Monday, November 17, 2008

Tongariro Northern Circuit

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.

Red Crater.

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.

Barren landscape.

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
Day 2 (14.3 km):
  • Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village 14.3 km
Pam, it is my birthday and I'm not going to be going to Spearhead with you and that stinks, but you should know that I wrote this while listening to Spearhead for the first time in a month and I think that will get me through. Time to get some Oregon Chai. Bye.

Whanganui River Journey

The Whanganui River

When is a Great Walk not a Great Walk? When it is a Great Paddle. Get it? Get it? C'mon guys, it is funny (that's for you John Bain). Honest. OK, maybe not, but it is true. There are nine Great Walks in New Zealand which just means the DOC (Department of Conservation) provides some extra facilities along the way. Some of the huts even have propane stoves ready to go for your cooking pleasure. It is pretty neat. The extra facilities allows people who might not otherwise go camping and exploring to still see the great outdoors.

Shady spots on the river are good spots!

Lush forests lined the river.

This Great Walk, the Whanganui Journey, was planned almost three months ago by B-Nelson. He had just started doing float trips before he left Oregon for the Ice and really wanted to do this one. He just contacted a bunch of winterovers to let him know he was doing and would love the company. Lots of people wanted to do it, but only seven made it. Some got stuck on the ice. Some went to Tonga. Some probably just went home. Brian, Katie, Rachel, Joselyn, Deneen, Dave, and I went in a van down by the river.

Lunch break at the falls.

Joselyn takes a quick refresher or Raja is just being mean . . .

This trip into the outdoors started like so many other trips down here for me. We took a very long bus ride from Wellington up to Ohakune. It was raining and drizzling the entire way up. I was once again worried that I was bringing the bad weather along. Luckily, there were enough people along with good weather karma to balance me out. We had 4 great days of sunshine and one that was a little overcast.

The Whanganui isn't always the deepest, but we never had to do a portage.

B-Nelson, our esteemed river guide.

To keep everything dry, we rented waterproof barrels. We filled them up with our stuff and left our bags and unnecessary gear behind. It was so nice to not carry everything even though the canoe and water were doing all the carrying. That is the beauty of the float trip. Unfortunately, I didn't adapt very well. I still packed really light, when I should have been packing every luxury in the book. We had three canoes, one kayak, nine barrels, and one cooler. I think we could have taken at least two more barrels. Next time, I guess.

Great rock formations.

Another lazy day in the kayak.

The first day started around nine in the morning from Cherry Grove, Taumarunui. The outfitter drove us up with all our gear and we set out. I think we encountered our first set of rapids within the first hour. Luckily, the rapids over the entire journey were only Class 1 and 2 rapids (out of 5) so they weren't too big. Brian learned to read rapids while his friend was training to become a raft guide so he led us through safely for the first couple days until we all got comfortable.

Formation Alpha Lazy to conserve energy

The view of the morning light from our second camp site.

By the end of the trip, I think everyone had taken a turn steering the canoe, powering the canoe, and kayaking. It was great. I learned to steer and kayak this trip. Lots of fun. By the end of it, everyone was so comfortable that Brian had stopped always leading and we were trying to find ways to make the rapids more exciting. I guess saying that I learned to kayak might be generous. I did kayak for the first time and I did go through some rapids without rolling, but I rarely was going in a straight line.

The other view from our second campsite.

Rachel explores a tributary of the Whanganui River.

Doing this trip in such a large group was a learning experience for me. I'm used to waking up entirely too early, waiting around a little bit for everyone to wake up, and then packing up and hitting the trail by 8am at the latest, maybe 9am. After our first night on the river, we didn't leave until 9:45am. We managed to push that back to almost 11am on our next to last night. Everyone would wake up early, but they would just move really slowly to eat, to pack up, and to do just about everything. On the first day it happened, I was wicked impatient. I thought them packing up meant it was almost time to go. It wasn't and I was ready to get going. Of course, if we got going, we'd just have nothing to do at the other end when we pulled into our campsite so I had no reason to be impatient except to maybe dodge the hottest part of the day.

More great rock formations

More river. (I get sick of writing captions half way through. Can you tell?)

My solution was to not expect that when people woke, ate breakfast, or put away their tents that we'd be leaving anytime soon. Even when we got to the canoes, I had to expect that we wouldn't be leaving anytime soon (there were rocks to skip!) I would workout in the morning when everyone was still asleep or just getting moving. Then, I would just grab a book and didn't really move to do much of anything until everyone else was almost ready to go. Someone asked me why I couldn't just hang out and chat. That makes sense, but that it isn't the way I work. If I just read on my own and socialized a little, I was just fine and that set the tone for a great day for me. After our second day, I didn't have a problem which was great. I might have even been appreciating 'river time.'

Katie tries not to kill Barud. Barud just laughs.

The Bridge to No Where

The river passed a weird tourist spot called the Bridge to No Where. In 1917 after World War I, New Zealand veterans were given the right to homestead plots of land in the area. Many of those families moved to the area because it meant cheap land and a chance to change their lives. Unfortunately, their main access was by the river and a small suspension bridge. The government promised to build them a bigger bridge, but was slow to deliver. The living was hard, the isolation was difficult, and the land wasn't great for farming. By the time the government built the new bridge in 1936 all but a few families had moved away from the area. After a major flood hit the area in 1942 , the government suggested the rest of the families move out as well. They did. The second bridge still stands today and it effectively goes no where.

The Tieke Kainga hut under a vanilla sky.

More great waterfalls.

Our final night was at a Maori hut. It wasn't very different from any of the other huts, but it did have a second building that they use for holding Maori ceremonies. Unfortunately, those welcoming ceremonies are run when larger groups are at the hut. Seeing the craftsmanship was still great and it might have even made up for the roosters and cows making so much noise at the farm across the river.

