The start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 3-4 day hike that includes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. The park was the first national park in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. It is dual listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural and volcanic features. The Crossing is said to be the best day hike in the world. That might also be tourist propaganda. It probably just depends on what you like. The Circuit is mainly on open, exposed terrain over uneven track.
Ngauruhoe looms over everything around it.
My original plan was to start at the end of the crossing and go clockwise around the Circuit in three days. I would do the Crossing on my third day with friends who would meet me at the start. Unfortunately, the weather was once again unwilling to cooperate (It might help if I checked the weather). While buying hut tickets the morning of my hike, my shuttle driver and the DOC told me that I should do the Crossing on my first day because it would likely be closed the following two days. I didn't really want to switch up my route because I had made plans with friends that I couldn't get in touch with. In the end, I trusted their judgement and started at the Mangatepopo car park, the traditional start of the crossing. When I got out there, I immediately ran into the girls from Krakow that I had met on the Milford Track. Small world.
Gorgoroth Plains of Northern Mordor or the view of the valley from the Mangatepopo Saddle?
The start of the Crossing follows a stream up the valley that crosses over a number of lava flows from Ngauruhoe. Ngauruhoe is the taller of the two volcanoes on the crossing, but is actually a parasitic cone of the older Tongariro. Traditionally, Ngauruhoe erupts every nine years, but hasn't had a major eruption in 1975. As I started up the track, I couldn't help thinking that Peter Jackson had made a brilliant choice in using Ngauruhoe as Mt. Doom for filming Lord of the Rings. It wasn't the most inviting of hikes. It was dry, sun backed, and had a general lack of vegetation. The smell of sulfur also attacked my nostrils at every step. It was like I was chasing someone who had just eaten a pound of dried apricots (thanks, Jay!).
Climbing Mt. Ngauruhoe like Gollum.
After a pretty steep climb up out of the valley, I had the option of climbing Ngauruhoe. Most people skip it because you don't have enough time in a day to do the Crossing and the summit. However, I was camping out so I had plenty of time. I dropped my bag and up I went.
The cloudy view from Mt. Ngauruhoe's summit.
I have never climbed in such a terrible scree field. There were not enough large rocks to get a good hold of and I just kept taking one step backwards for every two forward. It was frustrating. The most effective way to climb was Gollum (from Lord of the Rings) inspired. I got down on all fours because too much weight on my feet was causing me to slip. Once I did that and was able to dig my hands in, I went straight up the mountain in a hurry. After about an hour, I was standing at 2,290 meters trying to admire the scenery around me. Unfortunately, almost the entire mountain was socked in by clouds. There was only one place where I could really see anything. And no, I didn't throw a ring into the summit crater.
The one view from Mt. Ngauruhoe
On the way down the mountain, I had a rough time of it. My Keens just aren't made for that much scree. Two summers ago, I climbed Mt. Rosalie with Charley Kahler and he asked how my Keens were doing in that scree field. I said pretty good. I just had to empty them out from time to time. I should have emptied them out on Ngauruhoe after every step. Luckily, I had the chance because I probably fell every ten steps. That might have been because my Keens don't have any more tread on them. I'm not sure.
Sliding down the scree fields was the easiest way down Mt. Ngauruhoe.
If the lack of tread was the reason for my failure, it also ended up being the reason for my success. After getting down half the mountain, I stumbled upon the fact that I might be able to use the slipping to my advantage. Instead of looking for larger rocks to walk on, I just headed straight down the scree field. Every step I took, I would slide three to five feet. I just lunged again and again down the mountain, kind of like a rollerblader might do. It was fantastic and soon I was at the bottom.
Mt. Ngauruhoe and my nemesis, the scree field.
The Southern Crater.
After climbing Ngauruhoe, I had the privilege to start climbing again on the Crossing with my pack. It took a while because my legs were beat. The first small climb was up to the Southern Crater of Tongariro. Part of the crater was filled with slushy snow that was a treat to walk through.
Where I was heading to later in the day, Oturere Valley.
The summit trail of Mt. Tongariro
After scaling Red Crater, I had the option to summit Tongariro (1,968 meters). The weather was slowly getting worse. The clouds were thickening. It was getting a colder. However, I wasn't that cold. I wasn't that tired even though my legs felt juiced on the climbs. The clouds cleared from time to time. It was only about a 60m gain in elevation. The sign said that it was only 3km there and back and it should take 80 minutes. I figured that if I ran it, I'd be able to do the 2 miles in a half hour. I chose to do it. I got up and down without a problem, but I'm not sure I made the right choice. I might have done it just to 'bag the peak.' To those who don't know what peak bagging is, it is pretty much doing something just to check it off a list, not for the experience of it. Sure, I hoped the clouds would clear, but it didn't seem that likely. Also, I didn't see anyone else over there when I started out. Things could have gone badly. Something to think about for later.
A cold guy waiting with a camera for the clouds to clear at the peak of Mt. Tongariro
Mt. Ngauruhoe and the Southern Crater.
On the way down Tongariro, I was able to use my treadless Keens to once again accelerate my route. A couple guys were slowly moving down a snow and ice field. I just ran right past them and kept lunging down with the same result as the scree field. Each step moved me about five feet. It was so much. I felt like those kids with the roller shoes. Maybe, I should get a pair.
