Field observations TAC 26/8/2017

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,

TAC 26 aug 17 - 2TAC 26 aug 17

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…

Know Before You Go

If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go…

…Or Go With A Guide


Clouds | The Daily Post

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt: Clouds.

Source: Clouds | The Daily Post

Mt Ngauruhoe Summit climb April 2016 -015

As the sun climbs, dew on the slopes evaporates and cloud form beneath you. From the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe.


Early morning cloud rests in the low lands around Raurimu.

Tongariro Apr 04 - 1

Mount Ruapehu from the Desert Road


Mounts Ngauruhoe and Tongariro taken from the beginning of the Taranaki Falls track in Whakapapa Village.


Mount Ngauruhoe from the Chateau golf course.


Cloud forms off the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe. This is taken from the summit of Mount Tongariro: 15-20 minutes later we were greyed out.

Disaster | The Daily Post

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

Source: Disaster | The Daily Post

…sometimes the measure of success is how well you respond…

That was my parting shot in The magnificent seven ride again…, the tale of a 2011 pub crawl against a backdrop of NATO’s Libyan ‘intervention’ and the  lone wolf terrorist attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in July 2011.

Mt Tongariro Summit Back Route April 2016-013.JPG

Five years later, those are still true words although I see response from a different perspective now…once, response was force projection, rapid deployment, targeting; now response is something we manage every day…

Today’s prompt is disaster…the biggest disaster to hit this region in the last 2000 years was the Taupo eruption around 182-300AD, depending on whose book you read. Of course, if disaster strikes and there is no one there to suffer from it, is it really a disaster or just a large scale natural event..? I mean, we’re talking seriously large scale here: the biggest explosion that the world has experienced in the last two, possibly more, millenia.

When we talk eruptions here, it is always in the context of when, not if: we know that the three volcanoes – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – will erupt again. The iffy bits are when exactly and how much…questions that can only be answered after the fact. Predicting eruptions is much like predicting earthquakes: often we can see a shift from what’s considered normal, maybe an increase (or decrease) in gas emissions, a cooling (or warming) of a crater lake, more (or less) volcanic tremors: but what it means is very difficult to determine.

Because prediction is problematic, a lot of resource goes into response. The timelines are pretty tight. A lahar (big volcanic mudslidey thing) coming down the western side of Ruapehu will hit Whakapapa ski field in about 90 seconds…that’s not enough time to check your phone  for directions, call a friend or update your Facebook page about the big black shadow coming down the mountain…part of the disaster response on the ski field is to ensure that people know what to do beforehand…

Further down the the hill, residents of Whakapapa Village have a whole twenty minutes to evacuate everyone from the danger area along the Whakapapanui Stream, essentially the Holiday Park and the housing area across State Highway 48 from the Chateau. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like much time but after a fortuitous (probably didn’t seem like it at the time) series of false alarms in 2015, Whakapapa residents know they can do this at nine at night, in winter, after dinner and maybe a few beers.


There may be no warning. An eruption may occur on a beautiful blue sky day, or in the middle of a black, freezing, sleeting, icy night. Luck ran twice when the Te Maare craters erupted in August 2012. Lucky once because an eruption at 11-30PM meant there were no walkers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as rocks hammered down onto the track. The biggest of these weighed three tonnes, enough to hurt if it landed on your toes. Lucky twice because, even though it was night, the bunk room at Ketetahi Hut was unoccupied as a rock slammed through the roof.

It’s been many years since we have had a disaster in Ruapehu – some tragedies, yes – but the last real disaster in terms of loss of life and damage was probably Tangiwai in 1953. Once of the reasons that we haven’t had any real disasters since then is our ability to respond. The March 2007 lahar had potential – it was certainly much larger – to be as deadly as its 1953 predecessor : that potential was mitigated, some might say neutered, by a effective well-planned, well-practised response. In fact, between exercises and false alarms, the disaster response was so well-practised that when the main event event occurred, it all seemed a bit boring…

So, when  you visit our maunga, take a moment to read the signs and be aware of what’s happening, what might happen around you…if you’re here for your fifteen minutes of fame, don’t let it be in 5000 years when some alien archaeologist chips you out of the remnants of the great Whakapapa Lahar…

Earth | The Daily Post

Share your vision of our magnificent Earth through your lens.

Source: Earth | The Daily Post


Red Crater, Tongariro National Park

Yes, I need a camera with a wider angle lens…!


Tupapakurua Falls Lookout, Erua Forest


Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park


Native flax sunset, Tongariro National Park


Fog | The Daily Post

Today’s one-word prompt: Fog.

Source: Fog | The Daily Post

Clouds can form at many different altitudes. They can be as high as 12 miles above sea level or as low as the ground. Fog is a kind of cloud that touches the ground. ~ SciJinks

These one word prompts from WordPress always strike me as quite lazy: if the muses can’t be bothered putting any effort into the prompt, I feel less inspired to apply myself to any response…all too often my response is graphic (graphic imagery-wise, not graphic colourful in the semantic sense!) but while I am set-a-foot for the next week or so, I’m determined to write something once a day, even if it is not in response to that day’s prompt….