Some farmland near the end of the fourth day.

Even more great rocks.

On the last day, we were going to cross our most exciting set of rapids. An ex-guide told us about a wave train in them and that you could use an eddy pool to keep running them again and again if you were ambitious. I don't thin anyone realized we were at them until it was too late to ditch our gear or prepare. We just took the line that the leaders have so much fun blasting through. It looked like they were on a roller coaster ride when the bounced up and down so much.

Katie and Deneen hit the last big rapid, part 1!

Katie and Deneen hit the last big rapid, part 2!

Somehow, I ended up steering us through the rapids successfully. We took on a lot of water, but didn't get swamped like the canoe in front of us. I'm pretty sure we did the exact same thing as them, but just got a little lucky. It was kind of fun to watch them slowly sink in the eddy area. Rachel stopped bailing because she was laughing so hard. Joselyn started bailing with her hands. Then, Rachel finally started bailing when the water was coming over the gunwales and it was too late. So much great laughter. Instead of bailing my boat out which was also in danger of tipping, I got my camera out to take one great picture of Rachel and Joselyn.

Raja and Joselyn swamped their canoe after the last big rapid.

After we got all the canoes emptied of water, a few people took second runs through the rapids. I just ate lunch from the side of the rapids and enjoyed the view. I had barely made it through the first time and didn't think I would make it a second time. After that, there was only another hour or two before we got to the end of the journey in Pipiriki. We continued to meander until the end and then the trip was abruptly over. We got there late so we had to quickly pull in, load up our gear, and leave the site. It was a little rushed, but extra time to contemplate wouldn't have been anymore useful than when I was rushed off the Ice.

The end the river (for us).

The Wanganui River journey from Taumarunui to Pipiriki is 145 km river.
  • Day 1: Cherry Grove, Taumarunui to Poukaria campsite — 36 km
  • Day 2: Poukaria to Mangapapa campsite — 32 km
  • Day 3: Mangapapa to John Coull Hut and campsite — 26.5 km
  • Day 4: John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga (hut and campsite) — 29 km
  • Day 5: Tieke to Pipiriki — 20.5 km

To John Bain: The Airport Shuffle

For this evening's meal, I made an egg sandwich, John Bain style. It was followed up by a lovely birthday cake and ice cream from my friends on the Ice who are in town with me. Even though my birthday isn't for a week, tonight should be the last night that all of us are together. It is weird to be saying goodbye until we meet up again in Colorado, back on the Ice, or who knows where else. No matter where we meet though, it is likely to be just after getting off a plane which takes me to today's story which is dedicated to John Bain (and why I made the egg sandwich).

After hiking the Milford Track, Brian and I had two days to get to Ohakune. Our original plan was to take a rental car and drive it eleven hours to the north end of the South Island, catch a ferry from Picton to Wellington, sleep over, and then take a morning bus up to Ohakune. The ferry sold out, so we went with plan B which was to drive to Christchurch, fly to Wellington, and then take the bus. This would let me attend ultimate frisbee pickup on Sunday with some of the players I'd be playing with at nationals and let everyone run errands.

We got the rental car and got to Christchurch a little late, but with no problems. I went directly to ultimate. Katie and Brian went to meet Rachel in Cathedral Square. Instead of running their errands, they hung out drinking at Bailey's with a bunch of other Ice people who were in town. At 6:15pm, they were going to pick me up in the car and we'd drive thirty minutes to the airport and check in for our 7:15pm flight. That didn't happen.

At 6:15pm, Brian walked to the ultimate fields a little buzzed from the drinking at Baileys. Then we walked back to Baileys. I said hello to everyone and then went off to fetch the car. By the time we left the bar, it was 6:40. With some erratic driving, I got us to the airport at 6:58pm. They said the check in must be completed by 7pm. Unfortunately, we had to drop off the rental car and there was a huge line to get to the drop off area. I cut into the premium parking section to dodge the line and dropped all the drunk/buzzed folks off with our luggage in hopes that they could check me in.

I sped away to the last gas station I saw before entering the airport. When I zoomed in, a young man came out to tell me that they were closed and the pumps were already turned off. I begged, pleaded, and might have even grabbed hold of his pant legs. He said that if I had exact change, I could fill up. I said I did, but really had no idea how much we'd need. I guessed that our car would need $80 based on my last car rental. After a couple minutes, the pump came on and I filled up. It turned out $80 was on the spot.

I sped to the rental car return area, which is luckily within walking distance of the terminal. I found a spot for our rental company, ran inside, tossed the keys to the lady, said I was running late and kept running. I headed directly for the Air New Zealand area. My friends weren't there. I went to the gate. They weren't there. I went back to Air New Zealand area, waited in a line a second before cutting over to the empty first class line. I asked about their 7:30pm flight and was told there wasn't one. After a quick panic, the lady said to try Pacific Blue. Off I went.

Brian was standing in line with my bag. He wasn't able to check me in. They didn't have e-check in. It was 7:10pm. The flight left in twenty minutes. Luckily, the three people in the line in front of me moved quickly and I got to the front. The woman quickly checked me in and even checked my bag. She said I had to hurry, but didn't give me a hard time at all. I doubted my bag would make the plane. We ran up the steps to the security gate, where fortunately there wasn't a single soul in line. We breezed through and literally ran on to the plane. About fifteen minutes later, the plane took off. I didn't lose my adrenaline rush until we were about to land in Wellington. When we did land, my bag was one of the first out.

I'd say this is just about the perfect airport experience with absolutely no time wasted. John Bain, I think we should try this sometime soon. Miss ya!