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Ngauruhoe Rock Falls

There’s been a story in the news lately about a chap walking on Ngauruhoe having been struck by a boulder coming down the mountain, despite trying to dodge it, and having a broken leg. As Stuff points out [1], it probably could have been worse if he’d not seen it coming.

What I found at least as interesting was the last three paragraphs in that article which note that there have been three similar incidents on Ngauruhoe since November. All required helicopter rescues and two involved head injuries. The head injuries were probably (and I’m guessing) as a consequence of people falling and hitting heads rather than directly having had rocks falling onto heads from above.

What the article doesn’t touch on is the source of the rocks that caused the injuries.

Ngauruhoe is a side trip off the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (formerly the Tongariro Crossing), often marketed as New Zealand’s “most spectacular daywalk” and it’s probably one of the most popular in terms of the number of people who walk it. A mountain such as Ngauruhoe is perpetually eroding and rocks come down by themselves, but on these occasions I think it’s more likely that the rocks were dislodged by people further up the mountain.

Slopes with scree and loose rocks can be difficult to negotiate without dislodging rocks and watching them careen down-hill, even for people experienced in walking on them. Furthermore when there are rocks coming towards you on such a slope, they can be difficult to dodge given the steep slope and uncertainty of footing underneath. When in groups, it’s usually a good idea for people to be careful not to cross each other’s paths too often, and for people to take precautions such as stopping movement when others are underneath, to reduce the risk of something being dislodged and rolling onto them.

If it’s true that other people were involved further up the mountain, I think these accidents highlight the added danger in places with so many people, often people who don’t know each other or aren’t in good communication with each other. With the Tongariro Crossing’s tendency to also attract people (frequently tourists to NZ) who don’t spend much time in mountain environments, it might also be that experience was a factor.

I don’t know what can or should be done, but as has already been pointed out in a thread on NZ Tramper [2], it’s quite important to be careful and aware of those around you, and if you dislodge something that might be dangerous, to make a lot of noise about it immediately so that those below have more time to prepare themselves. Sometimes this is still not enough, as sound has a habit of not going very far sometimes on mountains.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Ngauruhoe Rock Falls"

#1 Comment By john On 5 April, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

hi mike – yes crazy bad luck for that guy –
sounds definitely like the hoards of people that do the tongariro alpine crossing are (some) now starting to tack on an ascent of Ngauruhoe – which is scary. I feel a lot safer there in winter 🙂

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 April, 2011 @ 1:10 am

Hi John. Yes, bad luck indeed but I can appreciate how it can happen so easily with so many people following the same routes. What got me was that it’s the 4th recorded accident in just a few months, and that people are coming out of this with head injuries. Shows just how risky some of this stuff is I guess, and the risk must surely be increased when there are lots of people and perhaps fairly low experience on average.

#3 Comment By Steven Farrington On 27 August, 2016 @ 11:46 am

I was on Mt Ngaruhoe when the 27yr old Swiss tourist was injured in January 2014. I am not an experienced climber and travelled to National Park specifically to walk the Tonagariro Crossing. I researched the trip in advance taking time to visit DOC centres and take all the literature I could find on the subject. Then I visited outdoor equipment shops to buy appropriate clothing and the staff there had first hand knowledge of the Tongariro Crossing and other National Parks. I booked my trip only a few days in advance when I knew the weather would be good.

Tongariro on the day I climbed it was congested. I saw a large boulder come harmlessly down the slope far away from the majority of climbers as I was ascending. The climb took me a long time and by the summit I was exhausted and only had 20 mins to rest if I was to make it to the end of the Crossing in time to meet my transport. On the descent the incident happened.

I was about one-third of the way down when I heard people call “Rock!”. I looked up and saw a rock bouncing down the slope above me, to my left. Concerned, I kept watching the rock only to see it hit an outcrop and change direction towards me. I realised it was going to be very close so I turned to face to rock, bent my knees and prepared to try and avoid it. I saw the way it was bouncing and determined it was going to jump up at me. I ducked and as it whistled past my head I felt a rush of wind.

I turned quickly and saw it flying through the air towards two people below. One male was off to the side and a woman was on a small ledge directly in it’s path. I could see her panic and take her eyes off the rock as she looked for somewhere to run. But time ran out and she dropped down into a ball behind a small rock with her right arm protecting her head. Ironically she ducked into the path of the rock and it landed on her shoulder blade and neck causing several injuries. There was a slight pause before she let out a terrible scream and climbers came rushing to her aid.

I’ve no doubt that congestion on the mountain that day caused the rock fall. The conditions were as perfect as you will see and many were taking advantage. I’ve also no doubt that had she not panicked, the Swiss tourist could probably have jumped out of the way of the rock. I was very surprised to find later that rock falls are well known in the area but not talked about and that tourists are generally blasé about dislodging rocks with people descending below them.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 12 September, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

Hi Steven. Thanks for the story.