Fog here, just is…it is more common than not in the morning, often beautifully so, filling in the low ground and giving rise to impressions of great inland lakes, around which the road skirts – or sometimes descends into…


On the mountains, it is common for fog to form rapidly, catching out the unwary walker or climber. Often visibility will deteriorate to a point where the next marker pole on a track is no longer visible; or the landmark you are using as a point of reference of exploring off-trail just disappears…


It is actually quite cool to be sitting up high and watching clouds and fog form in front of you, or below you…often around mid-morning as the sun burns off dew on the rocks from the previous night, the water vapour created will only rise a few metres and then drift off, slowly (sometimes not too slowly) thickening into a thick mist…


Sometimes it is only a matter of minutes before clear skies are obscured, and navigation is hindered + it is cold in the cloud as well: another trap for the unwary…


…and from there to here, on the summit of Mount Tongariro, where walkers are wisely waiting for the fog to clear enough for the poles marking the trail back to Red Crater to be visible again…it normally doesn’t take too long…best to wait than to wander off and find you cannot see any sign of civilisation when the fog clears..!


Tongariro – the back way

Wow! I haven’t had such a good day on my own for a long time…

I have two weeks off to consume accumulated public holidays and time in lieu…with three days of fine weather forecast this week, normally I’d be working on the Lodge but this week I’m letting my muse drive me…

Today – and I am trying to write this while the memories are fresh and before I face-plant the keyboard as I am  just a little jaded – to venture up the ‘alternate’ route up to Mt Tongariro from Mangatepopo, across to Red Crater and then back down the Crossing trail to Mangatepopo. It’s probably a by-product of my green journey and its muse that I feel attracted back to the outdoor environment; that, and wanting to get some me time away from people ( natural enough when you work with hundreds of visitors every day).

An early start to make sure I could get a park at or near the Mangatepopo car and I was legging it towards Mangatepopo Hut by 7-30. No pix of the car park: although it wasn’t nearly as chaotic as it can be there were still heaps of people milling around and I just wanted to get underway.

The hut is only about fifteen minuets from the car park. I made a quick stop there to enter my trip into the hut book – you can never be too careful – and away I went…


Mangatepopo Hut

There is quite a well-formed track that heads off north-eastish from the hut down to the stream. Some parts of the track towards the stream are quite heavily eroded and you need to be a little careful especially when it is a bit damp/slippery, as some of gouges are a metre or so deep. I followed that across the stream and up the opposite slope where the track is still pretty clear. From the sign it is fairly well-used.


Target for today: Mount Tongariro

The climb up is pretty easy but already the day was warming up well past the forecast 0-5 degrees.


I had dressed for the the forecast and was already feeling a tad warm so converted my trousers into ‘shorts’ with some judicious folding. Much more comfortable.


It looks pretty but…

Why do people persist in build cairns in the Park, especially things like that that are purely decorative? Do they not get that it is a national park and the whole is to do no harm. The environment here is very delicate and even moving one rock exposes fresh soil to the elements and leads to the erosion that already devastates parts of the Park.


Oh, great, people!!!

I was looking forward to some quiet introspection time so the sight of a group following me up was not welcome. I stopped to let them pass me but we ended up pacing each other and then travelling together. They were a group of Duke of Edinburgh students from Thames High School whose objective this week was four summits in four days. They’d missed out on Ruapehu two days previously as the weather had closed in and they’d decided to pull the pin – good move – but had summitted Taranaki and Ngauruhoe successfully.


The lava flows from the more recent eruptions on Mt Ngauruhoe are very clear from across the valley. When (not if) Ngauruhoe erupts again, the historical lava route has been down the north-western slopes and we’ll need an alternative route like the one I walked today to keep the Tongariro Alpine Crossing open.

You can also see cloud forming off Ngauruhoe as the morning sun evaporates dew off the rocks. The same thing was happening on the other side as we walked up. Many people are surprised by just how quickly cloud can form up here and how thick it can be. As people found once we were on the summit, when the cloud is so thick that you can see the trail properly, the best thing to do is just sit it out.


How erosion starts 101

I encountered a number of gouges in the surface like this as I climbed further up. There were clearly man-made as some of them ran perpendicular to the flow of water off the slopes. Some of them looked like campers had carved out a little drain to divert water around their campsite; others looked like rocks had been rolled or dragged down the slope. The surface up here is that delicate that interference like this will channel rainwater and cause serious erosion in a very short time.

There is not a trail all the way to the summit but the route is fairly intuitive with only one significant scree slope just below the summit. The trick is to aim slightly left as you approach the peak and this will take to directly to the summit. The climb itself is pretty Goldilocks: not so long that you get into ‘are we there yet?’ syndrome but not so short that you don’t feel like you haven’t done any work. Cresting the summit is really “OMG, we’re here!!”


Thames High DofE group



The cloud closed in as soon as we reached the summit…

…restricting views to just the top of Ngauruhoe.



Lunch for me was one of my bannofee smoothies and a couple of Jen Rice’s chewy apple spiced cookies – Jen says that two of these cookies are a meal and she is absolutely right: even after walking for three hours, two were more than enough to fill me up. I would have brought one of her turmeric coconut and pineapple smoothies except I’m out of pineapple until my next trip to civilisation.


