Is Taranaki Maunga a safe mountain to climb?
NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) wishes to acknowledge the two fatalities of Richard Phillips and Peter Kirkwood on Taranaki Maunga on May 4, and offer its condolences to the families and friends of those impacted by the tragedy.
This comment piece has been developed in the hope that it will help to prevent further fatalities on the maunga.
Taranaki Maunga is a challenging yet popular mountain for trampers in summer and climbers all year round. Its beauty is well known, but unfortunately it also has a reputation as one of the deadliest mountains in New Zealand.
MSC is often asked just how deadly Taranaki Maunga is and why. In recent years, MSC has conducted detailed analysis of safety incidents on the mountain and throughout New Zealand, as well as providing expert reports and safety recommendations to coroners to support fatality investigations. This combination provides an evidence-based perspective on what makes Taranaki Maunga such a beautiful but deadly mountain.
Taranaki Maunga at a glance
At 2518m, Taranaki Maunga is the second highest mountain in the North Island. Unlike almost all other mountains in New Zealand it stands alone as a near-perfect volcanic cone. Positioned a mere few kilometres from the Taranaki coastline, with nothing surrounding it other than the ocean and fertile plains of the Taranaki region. Taranaki Maunga forms the epicenter of the region’s weather, and is a drawcard for walkers, trampers and climbers.
Throughout the surrounding Te Papakura o Taranaki (National Park) there are numerous opportunities for exploring the mountain’s forests, but it is the Mount Taranaki Summit Track on the north side that draws thousands of trampers each year. This route is the only marked path to the summit and the only one recommended for trampers.
Taranaki Maunga’s summit can also be reached via multiple unmarked and unofficial climbing routes, but these are far more challenging than the Mount Taranaki Summit Track, and they all require a high degree of mountain skills and experience, especially outside of the warmer summer months as snow and ice are common.
Pre Covid-19, Te Papakura o Taranaki saw around 100,000 visitors each year. Most of these explored the lower mountain via the main vehicle access points at North Egmont, East Egmont and Dawson Falls. While establishing exact numbers is difficult, approximately 20,000 people per year attempted the Mount Taranaki Summit Track starting from the North Egmont Visitor Centre.
What the data tells us
Recent data from NZ Police, Rescue Co-ordination Centre NZ and NZ Coronial Services, collated and analysed by MSC and published in ‘A Walk in the Park?’, shows that between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2017 there were 60 trampers who required search and rescue assistance on the Mount Taranaki Summit Track. This represented around 2% of all tramping related search and rescues in New Zealand over this period.
When comparing tramping related search and rescues on Taranaki Maunga with other locations in New Zealand, Taranaki Maunga is the second highest in terms of the number of people requiring search and rescue assistance. Only the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has a higher overall number across the same period (304 people, or just under 9% of the national total). In third place is the Milford Track with 43 people.
However, participation is significantly higher on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so does that account for the difference? If we simply compare the same seven-year period, and use rates instead of raw numbers, on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing one out of 2,250 trampers required SAR help, compared with one out of 1,736 on the Mount Taranaki Summit Track.
However, as search and rescue data only paints one part of the picture, have more people died on Taranaki Maunga than anywhere else?
Historical records widely discussed in the media say ‘more than 80’ deaths on Taranaki Maunga, and states it is the second highest behind Aoraki/Mt Cook. Here we will only use data since 2007, this allows us to make more accurate comparisons and is more applicable to modern-day tramping and climbing.
Since 2007, not including the two recent fatalities on Taranaki Maunga, there have been 187 people who tragically never made it home while recreating in a land-based activity in New Zealand’s outdoors. This figure excludes commercial activities and medical events.
Of these, 75 involved trampers and 48 involved mountaineering.
In this period, again not including the two recent fatalities, a total of five people have perished on Taranaki Maunga, one tramping on the Lower Lake Dive Track (river crossing), two were on a winter climbing trip on the East face and two were attempting to climb the Mount Taranaki Summit Track in winter, the most recent of these in June 2017.
