, and the outdoors community in Central Ruapehu are well aware of.
I would like to make it clear that I am not against freedom walking the TAC in winter, but that I am against trail users getting bad advice or no advice, going unprepared, and exposing themselves to unnecessary risks.
I am writing this letter because of what I saw while I was guiding on the TAC on Saturday, 26 August 2017. The number of people walking the track in completely inappropriate gear with no clue and no humility was SHOCKING. People dressed only in sneakers and blue jeans, without rain jackets or warm hats and gloves. There was a much higher than average number of freedom walkers on the track that day. At a guess, I would say that there were a few hundred. Tongariro Expeditions were operating their transport only service that day, as well as a large number of groups both large and small providing their own transport.
It is my opinion that when transport only services operate in winter, the public is watching. They see “no risk” when in reality there exists a “low risk”. Understanding that difference is critical. It is also imperative that people understand the difference between a forecast and a guarantee. Weather in New Zealand mountains is unpredictable and rapidly changeable. I believe that the greatest danger to people on this day was the weather, and the perceived risk.
The forecast on Saturday 26 August 2017, according to Metservice, called for fine conditions and light winds. On paper, truly a beautiful day! My observations on track told a very different story. The lenticular clouds capping Ngauruhoe meant winds were much stronger than the 15km/h in the forecast for the Red Crater. Metvuw charts showed rain to the northwest of Tongariro, so I knew that those stronger than forecast winds would also bring clouds. In spite of the forecast I could see that we were in for a cold day, with no sun, strong winds, and white-out conditions. Which is exactly what we got. The Red Crater was being hit by 50km/h winds and the wind chill was hovering around -8. Cloud in the Central Crater caused poor visibility, fluctuating between 50 meters and 500 meters of visibility. These are challenging and hazardous conditions.
One unprepared (cold and scared) freedom walker was rescued (from Shelter Rock) by other hikers on their descent from the summit of the TAC and given extra gear and guidance back to the start of the track (Mangatepopo Car Park). People were observed walking on cornices on the Red Crater, walking out onto the ice on the Emerald Lakes, onto the ice on the Blue Lake, and were advised of the dangers they were putting themselves into. Many people without proper attire continued to walk into worsening conditions in spite of warnings from myself, other guides, and members of a local tramping club.
Waikato Tramping Club was on their annual winter Tongariro trek and spent lot of time and energy trying to warn people of the risks involved in trekking in alpine conditions without proper gear or know-how. They attempted to turn around many people on this day that were unaware of the danger they were putting themselves in and unaware of the hazards on the TAC. I have reached out to the club and encouraged them to write a letter with their observations.
I am passionate about the outdoors. I love Tongariro. I love creating safe experiences that are fun and memorable. If I can, I want to help more people come home safe and happy after a day in our mountains. I am reaching out to your organisation with my field observations because I believe that we are allies in this goal. I have provided below descriptions of the hazards, risks and consequences that are common on the TAC in winter, as well as the MetService forecast for the day. I personally observed people exposing themselves to each of the hazards below on this day. It is my sincere hope that this letter is useful in some way.
Thank you for your consideration,
Below is a list of some hazards that exist on the TAC in winter. I have omitted to speak about avalanche hazards, as the Backcountry Avalanche Advisory does an excellent job of detailing the risks and hazards on a daily basis.
Walking on cornices
-large cornices exist around the rim and summit of the Red Crater. There are many others throughout the TAC but these are the cornices that are easiest to walk onto without realizing what you’re doing
-the risk is that by walking onto a cornice you will cause it to break and you will fall
-the consequences of breaking a cornice are VERY HIGH and potentially life-threatening, as you would fall 50+ meters and likely be buried in snow from the falling debris
Walking on the ice covering the Emerald Lakes
-the lakes are not well frozen and are currently thawing, so the risk of breaking the ice and falling into the lakes is VERY HIGH
-consequences of of falling through the ice into the lake are SERIOUS and potentially life-threatening, as both drowning and hypothermia are likely outcomes
Walking on the ice covering the Blue Lake
-the risk posed by walking on the Blue Lake is precisely the same as the Emerald Lakes, but the consequences are higher, as the size and depth of the lake would pose much larger problems for rescue
Not having the appropriate gear
-sunglasses, warm hats and gloves, boots, rain jackets, and intelligent layers are a must in an unpredictable alpine environment such as the TAC. To venture out unprepared is to risk frostbite or hypothermia, or in the case of not having sunglasses you are risking snowblindness
Not having the appropriate equipment
-at the very least it is necessary to carry a topographic map and compass (and know how to use them), the risk is that you will get lost. Poor visibility and featureless snow-fields (such as the Central and South Crater) create navigational challenges. Additionally, the summer track is generally considered unsafe in common winter conditions and an alternate track exists, many people aren’t even aware that they may encounter more than one track and this creates confusion
-often it is necessary to carry (and know how to use) crampons, ice-axe, and helmet. Without this gear you risk sliding down steep and long icy surfaces. Sliding can carry high consequences.
The feelings expressed here are shared by many of us who live up here: as much as we want people to come here and enjoy this wonderful location, we want them to do it safely.
Many of our visitors – and not just the international ones – don’t have any frame of reference for the hazards of an alpine environment…the closest many of them will get is watching Cliffhanger or Everest in FullHD with the woodburner fully cranked up…