As I finished my lunch the cloud closed right in…while we waited for it to clear as it usually does relatively soon, I enjoyed talking with other waiting walkers about the Park, Lord of the Rings – always a safe subject – and the volcanoes.


A minute ago this was all cloud

Even quicker than it had appeared, the cloud disappeared and it was off down the marked trail to Red Crater


Skirting around the rim of South Crater down to Red Crater…


Looking down into Red Crater

Most Crossing walkers had already passed this point so I didn’t encounter too much traffic in the other direction heading down towards South Crater


Enter a caption

A late walker heading up to Red Crater…the route is quite steep and uneven but easily negotiable in either direction so long as walkers take care and watch their foot placement.DSCF9887

Looking back across South Crater: the route up to Red Crater runs about halfway up the ridge line that runs out the left edge of the image…


Looking down from the top of the Devil’s Staircase, over Soda Springs to the beginning of the Crossing. Mangatepopo Hut can just be made out centre left. The route down the Staircase is quite windy but easily negotiated at speed over most of its distance.


From Soda Springs to the hut is very flat with many ‘highway’ quality board walks. I always hate this leg as it is, IMHO, quite boring and rather administrative in nature.

Today was the first time that I have been out in the Park for a couple of months. Although the solitude was not as I expected, I enjoyed meeting and talking with other walkers and exploring a path less travelled.


Target for tomorrow..?

That will probably depend on whether I can get out of bed in the morning…some joints are having a bit of a bitch tonight…

Ridge Track, Whakapapa Village

The Ridge Track is a nice short – about twenty minutes/1.2km each way – walk right in Whakapapa Village…great for a quick leg stretch at lunchtime…


It starts here at the public shelter, just up the road from the DOC Visitor Centre, and opposite the Whakapapa Holiday Park. The trail itself is just up from the shelter , where you can see the DOC sign on the right of the picture…


The trail winds behind the shelter…


…across the bridge and into the forest…


…past a nice resting spot about halfway up (the forested part)…


…before you break out into the open and continue up through the tussock.


Not all of the trail is in tiptop condition and sections like this can be a little more challenging, especially after a good downpour…


…and your’re there…


No one is quite sure why there is a big table here but there is…be nice ofr a picnic, better if there were seats…


Further up the ridge line, on a clearish day, you can often see the very top of Mount Ruapehu…


…to the north, there are often great views of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro…


…and below, The Chateau and Whakapapa Village, with SH48 winding back down towards SH47 and civilisation…

Jandalman and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a cautionary tale

By now some of you may have heard the tale of Jandalman, or seen it on some of the local guiding Facebook pages and sites. The story has been hammered pretty hard locally to get the mountain safety message out there…

This is the tale of the tourist who was found on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing a week or so ago, trying to walk out in bare feet having lost his jandals in the snow (yes, you did read that right!). Of even greater concern was that the same guiding parties turned back four other similarly ill-equipped (at least they had shoes) walkers after this.


Jandalman, in black, sitting on the blue thermal mat, being worked on…

This is the story as posted.


This guy missed out on his Darwin Award this weekend…… by an ultra slim margin.
We found him on the Tongariro crossing, he attempted it in Jandals (thongs, Flip Flops), that jacket and jeans. Lost his jandals and jumper in a fall, what a surprise, No gloves, no hat, no food, no water, no over trousers, no map, no compass, solo attempt etc. …

When we found him he was on his way down, trying to get to his car in bare feet (He had made it to the top and fallen down Red Crater I think) and having fallen his hands were well cut up. His brain had switched to survival mode and he was focused on walking the last 5+ km of snow, ice and sharp volcanic rock to his car.

NOTE TO REMEMBER – His brain was so focused on survival, survival instinct kicked in, that I had to insist he stopped and let us help him. He was initially refusing help.

Stopped him, gave him warm chocolate drink, bandaged his hands, put socks on feet and hands and then another Kiwi party came down (also dragging down with them two more terrified, bleeding, Frenchmen who at least had sneakers on, not much use). A member of this other Kiwi group had a spare set of boots and agreed to take our guy down as well so that I could carry on.

Had to put the boots on him, he could not do it for himself.

Had to fix his hands, he could not do it for himself.

We then started up again and found two more idiots coming up behind us, also in jeans, sneakers etc. We turned them around too, they were Polish.

This guy is from France. Very close to being “…his name WAS from France…”

It is quite scary that people are still regularly ignoring or not even seeking the advice available from I-Sites and DOC Visitor Centres, and that there remains a strong perception that the mountains are safe and benign environments. Many of them only here what they want to hear and so the slightest hint that a walk may be walkable is all they need to start off. Even after being warned about winter conditions on the Crossing, a number still try to bluff their way through although many are stymied when shown a picture and asked to point to the crampons.

To assist with education and information on conditions and activities around the Park, DOC has established a Facebook page on which its posts updates on daily conditions around the Park.  So if you’re visiting, maybe check this before you head off..? A free helicopter ride is not all it’s cracked up to be…