Comparing fatality data between tracks and routes in New Zealand since 2007, Taranaki Maunga has had some competition. The Tararua Southern Crossing (Wellington/Wairarapa) has seen five fatalities, the most out of any single tramping track. Further south, the Gillespie Pass Circuit and Gertrude Saddle Route have both had three deaths. The three popular southern Great Walks of the Kepler Track, Milford Track and Routeburn Track have all had two each. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing that we used to compare to earlier has also had two fatalities.
So how does Taranaki Maunga compare to Aoraki/Mt Cook? Since 2007 eight people have died while climbing, or descending from, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Four of these were caused by falls, three from avalanches, and one from hypothermia, with the most recent one occurring in December 2019.
Prevention initiatives are working
In 2017-18, MSC identified the popular Mount Taranaki Summit Track on Taranaki Maunga as a key safety concern and worked with national and local partners to address this issue. Several prevention initiatives were rolled out, including the installation of specialist signage. On a wider scale the MSC developed a dedicated safety video for the Mount Taranaki Summit Track. The same project also encompassed 11 other tracks and routes across New Zealand.
In 2018, MSC released the Mount Taranaki Summit Route Tramping Video. Since its release, the video has been viewed approx. 66,000 times, and along with other locally led safety initiatives these have contributed to the overall number of safety incidents on the route decreasing. The video series and subsequent impact research has recently received national recognition at the 2021 NZ Research Association Effectiveness Awards where the videos were the core element of the Insight Communication Award presented to the MSC.
To date these prevention interventions have predominantly focused on trampers attempting the recommended Mount Taranaki Summit Track. However, coronial findings relevant to fatalities on Taranaki Maunga have included recommendations made by MSC, and adopted by the coroner, which are relevant to anyone attempting a summit climb. These are summarized below.
How you can enjoy Taranaki Maunga, safely
All outdoor recreation comes with an element of risk, but so does driving your car and cleaning your roof spouting. It is impossible to remove all the risks from any outdoor recreation activity, and nor should they need to be totally risk free. It is this element of risk that provides for the rich experiences and life-long learning so often associated with being outdoors. The key is the ability to identify and manage those risks.
Through quality planning and preparation, and good field-based decision-making, the outdoors can be very safe, and incredibly enjoyable. Unfortunately, on occasion things do go wrong, and despite best intentions and actions, serious accidents do occur.
Anyone wishing to climb Taranaki Maunga (or any mountain in New Zealand) should firstly seriously consider whether their experience is suited to that of their desired climb, and they should always seek local knowledge to help with this decision.
In the specific case of Taranaki Maunga, its isolation from other mountains, proximity to the coastline, and geographic position make for some of the most fast-changing and adverse weather conditions found anywhere in New Zealand. The weather, combined with the complex and rough terrain, creates a highly unique environment. One mistake can be disastrous.
Here are the MSC’s top 6 evidence-based recommendations for anyone thinking of attempting to reach the summit of Taranaki Maunga. These recommendations are targeted to trampers without mountaineering skills, experience and equipment.
NOTE: These recommendations DO NOT reflect the MSC’s position or understanding of factors involved in the two recent mountaineering fatalities.
- Only consider the Mount Taranaki Summit Track as a viable option. This is the only established track to the summit. All other climbing routes require significant previous mountaineering experience and total comfort in managing your own safety in a highly complex, challenging and dynamic mountain environment.
- Do not attempt the Mount Taranaki Summit Track in anything other than perfect weather. If the weather begins to change, such as clouds building up, wind increasing, or rainfall, immediately stop and turn around. The maunga will be there for another day.
- Leave early, really early. Do not depart any later than 9am, even if you believe yourself to be fit and experienced.
- Stop every hour and re-assess your situation. Your objectives should align with the conditions, weather, how you (and others) are feeling. Be prepared to turn around if things do not seem right.
- Only attempt the Mount Taranaki Summit Track between January and April. Outside of this period dangerous ice, snow, and avalanche dangers are present.
- Watch the Mount Taranaki Summit Route safety video – it has been proven to make a difference.
With the right planning and preparation, a suitable weather forecast, and the right mindset, Taranaki Maunga might be a suitable challenge for you.