Noel Bigwood, Making Tararua ridge top travel safer
Judd Ridge, between Field and Kime huts in the Tararuas, is less than 5km long. The terrain isn’t overly tricky and on a clear day it presents an enjoyable tops walk.
Yet this very stretch was a hotspot for people losing their way. What was a straightforward ridgetop walk when the sun shone, became a significant navigational challenge when foggy, dark or covered in deep snow.
Two people lost their lives here in 2009 and, until 2013, Horowhenua LandSAR would receive as many callouts from this ridge as any in the range.
Noel Bigwood, who was involved in the LandSAR team, the Mountain Safety Council and Otaki police at the time, was deeply involved in many rescues and in plans to try to improve the situation.
He recalls a policeman many years ago standing next to a body on the ridge. “He could see Kime Hut from where he stood,” says Noel. “He could see from footprints in the snow that this guy had died walking in circles, not knowing which way to go.”
Noel led a team to devise a plan for how to prevent further incidents along this black spot. At the time, irregular-sized and aged waratahs lined the route, many of which would get covered in deep snow.
An idea formed from an incident several years earlier where Noel had accidentally photobombed shots of a group practicing snowcraft on Mt Ruapehu. “I was on a team 50m away wearing a reflective raincoat and, when developed, most of the pictures were ruined by the stripes from my coat.”
The group trialled reflective material on Kime Hut itself and trampers reported seeing this material long before seeing the hut, even in cloud. So they settled on blue plastic poles with reflectors on each side.
“Blue blends in with the sky on a fine day, but stands out in cloud,” explains Noel. “The reflectors reflect a torch or camera flash very well. Even in thick cloud you can see three reflectors before you can see the first pole.
“We’ve had great feedback from people travelling at night – once they hit the reflected pole line, it’s suddenly like being on SH1.”
The reflectors are red when heading towards Kime Hut and white if heading towards Field Hut, so if someone loses the path and re-finds it, they know which direction they’re going.
Things haven’t gone perfectly – the weight of rime ice has forced some poles to snap, so Noel has reinforced the more vulnerable poles with metal rods, and most of the poles have been shortened from 2m to 1.5m.
Some trampers have voiced opposition to having such poles in the backcountry, but Noel believes they have their place, preventing what experienced trampers might see as obvious mistakes.
Since the poles went up in October 2013, there have been no callouts or incidents between Field and Kime huts. The success has led other trampers to label the reflective poles ‘Noel’s Poles’, a name that somewhat embarrasses him. “I was project leader, but if I’d been on my own I’d have got nothing done.”