In the lead up to the Sustainable Summits conference at Aoraki Mount Cook in August this year, we will  present a few articles on the effects of climate change on mountain environments. Here is a very interesting article by Shane Orchard, the NZAC Sustainability Advocate who writes about recreational access under climate change.

From those who prefer that hardcore remote areas are preserved, to those who seek easy entry options, questions of access are important to everything we do in the mountains. In a very real way, the ‘sustainability’ of various options relates directly to our own perceptions of what is appropriate or desired, and to who wins or loses opportunities as a result of decisions made. Of course, climate change is set to change this picture quite substantially, especially in some of our glaciated areas.

Some of the issues to consider are the often increasing levels of hazard on popular routes exposed to icefalls, moraine walls and the like, and what to do about these. On the one hand, we can opt to ‘deal with it’ and regard the choice to venture into those locations as part of the adventure of going there. On the other hand there are those who seek technocratic solutions, such as the permitting of new landing zones for helicopters in areas that were previously protected from impingement by the associated impacts. Typically this is advocated for on the basis that managers should do something to sustain access within particular safety margins. Therein lies the rub.

In some respects, it would be educational for many to see first-hand how ablation zones and glacier dynamics are changing in these regions rather than proliferating opportunities to avoid them. Obviously though, there are good reasons why assisting safe access to popular areas is essential for enabling recreation experiences. The solution then, in times of change, is to ensure that an appropriate selection of destinations can be safely accessed to cater for different recreational user groups. The choice of which routes and facilities to persist with, which to abandon, and how new facilities might add to the picture amounts to the good old ‘devil in the detail’ problem.

The provision of hut facilities in the mid-Tasman area provides a good example of some of the issues to resolve. The removal of De La Beche hut in 2010 highlighted questions around the design and location of high alpine huts, and huts in the Hooker valley provide similar examples. Heli-portable huts are now seen as a smart measure for sustainability on a number of fronts, which includes the potential for relocation within the lifespan of the building. NZAC is actively working on access issues on several fronts, including the mid-Tasman replacement hut project. In this case access questions are intertwined with hut location decisions due to growing moraine wall issues in the valley. In turn this leads to the question of whether new helicopter access arrangements are appropriate and if so how they relate to access and location opportunities.

In the near future there will be similar questions to be resolved on access and facilities in the Hooker valley, which presents a different scenario as it is one of the few easily accessible high alpine areas in which recreational experiences are relatively protected from both helicopter landing and fly-over impacts.

In working out the way forward, membership-based organisations such as NZAC are a potential vehicle for leadership through education and awareness-raising activities. Solutions for climate change may not be easy but through facilitating discussions among members, and getting issues out in the open in advance of official decision making, the club can play a key role in identifying the best options to recommend to the wider community.

Photo provided by Colin Monteath Headgehog House and member NZAC.