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Sustainable mountain recreation in New Zealand

Aoraki Mt Cook. Photo: Kester Brown

Aoraki Mt Cook. Photo: Kester Brown

by Shane Orchard

The New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) was established in 1890 with the aim of promoting mountain recreation. The club owns considerable assets including backcountry huts, and has been increasing its focus on sustainability. A key piece of work involves reducing the impacts and costs of providing huts in the high mountains. This interest has been building alongside experience with maintaining existing huts in harsh glaciated environments such as Aoraki Mount Cook National Park (AMCNP).

The need to remove or replace the dilapidated De la Beche hut in 2010 highlighted questions around commitments to ongoing repairs, and how best to plan and design for huts in the future. Heli-portable huts are now seen as a smart measure for sustainability, and aside from heritage huts which are maintained in close to their original style, prefabricated flyable structures are now being investigated for replacements.

One potential advantage is to improve reliability through use of a proven design which can be faithfully replicated. This could help solve weather-tightness problems which have plagued some of the high alpine huts and which add up to considerable costs and environmental impacts over the building’s life span. This is not straightforward however, since the weight of materials to transport is a major constraint. To date, the largest fly-in hut deployed in New Zealand is a 3 bunk sub-alpine version, whereas at most of the popular sites a 4 to 6 bunk facility is desired. The use of a flyable modular design has yet to be tested but may provide the answer.

Some of these ideas are soon to be tested in a project which will replace the De la Beche hut at a suitable site in the vicinity. A preferred location is currently being assessed but will be somewhere in the mid-section of the Tasman Valley. This is New Zealand’s largest glacier and a mid-valley hut provides an important strategic shelter for a variety of routes.

An additional strategic argument for flyable huts centres addresses the ever-changing landscape. Two large rockfall events have recently underscored this point with the first involving a major landslide that came close to the popular Plateau Hut, and the second involving direct damage to Gardiner Hut, both in AMCNP. Such events illustrate the difficulty in identifying 100 percent safe locations in expansive mountainous terrain where the scale of a future event may not resemble past experience. Even large scale terrain features are under constant change which and this may be accelerating due to climate change. Recent glacial retreat has been considerable and moraine walls several hundred metres high have become exposed in many valleys and are rapidly eroding further. These have cut off access to several huts and previously popular routes such as the Copland Pass.

Flyable huts that are readily relocated will reduce the problems associated with sites that prove unsuitable or dangerous as conditions change, leading to the idea that many high alpine huts might be best thought of as ‘transitional’ forms of habitation. Ongoing work on finding durable materials and efficient system for waste disposal add to this evolving picture of planning more sustainable high alpine habitation for the future. All of these topics are being progressed in collaboration with the Department of Conservation (DoC) that, as owner of other huts, has similar needs. Joint management and cost sharing arrangements are part of a collaborative approach between NZAC and DoC, and particularly important in the premier mountaineering areas where recreational activity is relatively high.

The placement of fixed anchors is another topic that has seen progress in managing impacts on mountain environments. Early work included producing technical guidelines on bolting with the aim of promoting safety and minimizing impacts for the development of popular climbing areas. Since then additional work has focussed on managing bolting practices in more remote areas, particularly in pristine environments and on public conservation land. More recently this topic has been picked up within DoC Conservation Management Plans as they undergo their review cycles and may help improve the uptake of good practices through promoting a consistent approach.

This topic recently came to the fore in the Darran Mountains, a spectacular range of granite peaks in Fiordland National Park. The Darrans are an area of incredible landscapes with rugged glaciated peaks rising steeply above drowned valleys and the open ocean of the Tasman Sea. The history of climbing in the area has centred on multi-pitch traditional climbing, until a relatively recent increase in the establishment of bolted sport routes. Initially these were concentrated at the more accessible and steeper crags. However, over time more adventurous sport climbers have looked farther afield creating tensions with the traditional climbing style and raising ethical questions around the placing of fixed hardware in pristine and remote mountain settings.

Responses from the NZAC have included developing a ‘position’ on bolting setting out the general principles to consider when placing bolts for protection and constructing fixed anchors, and making this known to Club members and the wider climbing community as the target audience. More recently this has been extended to specific recommendations for bolting in the Darrans. These proposals recognize three distinct zones within the Darran Mountains, each suiting a different approach for the protection of climbs, and thus the style of climbing. In one of these areas, bolts are considered unnecessary for climbing.

This voluntary club-led approach is consistent with the Fiordland National Park Management Plan in which the Department of Conservation encourages the climbing community to develop its own code of practice on these matters. However popularizing the ‘voluntary code’ will be important to its success. The hope is that the climbing community will take ownership and demonstrate its ability to manage impacts appropriately. A related and more general topic is that of access to recreation opportunities. Obviously, some synergy exists between the levels of impact of the activities and decisions on their appropriateness and possible regulation, especially in sensitive areas. Here again voluntary initiatives have a role to play and seem applicable to both public conservation lands, and to private lands where landowners may be willing to grant access in return for responsible use.

These are a few examples showing of the useful voluntary roles a community-based organization can play. Although it is often the action of individuals that counts, membership based organizations are a potential vehicle for leadership through education and awareness raising activities. In the above examples, solutions to issues were also found from within the membership, showing the value of collective wisdom when designing responses, in addition to the implementation aspects. Together it is hoped that these initiatives will help reduce recreational impacts through a combination of modelling and promoting ‘good practices’ for long term and sustainable use.

by Shane Orchard

Posted: 30/08/16

Posted By: Kester Brown