Alpine guide frustrated at casual attitudes – Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Truly awesome to see that the national media have picked up this story…the full text of Andrea’s story can be seen here with the current safety messages for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in winter here

We need to see more of the guiding community telling their stories and sharing their experiences on the Alpine Crossing as part of educating visitors to the Tongariro district.

Year-round this is a beautiful place, one of the only areas in New Zealand that you can explore an active volcanic, but it is always a place to be respected. Respected for its cultural heritage and because it is unforgiving towards to the unprepared, ill-informed and complacent…

One of the best sources of current information on the Crossing is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing app that was released this year…available in the Google Playstore and iTunes…is your life, and the lives of your family and friends worth a small fee…? We would hope so…

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Get the app…

This pic is, of course of the Crossing in summer. In winter, this is what you will encounter:adrift fb winter 4.jpg

Know Before You Go

If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go

or

Go With A Guide

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

 

Know Before you go; if you don’t know, don’t go…

‘Tis the season…for inexperienced (in New Zealand conditions) and poorly-prepared trampers to ‘walk’ the Tongariro Alpine Crossing…and every year Police and volunteer rescue teams put themselves at risk to rescue these wallies

Last week, this brochure was released to get the message to national and international visitors to Tongariro National Park. That message is really quite simple:

Know before you go:

Know the weather AND ground conditions

Know what to do in alpine conditions

Know what to do in avalanche terrain

Know what to do when the plan goes wrong

If you don’t know: don’t go – or go with a guide…

 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing_winter 1Tongariro Alpine Crossing winter 2

A lot of the information online and offered by staff in the hospitality line is well-intentioned but ill-informed. Many people, especially those off the mountain or not ‘mountain’ people, do not understand the hazards of the Crossing in winter, or during bad weather. Many think it is just a case of ‘giving it a go‘, of ‘going harder‘, or just ‘will-powering’ themselves over the snow and ice. Others think that it is more important to promote ‘tourism’ at all costs…

“…the trampers were lucky to escape with their lives…”

“…not sticking together caused the group to inadvertently separate…”

“…All their clothing was wet…they didn’t have it in waterproof packing…”

“…they didn’t call for help until it was very dark and one tramper was unable to walk…”

We don’t say these things, we don’t make the Crossing sound dangerous to scare visitors off, to try to keep the place for ourselves, to discourage commercial operations in the Park.

We say this because we want visitors to come here, enjoy themselves and leave safely.

We say this because we don’t want our people putting their lives on the line for rescues that are unnecessary; being dragged from their beds or jobs at all hours because of good intentions and poor information…

Don’t become a statistic

Know before you go

If you don’t know, don’t go

…or go with a guide…

 

Carry a big stick…

TACAPP

Further on the safety message aspect of this post and the comments, a local crew has just released a new app that comprehensively covers the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and the Mt Ngauruhoe side trail…yes, you have to pay for it – a whole $2.99 – but it is worth it as both a top reference to the walk and as the one stop shop of what you need to know before you set out…

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.greattrailsoftheworld.tac

The World According to Me...

…or to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt “Tread carefully and carry a big stick“…two concepts directly related to my summit of Mt Ngauruhoe yesterday…

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This is Stick. Stick is a little miffed that it missed out on going up Mt Tongariro last week, but that’s kinda what happens when you hide away in a dark corner of the garage. Stick is way more useful than lightweight aluminium walking poles which are too flimsy to brace your weight against. Stick is also really good as a counter-balance and a brace when descending scree slopes…

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Tuesday and yesterday offered the best weather windows for another go at Ngauruhoe; yesterday had the least wind and Tuesday was off the list when I remembered that I had to speak to a visiting Duke of Edinburgh group from Karamu School. The day opening with a beautifully clear sunset that boded well for the day’s adventure.

Mt Ngauruhoe…

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If I could…

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On the trail to Oturere Hut

…what would I say to any one venturing into Tongariro National Park for a day walk or an overnighter..? I had been thinking about writing something like this after my Brutal post yesterday but this comment on my Carry a Big Stick post from my last excursion up Mt Ngauruhoe pretty much made the decision for me (thanks, Rob!)…

I would start with the weather. I would say to only check the Metservice forecast for Tongariro National Park. There may be other sites and apps that may tell you want to want to hear but only Metservice has trained meteorologists in the analytical loop. The Metservice forecast for the park is only for five days: three in detail for Whakapapa Village at 1135m and Red Crater at 1868m; the last two days in outline.

