River crossing | The New Zealand Death

River crossing is surprisingly dangerous.

Particularly as many less-used tracks have few or no bridges.

It was once called the New Zealand Death due to the high number of 19th-century drownings.

One of New Zealand’s most legendary blokes, Davie Gunn, drowned crossing the Hollyford River despite his vast backcountry experience.

Petr Cech drowned in May 2023 in the Wairoa River while heading north on Te Araroa in poor weather conditions.

Yessica Asmin drowned crossing Pompolona Creek on the Milford Track during the off-season in 2014, a time when the standard bridges were removed due to avalanche risk.

Steep mountains, large catchments, and intense localised rainfall can lead to rapid river and stream rise.

Rivers can go up very quickly, but they go down speedily as well. 12 hours after the end of a downpour and streams can have returned to benign conditions. The bigger the river, the longer it takes.

So, have a long-term weather forecast from yr.no or metvuw.co.nz and plan to avoid unbridged rivers and crossings.

Patience can save your life.

A few tips.

Undo the waist and chest straps on your pack. Packs are surprisingly buoyant and can ride up your body, forcing your head underwater. It is hard enough to get out of an unstrapped pack, but it can be very hard to loosen buckles with everything else happening in the turmoil. Packs are like balloons, while your body is an anchor. Be prepared to jettison your pack.

If you can’t see the bottom due to discolouration or you have any other reason to believe it’s risky to cross, well, don’t—even if the hut is on the other side. Just because someone else crossed it half an hour before you doesn’t make it safe.

Crossing in a group is safer, with the strongest person upstream. What’s crossable for a group may not be for the smallest/lightest member.

Cross at the widest point. That is where the river is the shallowest. Yes, this is often immediately above rapids.

Try to cross on a gravel bottom. Rocks can be super slippery or trip you.

Don’t fight the current by trying the shortest perpendicular route. Instead, let the river’s force assist you by crossing at 45°.

Use a single, shortened hiking pole to support your full weight. A pole helps you keep two points of contact with the ground.

In doubt, wait!

Maybe I mentioned that before.

Ultra light-weight tramping—an ultra high risk strategy → ← winter/spring tramping in the South Island