Hiking in the winter months is becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand. No crowds (no one at all usually!) and stunning snow covered peaks can make for fantastic hiking. Hit the weather right and you can have a wilderness experience like no other.
However, the unfortunate death of two hikers last July on the popular Kepler track highlights the insidious nature of avalanches on New Zealand tracks. While accidents due to falling or river crossing are much more likely, under certain conditions, avalanche can be a major concern. Here are a few pointers to make sure you have one less thing to worry about on your winter hike ...
Ask questions. Check the nearest area to you on www.avalanche.net. It may not have your exact location but if you see there are many warnings of "Considerable" or higher, it is best to stay away from the snow. It is also a good idea to ask questions at the local Department Of Conservation office to see if they have any advice.
Has there been a lot of recent snow? This may not be as simple as it seems because it rarely snows to the valley floor where you will be trying to make a decision. But higher up where you will be going there could be a dangerous amount of new snow. Plan on it being 6° colder for every 1000m you go up. For example, if you are at a hut at 400m and it rains all night with the temperature at 4°, you can count on a lot of new snow at 1000m. If your planned route takes you that high it may be best to change your plans. Remember that the avalanche start zones will be even higher, and with wind loading there can metres of new snow from one rain event.
It’s not the fall, it is the landing. Surprisingly enough, getting buried by snow is probably not your biggest worry when it comes to an avalanche. If a relatively small avalanche pushes you off a cliff it can be small consolation that it was a pretty minor avalanche. Steep gullies, rocks, trees and other terrain traps can be deadly. Always consider the "what if" in the risk equation.
Plan your route for winter conditions. Most routes that involve a high pass (1200m+) will be impassable from July to late October unless you have special equipment such as skis, snowshoes or crampons. So, because you will probably not be going too high, and snow deep enough to avalanche will rarely go below 1000m, there is actually a pretty narrow band of elevation for hikers to worry about. Plan winter routes that avoid high passes or alpine terrain. If you are going to higher elevations don’t commit yourself to having to get over a pass to get to your destination. Pick routes where you travel high for the day and return the same way. That way you can turn around if conditions are not right.
Don’t rent an avalanche transceiver unless everyone in your party is trained in avalanche rescue. Proper avalanche rescue takes practice. Most people will need to own their own transceiver in order to be properly familiar with it. If you are not trained, then don’t think that having a transceiver will make you any safer. True, it will make it easier for the rescue services to find your body but they would much rather not have to look for you in the first place. Take an Avalanche Course with Aspiring Guides and learn the basics before you make the decision to travel in the high mountains in winter.