Next up was my final climb to the highest point on the Crossing (if you don't do any summits), the rim of the Tongariro's Red Crater. The color really stood out among all the grey and black I had been walking on all day. The Red Crater hasn't show any activity since 1926 when it last emitted ash.
The Emerald Lakes are old explosion pits. Their color come from the volcano mineral run off.
On my descent from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes, my fedora blew off. For those of you who have know me for a while, you know that I've always had trouble with my fedoras. I lost my first one on a bus in Ireland in September 2001. My second hat traveled all over coastal Asia with me and then was stolen at an ultimate frisbee tournament in Chicago right after I returned to the states in September 2004. My third one was a gift from my mom that has been great except for the lack of a chin strap to keep it on in the wind. That shortcoming led to one of my more exciting memories of the Crossing.
The site of the Great Hat Chase
As I was descending to the Emerald Lakes, my hat blew off my head. The trail is on the right side of the picture and my hat landed just to the right of the top of the longest vertical snow patch in the picture above. I didn't know that at the time. I peeked over the side of the trail, but couldn't see it. I descended to the the lakes and then walked around so I could look in the little valley to see if the wind dropped it there and possibly climb back up to where I thought my hat might have fallen.
The climb up was just like climbing Ngauruhoe. Scree filled, slippy, and a pain in the butt. Finally, I got to the snow, but it was too icy to climb. Luckily, some thermal vents had melted some tunnels into the snow. I took them and popped out on the other side of some of the snow. From there, I could see my hat across the even larger snow patch. There were no tunnels. I grabbed a couple pointy rocks and used them as ice axes to horizontally cross the snow patch. I got my hat and then spent another fifteen minutes trying to climb back up to the trail through breaking clay instead of just descending to the bottom again. I, apparently, looked so bad on the breaking clay that a Brit came over to help me just as I found my route to get back up on to the trail.
The trail descended into the Oturere Valley.
After a quick break, I turned off the Crossing and descended into the Oturere Valley. Most people continued on to their shuttle ride home. As I descended into the valley, the terrain quickly changed. It flattened out. Some vegetation began to show itself. There still wasn't any wildlife and only a few insects.
More barren landscape.
Pioneer vegetation getting a hold anywhere it can.
After seven hours of hiking, I saw the oasis that was the Oturere Hut. I ate a long overdue lunch and refilled my empty water bottles. I had originally planned to spend the night there. However, I figured that I had four hours of sunlight and I could make the next hut if I pushed it. That would save me from walking in the predicted rain and give me a better chance of being able to meet my friends back at the Mangatepopo car park if the weather cleared up.
The exposed wastelands of Mordor!
After leaving the hut, I continued my hike through the valley. The plant life remained minimal due to the eruptions, altitude, and climate of the region. The loose gravel just doesn't give them a place to grow and also doesn't give me a great place to walk. I kept slipping, but nothing like on the Crossing.
Hiking at sunset.
Near the last hut, I entered a beech forest which was in stark contrast to my last nine hours of hiking. There was greenery. There were insects. There were birds. I'm not sure why the beech were able to grow there, but a larger river ran through the middle of the forest so that might have done it. That large river gave me a cold place to wash off when I finally got to the hut. It was wonderful. At the hut, there was a guided tour with people from all over the place - United States, Australia, New Zealand, and even Portugal. I had thought I wanted a quiet night, but once they coaxed me into a nice game of shithead to see who would carry the garbage the next day, I had a great time. It was just what I needed. I'm a social creature even if I try to deny it sometimes.
A beech forest that appeared out of no where.
The next day, I ducked out of the hut by 7am because the precipitation was only supposed to be drizzle in the morning. It would increase to rain by midday. I figured I could get to the next hut before the rain got bad and then wait it out before moving on to where I would meet my friends the next day. I didn't miss it. I nailed it on the head. About an hour into my four hour hike, the rain picked up. The wind picked up. The temperature dropped. It was miserable. I had to keep eating to keep myself warm. My arms and legs got cold. I put on my last layers. I'm pretty sure I would have gotten hypothermia if I would have stopped for an extended period of time. It might have been the worst four hours of hiking I have ever done.
It was so bad that when I got to the next stopping point (Whakapapa Village), I sought out shelter. While there, I found out they had already canceled the Crossing for the following day so there was no way my friends could join me. Since I couldn't meet my friends, I had already done the Crossing, and my shuttle company didn't do afternoon pickups at my intended hut for the night, I chose to stay where I was. I got a hot shower, warmed up in the sauna, and told the shuttle company to add me to their afternoon pickups where I already was. I had no need to do the last three hours of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. I chose not to 'peak bag' this time and I was so happy with that decision. When I got back to the hostel, I just laid down to watch movies, warm up, and veg. Absolutely wonderful.
A picture of me for my dad. Unfortunately, I'm miserable in the rain.
Tongariro Northern Circuit (44.2 km/52.7 km)
Day 1 (29.9km):
- Mangatepopo Hut to Emerald Lakes 8 km
- Ngauruhoe Sumit 7 km
- Tongariro Summit 3 km
- Emerald Lakes to Oturere Hut 4.4 km
- Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut 7.5 km
- Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village 14.3 km