Due to its geographical position and objective hazards, Rabbit pass is a unique difficulty for trampers in New Zealand.
Geographically it is positioned between the northern areas of Mt Aspiring National Park, which are accessed from Makarora, and the more popular southern areas such as the Dart and Matukituki Valleys. Rabbit Pass is a tempting way to link the two regions. As a moderately high pass (1440m) Rabbit Pass is slightly lower than other popular passes in the area such as the popular Gillespie Pass or Cascade Saddle. It is generally free of snow and does not require an ice axe or crampons in usual summer conditions.
These factors make Rabbit Pass an alluring option for many trampers. The Department of Conservation does its best to warn visitors that only experienced trampers should attempt the route, but "experience" is a difficult word to define. Many people find the well prepared tracks over other passes quite reasonable and feel they are adequately prepared for what they anticipate will be a slightly harder but still acceptable challenge.
Unfortunately this proves to be a mistake for many who attempt the Pass. Being a "route" and not a "track" the nature of the trip is significantly different. While the way is marked in general, in the more difficult places the micro route finding becomes very important. Many people do not have the route finding skills to find their way on nebulous and exposed ground. They no longer have the confidence that they are in the right place and often turning around and exploring other possibilities is a frightening option. Even with capable parties there is often trial and error in finding the correct way.
Rabbit Pass is contiguous to the Main Divide that separates the weather catching west coast from the drier east side of the divide. Instead of a single high point, Rabbit Pass is a long high valley that is guarded on both sides by steep rock slab and scree. Without local knowledge it is difficult to know when it is safe to ascend. The higher reaches are shielded from sight and while the weather may be acceptable at lower elevations, once trampers ascend the Waterfall Face they are irreversibly subject to the conditions. The build up of wind and rain that often occurs on the western side of the mountains will surge through the low point that the route provides. Trampers are rarely prepared or experienced enough to deal with the combination of freezing conditions and wind which can occur. It requires skills and equipment much more suited to high mountaineering than hiking. Walking any of the other DOC tracks in New Zealand will do little to prepare you for the difficulties you will encounter on Rabbit Pass.
Rabbit Pass is a fantastic route, but in my experience many if not most of the people who attempt it do not have the necessary mountaineering experience to do it safely without a guide. Most of the people who tackle it on their own readily admit that it was quite a different experience than they expected and that they were too far outside their comfort zone to handle the conditions should anything go wrong. There are many places to push your limits tramping in New Zealand. Unless you are an experienced mountaineer or willing to hire a guide, look for a place that has a little more forgiving downside than Rabbit Pass.
Chief Guide, Aspiring Guides, UIAGM/IFMGA
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