A man died in a back country skiing accident on Mt Ruapehu that was not publicly reported by police or conservation officials.
The man was reported missing to police at 5pm on the Friday of Matariki weekend, after he failed to return from a trip beyond the boundaries of the Whakapapa Skifield, on the north side of Mt Ruapehu.
He was found unresponsive at 9.55 pm after an extensive search, and was transported to the bottom of the skifield. He died shortly after.
The man’s death has been referred to the coroner.
When asked why the incident was not publicly disclosed, a police spokesperson said they didn’t disclose every sudden death, particularly if it was not in a public location and if there was no need for assistance from the public.
The incident comes just two weeks before the ski fields open in earnest for the first international tourists since before the pandemic.
In the past, deaths on conservation land have resulted in rahui placed by local iwi, as in February, 2020 when a death in Tongariro National Park saw access to tracks limited for three days.
A rahui was placed on the upper slopes of Mt Ruapehu in 2018 after a hiker fatally fell into the crater lake of the volcano. It asked people not to climb above the skifield boundary of Whakapapa. The rahui was supported by the Department of Conservation and Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, the company that owns both Turoa and Whakapapa ski fields.
A conservation spokesperson said if a rahui had been invoked by local mana whenua Ngāti Hikairo ki Tongariro in response to last week’s incident, the department would have alerted the public. Newsroom approached the iwi for comment but has yet to receive a response.
Local alpine guide Stewart Barclay was surprised there hadn’t been a rahui declared yet.
“I feel a wee bit sorry those close to the person who died, as in the local culture it’s a nice thing to show respect for the dead and close off the area,” he said. “If something like that happens on Tongariro they close off the whole mountain.”
He said the mountain had been “incredibly icy” and it was a potentially dangerous time to hit the back country.
“We have had some rain that’s frozen and then some warm days and then freezing again overnight, so in winter going out of the patrolled ski area you’ve got to be very aware of the environment, weather and terrain,” he said. “On one day it might be an avalanche, on the next day it might be icy and slidey, so you’ve got to be prepared for all of those events.”
He said although it may sometimes go against the Kiwi spirit which values independence and a can-do attitude, it’ was worth getting lessons before exploring areas like the tops of mountains. “My advice is if you are inexperienced, admit to yourself that you don’t know everything and go and get experienced information and education,” he said. “There are plenty of one or two-day courses on avalanche, snow and mountain weather.”
The DoC website said avalanches at Tongariro National Park are most common between July and October. Apart from routes from the north side,other approaches onto the summit of Ruapehu involved travel through challenging and complex terrain.