Caution advised as early season snowfall increases avalanche risk

2nd June 2023|2min
Media Release | For Immediate Release

Snow enthusiasts keen to kick off winter backcountry adventures this long weekend are asked to monitor the avalanche advisory and weather forecasts very closely as a weather system could bring enough snow to make it an “unsafe place”, says the NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC).  

Winter has arrived this week, with MetService issuing numerous South Island road snowfall warnings ahead of the long weekend adding the possibility of heavy snow to low areas of the South Island later in the weekend and early next week.

This storm system will significantly increase the avalanche risk across many mountainous areas, says MSC, which owns the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory (NZAA).

MSC Chief Executive Mike Daisley says this is likely the earliest avalanche forecasting has started permanently, in the last decade. Typically, forecasting begins late June, but this year regions such as Tongariro and Queenstown have been operating since May 11, over a month earlier than normal.

“It’s common for early season snowfall throughout May, but typically this doesn’t stick around long. Having two advisories on this early, in addition to Aoraki/Mt Cook which runs all year, is unique, and this current storm is likely to mean other regions will be forecasting a month earlier than normal.”  

Due to the time of year, avalanche forecasters have very little condition data available since ski areas, guiding operations and heli ski companies are not yet fully operational.urrently, Aoraki/Mt Cook region is on a ‘high’ danger rating, while Aspiring and Arthur’s Pass are on ‘considerable’, and Tongariro and Queenstown are sitting at ‘low’.

High danger level indicates very dangerous avalanche conditions where travel is not recommended as natural and human-triggered avalanches are likely, according to the NZAA Avalanche Danger Scale.

As the storm system progresses and the impact of new snowfall is known, avalanche forecasts will change over the weekend, therefore the MSC encourages all backcountry users to keep up-to-date on the avalanche danger by checking their regional avalanche advisory, and take a very cautious approach to any early season activities.

“Avalanche forecasting has kicked off very early this season and this approaching system will almost certainly increase the risk in areas that already have a snow base. In others it will lay a foundation for the start of winter,” Daisley says.

“Make no mistake, winter is here now and anyone heading out, including trampers and hunters, need to be thinking about avalanche safety. Start the season off with a very cautious mindset,” he says.

Daisley encourages backcountry users who might see evidence of natural or human-triggered avalanches to submit a public observation. Each observation helps other backcountry users by providing an additional source of information which can be used to safely plan their trip. Most critically, these observations give the NZAA regional avalanche forecasters further insights into the conditions.

The NZAA forecasting supports backcountry participants in 13 avalanche prone regions across the country, including two regions in the North Island and eleven in the South.  

Backcountry users are typically skiers, climbers, hunters, or trampers who want to explore beyond the controlled ski area boundaries to experience more remote and challenging alpine areas, and typically this is where the avalanche danger is heightened as the snowpack is not controlled or changed by ski area professionals.  

The NZAA forecasters will update the 13 regional forecasts at as new information becomes available.  


Are you avalanche ready? If you’re heading into the New Zealand back country this winter, be sure to:

Check out MSC’s remote mountain camera supporting the NZAA Nelson Lakes forecasting region.

Submit a public observation here.

Hikers and trampers can find the avalanche forecast under alerts on Plan My Walk.

A public observation from May 13 taken from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. PHOTO/ALEXANDER STELZER