Three back-to-back rescues on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on Tuesday bucked the trend, Mountain Safety Council data suggests.
The 19.4km walk through active volcanoes has the highest frequency of search and rescue incidents of any track in New Zealand, making up nearly 20 per cent of all rescues nationally in 2016-2017. But the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council says the number of rescue missions on the crossing has dropped in the past three years.
On Tuesday the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter flew an injured American woman to Rotorua Hospital, a lost 18-year-old Belgian man to the Chateau Tongariro Hotel and a Chinese woman to Taupō Hospital in quick succession.
The Belgian teenager missed a hut and lost the track in Ōtūrere Valley's rocky landscape.
Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupō police said the man activated a personal locator beacon which meant he was found "relatively easily".
"Despite being very thirsty – he guzzled a bottle of water the rescuers gave him – he was in good shape."
The Mountain Safety Council data shows search and rescue incident numbers on the crossing are more than half what they were in 2016-2017, dropping from 56 between July and June, to 38 in 2017-18 and 23 in 2018-19.
The council says that's largely to do with prevention measures introduced by an advisory group formed with the Department of Conservation, hapū Ngāti Hikairo ki Tongariro and Ngāti Tūwharetoa, industry experts and academics with backgrounds including tourism, marketing, local business and search and rescue.
"The data made it clear that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing needed to be looked at closely and something needed to be done to help reduce the number of people being injured, requiring rescue or dying on the track," the council's chief executive Mike Daisley said yesterday.
He later told NZME the "the back-to-back rescues earlier this week demonstrate, there is still work to be done."
The group identified three direct causes accounting for 68 per cent of all search and rescue missions on the crossing between 2010 and 2017.
These were falls, underestimating the duration, and insufficient fitness.
It found that New Zealanders were twice as likely to be injured by slips, trips and falls than international visitors.
These were mostly women over 50 and males between 10 and 17.
International visitors, particularly Asian visitors, were most likely to have insufficient fitness and underestimate the trail length.
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As a result, the group recommended doing targeted campaigns and fresh marketing and protocols for the crossing, having information videos in multiple languages and a single source of information.
They also recommended having an automated advisory warning tool, kaitiaki rangers at key points on the track, technology tracking hikers' progress, a departure facility, improving, promoting and potentially building alternative tracks in the Mangatepōpō Valley and modifying the Red Crater descent.
Bubs Smith of Ngāti Hikairo ki Tongariro said it was "promising to note the reduction in incidents and callouts over the last couple years on Tongariro, especially given the ever-increasing number of visitors trekking the maunga".
Incidents were counted from July to June in each year period, and some involved more than one person.
Fatalities were not counted, nor were unrelated medical events such as heart attacks.
Recent efforts to improve safety on the Tongariro Crossing
• For several years, transport operators have followed a protocol determining whether they will operate each day, depending on weather conditions.
• In spring 2017, the Department of Conservation started employing rangers to give advice to people starting the track, and to monitor operators who dropped customers off on bad weather days.
• In October 2018, the Mountain Safety Council launched the Tongariro Alpine Crossing video as part of a 12-part tramping safety video series.
• In December 2018, the council and Department of Conservation placed posters inside all toilets along the track with key safety messages for the upcoming section and estimated durations.
• In spring 2019, the department replaced old signage with new safety signs using insights and expertise of the advisory group and GNS Science.