Surviving the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Not Just a walk in the park

With the second death in just over a month on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it seems prudent to take a moment to consider the risks in undertaking what is considered one of the best day walks in New Zealand. It is a challenging 19.4km hike taking on average around 7 hours to complete. It passes through raw volcanic terrain and reaches an altitude of over 1800 metres.

people walk the track each year (This is the highest number of walkers of any track in NZ that takes more than half a day) with 30-40 people requiring rescueing. Many people are unprepared, unsuitably dressed for the changeable weather and have no idea of what to expect, and others simply underestimate the level of fitness needed to cross the rugged terrain.


In 2007, after two deaths from hypothermia in 2006, the name of the track was changed from the Tongariro Crossing to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing to highlight the extreme weather possibilities on the exposed terrain.


Weather, or the rapid change of alpine weather has been a factor in people getting into difficulty on the track. Most people hike the track in summer and assume that they will experience the settled weather we come to expect at that time of year in the rest of the country. However, in the mountains, extreme weather can hit at any time and without shelter and limited visibility it is easy to get into trouble.


Meteorologist, Lisa Murray explains. “As you change elevation from sea level to the mountains a number of things begin to happen that will potentially have an impact on your trip. Using the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC) as an example, the difference in elevation between Taupo and the summit of the track is around 1500 metres. Because of atmospheric lapse rate, the ambient temperature will be about 10°C colder at the summit than at Taupo.”


Not only does the changing weather mean an increase in hypothermia cases, it also equates for people getting lost on the track. Poor visibility means people are likely to make a wrong turn and this can result in deadly consequences.


In 2019 DOC initiated a public bad weather advisory that would inform people that the crossing was “not recommended today”  if the weather was considered inappropriate for a safe crossing. This followed the death of a woman whose body was found by Red Crater after becoming separated from her group. The weather was considered less than ideal.

The previous year also saw a death in similar circumstances. A group of four men became separated, with three turning back and one continuing over the crossing, he never made it. All were unprepared, wearing only hoodies, sweatpants and running shoes. The weather was dry when they started, but began to drizzle as they got higher, eventually becoming a blizzard once they reached Blue Lake. This was forecast to happen, but the forecast was not checked by the group beforehand.


Local Police involved in rescues have four key messages for anyone thinking of doing the crossing.

  1. Wear appropriate clothing
  2. Keep an eye on the weather
  3. Stick together
  4. Be prepared to turn back


However, it’s not always misfortune or lack of preparation that is the cause of death on the crossing.


In 2018, 56 year old Bernhard Hanssen was found collapsed on the track by passing hikers. Despite CPR he was unable to be saved. However, nothing in his death could be attributed to his fitness, preparation clothing or equipment. He carried plenty of food, a torch, cell phone, battery pack, spare clothing and emergency gear. He was considered physically fit but an unknown heart condition was found to be the cause of his death.


Earlier this year, 75 year old Gerd Wilde from Germany decided to attempt the track with his son. He was in the middle of a whirlwind bucket list adventure with his son after spending the previous six years fighting prostate cancer. New Zealand and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing were both on his list. He died as a result of a heart attack halfway along the track.

So who does the responsibility lie with to ensure a safe and secure crossing? Of course it lies firstly with ourselves, but what responsibility, if any, should tourism play. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is promoted as one of the best day walks in the world with social media channels and the like spouting it’s praises. Nearly 75% of those who walk the Tongariro Crossing are overseas visitors, often from areas without extreme alpine conditions. Given their often limited time in our country and their desire to “see all the best bits”  they will jump on board without truly understanding what they are getting themselves into. Motivated by pictures on instagram and “tips” from every so-called influencer, they often find themselves well outside their comfort zone and more often than not, unprepared for the worst.


Many people have a strange way of weighing up risk against benefits and can convince themselves that everything will be alright, despite many obvious signs that it won’t be. This is also known as “confirmation bias” or underestimating the risk. MSC insights have discovered that this was a factor in at least 17% of tramping fatalities between 2007 and 2017. The fact that so many other people have “done the crossing” and do so every year gives people a false sense of the safety of the experience. Our tourism machine has done a great job of making people really want to have an experience, despite the risks involved.


The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has by far the most incidents, however, it also caters for the highest number of visitors. 150,000 walk the Tongariro Crossing each year compared to 15,000 on the Milford Track.


In 2018 the NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) produced a report called “A Walk in the Park? A deep dive into tramping incidents in New Zealand. It makes for some interesting reading on the statistics surrounding our most popular outdoor activity.


Preventing people from dying from heart attacks is the role of the health promotion agency. Tramping can be seen as a good way to reduce the chance of developing heart disease as much of the time it is a low impact activity.


Of the 57 deaths, 32 were Kiwis and 25 were international visitors.


The MSC noted that the most prominent causal factor of a fatality while tramping was competence, or lack of, attributing to 66% of the deaths occurring over the decade. Competence includes relevant experience, level of skill etc.


The second most prominent causal factor was social and psychological factors; the state of mind of the tramper, which attributed to 62% of the fatalities; the desire to get to a destination, taking a ‘short cut’, or underestimation of risk caused that factored highly.


By comparison, weather and equipment were seen as the cause of only 32% and 28% of tramping deaths respectively.


The other interesting information was where fatalities occurred as a result of ignoring advice, 88% were male. Not surprisingly, where fatalities occurred as a result of ignoring signs, 100% were international visitors.


So what can we do with all this information? Hopefully, the research can help us to make better decisions, be aware of where the risks lie and help us become better informed. It has also highlighted some specific solutions for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing ranging from more targeted advertising of alternative tracks in the area, improvements in parts of the track itself, through to the employment of full-time rangers on the track to offer assistance and assess trampers progress, and the development of technology that would track trampers progress.


However, the final buck stops with us. Will our egos allow us to make sure we take all risk assessments into consideration?  Will our egos allow us to turn back if the weather is inclement? Will our egos allow us to admit that the exercise is outside our ability levels? Or will we make what could be a fatal error of judgement?

From the current issue of Adventure – which is at present Free to the World



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