Visitor preparedness for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Dhellemmes, A.; Leonard, G.S.; Potter, S.H.; Keys, H.; Tovey, J.; Smith, B.; Roux, M.; Marsden, R. 2016 Visitor preparedness for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Lower Hutt, N.Z.: GNS Science. GNS Science report 2016/56 ix, 113 p.; doi: 10.21420/G22013

Abstract: This study is a collaborative effort between several organisations with the purpose of evaluating hikers’ preparedness on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC), the most famous day hike in Tongariro National Park (TNP). The results of this study are meant to help improve TAC visitors’ safety. The survey and the further analysis of the results were undertaken by GNS Science. The other organisations involved were: Mountain Safety, Department of Conservation (DOC), the Joint Centre for Disaster Research (JCDR, Massey University), MetService, New Zealand Police, the Tourism Industry Association, and some of the local operators in and around Tongariro National Park. Previous surveys undertaken among TAC visitors investigated visitors’ experience and enjoyment of the hike (Gibson, 1996; Blaschke, 2007; Angus & Associates, 2012), and volcanic risk awareness (Coomer and Leonard, 2005; Keys et al. 2015). The primary focus of this study is safety of all TAC visitors, which can be compromised by the following hazards: weather and alpine conditions, volcanic risk, and underestimating the difficulty of the track However, the biggest focus of this study is on the weather and whether or not visitors are prepared for sudden weather changes which are frequent in alpine environments. The questions asked of TAC visitors focussed on these topics: their trip intentions, their awareness of the different risks on the TAC, their preparedness (equipment brought, intentions left with someone), how they decided which day to hike the TAC, information they got before setting out and what they learnt from this information. Two survey sessions were carried out during summer 2016. TAC hikers were directly interviewed at different locations along the TAC, mostly near or at Mangatepopo car park, where the large majority of visitors start hiking. A total of 350 interviews were completed. The weather conditions were recorded during the survey sessions in the field and compared to the weather forecasts from MetService, and the real weather data gathered by DOC and NIWA via different weather stations located in Tongariro National Park. This data was used mainly to compare respondents’ answers according to the different conditions within the survey period, and to determine how weather influences visitors’ decisions and behaviour. However, the weather conditions during the survey period were quite homogeneous, mostly marginal with some clouds, rain and a bit of wind. There were not any dangerous weather conditions during the survey work. The results of this survey showed that TAC visitors adapted their preparedness to the conditions. Respondents expressed a strong awareness of the weather conditions on the TAC (71% said this could compromise their safety) and almost all interviewed visitors had checked the weather forecast (88%) on the night before or in the morning of their walk. People were generally sufficiently equipped (hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, warm clothes…) and brought eno ugh food and water for a day hike. Some cross tabulation analysis showed that the weather forecast on the day before had influenced some of the respondents’ decisions. Their equipment tended to be slightly different and they usually reconsidered doing side trips when the conditions could worsen. According to the DOC visitor centre located in the Ketetahi bush, there were significantly more visitors when the weather conditions were the best. However, even if warm and sunny days tend to attract more people on the TAC, marginal weather conditions do not discourage visitors, and most of those who hiked in these conditions had schedule constraints that prevented them from hiking the TAC another day. The lack of flexibility among most of the TAC visitors was identified as a possible issue for safety. Indeed, the majority of the respondents only had one day available to hike the TAC, so they would possibly take more risks than if they had several days ahead to complete the walk. One day within the survey period was forecasted as particularly windy and cold compared to other days. This happened to be on a Sunday, and the weekends generally attract more people to the TAC. There were half the number of people walking compared to the Saturday before, however, many of those who were interviewed on that day mentioned the ‘good weather conditions’ as a reason for setting out on that day. This led to the hypothesis that TAC hikers paid more attention to the amount of rain and sun forecasted than to the wind speed and temperatures. However, it is the combination of strong wind and cold temperatures that can be lethal on alpine terrain. This could reflect a misunderstanding of how to interpret the weather forecast for the TAC. Another observed issue was the lack of awareness and information about volcanic hazards. Two years ago, a survey was undertaken (Keys et al., 2015) that showed a high awareness of and response to the electronic lights for volcanic risk, installed after the 2012 Te Maari eruption. This 2016 survey showed that volcanic hazards are not as concerning as they used to be for TAC visitors, since only 19% thought it could be a safety risk while walking on the TAC. The relative rarity of a volcanic eruption for TAC hikers might explain why their concern toward this risk was low, although the last eruption only happened four years before this survey. (auth)