There is at least one positive tramping in the South Island during winter and up to mid-spring, that’s late May to around October. There are few other people out there. You often have the huts to yourself.
The reasons are simple: it’s cold. Water tanks can freeze, boots can freeze inside the huts. Daylight hours are short.
That makes it uncomfortable, if not miserable, but there’s a way more serious issue: snow.
Overseas trampers can have considerable experience with bleak winter conditions and plenty of snow.
The situation in New Zealand may not match that overseas experience.
Snow in New Zealand can be quite different from what may be encountered overseas. People can have a tendency to underestimate the potential conditions out there.
Our marine climate is warmer, at a lower altitude, with more humidity than many other countries. The snow is not necessarily dry and easily compacted.
It can be wet.
Any snow more than knee deep can be a major battle to get through. It may have a crust which is inadequate to support a person’s weight, you have to smash through, sinking quickly knee deep, an energy-sapping experience if engaged with for any length of time. Any deeper and it becomes impossible because you can’t just walk on top of it like you can with drier, more compact snow.
In August 2016 a tragedy unfolded with Pavlina Pizova and Ondrej Petr walking the Routeburn Track in the coldest months of the year, against DOC advice. Already with some snow on the track they proceeded despite deteriorating conditions and were caught out when a metre of soft snow fell during the day, covering the alpine snow poles which indicate the track, and also causing limited visibility. The pair came off the track on a steep hillside. Ondrej slipped and fell 7 m to his death, his companion Pavlina had two nights without shelter in the appalling conditions before stumbling across the hut only about two kilometres away. Fortunately she had the sense to break into the wardens’ hut and get access to shelter, warmth and food. She was trapped by the deep soft snow for another 26 nights before being rescued by the search helicopter. Carrying an emergency locator beacon would have truncated her ordeal. Although only a five hour walk from the road, in summer conditions, she sensibly remained in the shelter until rescued.
It is super easy to succumb to hypothermia or frostbite in such conditions.
There are also commonly avalanches, due to the generally slushy nature of the snow and the steepness of the hills.
Even the Great Walks like Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks, or the Travers-Sabine Circuit become exceedingly dangerous, due to having to cross numerous avalanche paths. Avalanches need to be taken seriously. Heavy snowfalls after a long warm period are a particular risk time, the snow just wants to slide downhill.
The dangers of avalanches were shown with another tragedy, this time with two deaths: two French Canadian men, Louis-Vincent Lessard and Etienne Lemieux.
They were walking the Kepler track in early winter, the second week in July 2015, when they were both swept away by a small avalanche. Their bodies were located three weeks later.
Due to the fast changing New Zealand mountain weather conditions the future can be very difficult to predict. It’s best just to avoid avalanche prone areas at that time of year, ie, June to October.
There are still a few tracks with a better level of safety for mid-winter and spring:
Abel Tasman Coastal and Inland Tracks
Greenstone Track Note the Caples is highly avalanche prone.
Mavora Greenstone Walkway
North-west Circuit and Southern Circuit on Stewart Island/Rakiura
There are many tracks with a serious avalanche or deep snow potential that should be avoided in winter/spring months. These are popular tracks which are high on the list to avoid:
Avalanches, deep snow, hypothermia.
Some experiences are just not worth the risk.