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Surviving the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

It is a walk in the Park - from the current Survival issue of Adventure

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 rescuing. 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.

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