Tongariro Alpine Crossing safety sign

Don’t underestimate the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A few months ago I got to hang out with the team from the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council as they filmed some new footage for an updated Tongariro Alpine Crossing safety video. I’ll link to the video below but first, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some of my personal experience of the crossing.

Working as a guide on the Tongariro Crossing all year round, I get to see many aspects of this often underestimated hike. In the height of winter, it is a true alpine experience, particularly the ridge climb from South Crater to the summit of Red Crater. With steep drop-offs and very often hard rime ice as you get closer to the summit, this is not a route to tackle without the necessary equipment (crampons, ice axe, helmet) and, equally importantly, experience using them. There’s also the fact that sections of the track are subject to avalanche risk which I’m sure many people are oblivious to.

Summer has its own challenges. With nowhere to hide from the sun apart from the last hour or so from the end, serious sunburn, and for those who don’t carry enough water, dehydration are both common risks.

The weather is of course a major factor all year round. While NIWA and MetService do provide local forecasts, the nature of the terrain is such that things can and do change unexpectedly. Particularly in the shoulder seasons, I’ve had days where we start out from Mangatepopo with a clear blue sky, and by the time we reach the zig-zags on the way down to Ketetahi, we’re in a complete white-out with snow and then sleet.

So it should come as no surprise that the Tongariro Crossing has a higher number of search and rescue callouts than any other track in New Zealand. Obviously, being so popular, the sheer volume of people doing this hike is a reason for this, but most of the issues are down to people just not being prepared.

I regularly see people on the track who, frankly, have no business being there. Whether it’s through sheer ignorance or naivety, or in some cases, arrogance (I’ve climbed XYZ mountain in Europe/America etc. so this is nothing) people underestimate the crossing all the time. Even kiwis are guilty of this and I often see comments on Facebook and elsewhere saying that it’s not as hard or dangerous as people make it out to be. The search and rescue stats say otherwise.

There’s a reason why the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is such a popular hike. It truly is a unique and spectacular volcanic landscape, and if you’re visiting New Zealand, this hike is definitely something to put on your bucket list. But do your research and make sure you know what to expect before you go. With that in mind, check out the Mountain Safety Council video below.

If after having watched the video you still feel a little apprehensive about doing this hike on your own, particularly in winter, consider going guided with Adrift Tongariro. I may well end up being your guide for the day.


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