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Snow in December

Updates are issued each day around 7-30AM and around midday: each update may be quite different from the forecast it replaces. Do not expect the actual weather to always conform to the letter of the forecast. In the end it is your decision to carry on: if you think the conditions are taking you outside your comfort zone (perhaps too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet, too slippery i.e. icy, too cloudy, etc) stop and think about what you are doing and review your options…

The weather here is very changeable so sometimes even the five day forecast is subject the swings of extreme: unlike the South Island which has long mountain ranges that keep the weather pattern relatively stable, our weather can not only switch just like that but can also manifest itself as radically different micro-climates in close proximity to each other..a couple of years back, two inches of hail were dumped at Mangatepopo without even darkening the blue skies over Whakapapa Village…

Regardless of the forecast, be prepared for four season in one day: a good thermal layer and a good wind- and rain-proof layer, gloves and beanie but also sun hat, sunglasses and sunblock; good walking shoes or boots – not jandals or heels; enough water, at least 1.5 litres, for the day and enough food for the day: good snacky energy food…

So what if something happens…?

In New Zealand, cell phone coverage generally follows the highways : Tongariro National Park is sandwiched between four highways and enjoys reasonable but NOT PERFECT coverage – a lot may depend on the specific model of phone and your service provider – if you need assistance, for example, you are lost, injured or assisting someone else, dial 111 and ask for Police – in New Zealand, the Police are responsible for all off-road rescues. Even if it is an injury: if you are off the road, ask for the Police!!

Three safety questions

Regardless of whether you are going out for a day or overnight, there are three questions you need to ask yourself:

Does someone I trust know what my detailed plans are? Contrary to some myths, this does not have to be someone in New Zealand. It is better that it is someone you trust at home than some bloke you met the night before in the backpackers.

Does this person know when I will contact them after the walk to say I am OK? Ideally this would be no later than the night you finish the walk. If your trusted person is overseas, be very clear about whose time zone it is that you will contact them.

Does this person know who to call if I do not return? If they are in New Zealand, they should dial 111, ask for police and say that they have  a friend or family member in Tongariro National Park on the XXXX walk, that you did not contact them when expected and that they are unable to contact them. Information that it is good for your trusted person to have ready to pass onto the Police:

Your DOC booking number if you are booked into one of the huts or campsites. If you are just on a day walk, where are you staying that night?

Your car registration number. This allows Police to check cars parked around the Park and also to check to see if you may have left the Park and then been involved in an accident somewhere else.

Your cell number – written out not just as a number in an address book: for when the Police ask for the number.

Your Personal Locator Beacon ID number, if you have one. If you do not, especially if travelling on your own, a PLB can be rented for about $10 from various locations around the Park.

Any medical history you or anyone in your group may have that may affect your ability to complete the walk and/or that may be useful for a search party to know.

It is quite important that your trusted person does not fall into the trap of ‘Oh, I’ll just give it another couple of hours’ or ‘I’m sure they’re OK, I’ll call in the morning‘. If they do not hear from you when they expect to and cannot contact you they should make the call.

If your trusted person does not speak good English, it is a good idea for you or them to write down what they want to say in English so they can just read it out (www.translate.com is your friend)

If you are the trusted person for someone, don’t waste time playing amateur detective trying to find someone. Under New Zealand law, companies and agencies cannot release information on who may be booked with them or not. All you are doing is wasting time – call the Police and let them do this.

Mt Tongariro Summit Back Route April 2016-005.JPG

New Zealand is a beautiful place and we all want everyone to come here to enjoy it but…

We don’t close things if they might be unsafe: we rely on visitors to make informed decisions against their own experience and equipment. If in doubt don’t…

Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook or hear in the backpackers about what is or is not doable…

Take responsibility for your safety and that of your friends and family…

Have a Plan B…and C and probably D…

There is no view worth a free helicopter ride…