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Crossing the Mountain called Tongariro

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This post is about my journey across the Tongariro Crossing, with an intro from Kenna.

The start of today came VERY early, as Scott and I wanted to leave Waitomo at a decent hour to be able to complete the Tongariro Crossing hike. We arrived around 11 a.m in National Park Village (the essential base camp for Tongariro) hoping to catch a shuttle which would take us to the trail head and then pick us up at the (quite far) trail tail. Unfortunately for us, there is only ONE shuttle per day at 7:15 a.m which picks folks up at 4 p.m on the other side. The lady told us “you’re far too late in the day to do the hike – it’s 19.7 km and takes most people about 8 hours. You should do it tomorrow.” Well, knowing that we have to drive to Wellington tomorrow to visit with family of mine, and the fact that we have a non-refundable trip booked on the ferry to the south island the day after, this was not possible. So, after some brain storming, we figured it was best if I didn’t partake in the hike anyway. I’m dead dog tired from trying not to die yesterday (and my body is sore to prove it), and I’m still not up to snuff to be very far from a decent washroom at any given moment…not mention my caloric intake is still not high enough to be participating in high impact activities (especially in consecutive days). I knew Scott wasn’t going to be happy if he didn’t do it, so we decided that we’d devise a plan to figure it out.

Without any kind of decent map (not to mention NO map of the hike itself), we started out to try to find the trail head. We took a massive detour up a different mountain (mount Ruaphu) and ended up at a really cool ski resort. We also managed to cause grafiti to the lovely NZ roads: there were trucks painting yellow lines on the road and Scott decided he should just pass them. The dude got really mad and started yelling – Scott had run over the paint and made a huge mess on the road. Whoops. After a “sorry mate!” we kept on going. We inquired at the ski resort where to go for the Tongariro Crossing, and the girl said “You’re way off route. And you’re not planning on doing it today, are you? It’s much too late. It’s an EIGHT hour hike!” Nonetheless, she showed us the correct way, and we even found some pairs of cheap mittens to purchase (which we forgot to bring from home even though I remembered touques). On the way back down the mountain, we saw a fellow trying to clean the paint off the road that we had made. Scott felt pretty bad.

We finally managed to make it to the trail head. We packed Scott up with a mini survival kit and devised a plan. He would take his iPhone (which has nothing except for 1-1-1 which is NZ’s 9-1-1 and GPS) and I would wait at the trail head for four hours, in case he decided to turn back. After four hours, I would drive to the trail tail. If he wasn’t there after 9 hours, I would seek help. His goal was to complete the trek in 5 hours – I didn’t think he could do it and expected him in 6. So, after seeing him off and feeling highly depressed that my body wasn’t going to let me do the adventure too, I hunkered down in the van to read and nap and try to heal myself. I was a bit worried about my Scott the whole time, but I knew he is a hiking rockstar and would make it out (I’m pretty sure Scott and Cheryl could hike the whole world together in record Olympic time if they ever so desired).

At approximately 4 p.m., I made the drive to find the trail tail. Keep in mind, this was my first time driving Happy Diwali in the 10 or so days we’ve had her. I was a little anxious for the right hand driving, but thought, what the hell, I’ve been driving for 10 years, I used to drive a big GM van to school when I was 16, and I’m a smart girl. I can totally do this.

I made it to the trail tail at around 4:40 (after a few wrong turns do to unmarked roads) and found….SCOTT! The bugger had made it out after 4.5 hours. UNREAL. 800 meter incline, 19.7 km…that’s insane. Being the social butterfly he is, he even managed to make friends with 3 German boys who needed a ride back to the trail head (there are Germans everywhere here. That’s all we’ve seemed to have met everywhere we go…they seriously do well in terms of travel and leisure and are living the good life!).

Now, we’re at our cheap $4/night campsite (read: in the boonies with outhouses and no showers) for the night. Scott is napping as we speak (he says he ran the whole damn trail to made it so fast because he thought I was worried about him…I think he should do the Death Race next year), and I’m sure we’ll go to bed early. I’m hoping that my stomach starts to behave itself and I can start to get back to my old self…I miss food!

I’ll turn it over to Scott now to describe his 4.5 hours on the Tongariro Crossing.

Beginning of the hike up Tongariro Crossing

Beginning of the hike up Tongariro Crossing

Well, Dad, if you’re reading this, this one is another shitty hike to hit the history books. It started out decent enough – it was overcast with a bit of light poking through here and there, but a nice temperature to be climbing mountains. This was also my first hike alone, so I was a bit nervous, and it was a long 19km. But given that everybody thought I was crazy for starting this supposed 8-hour hike at noon, I made it my personal goal to finish it in under 5 hours. I mean, they must mean that fat americans do it in 8 hours, right? Surely a guy who’s done challenging hikes in the rockies can do better than that. And if I got into trouble, I told myself, I was much better prepared than I had been on most hikes I’d done anyways. My new MEC jacket (which I LOVE – it’s been a savior in all the rain we’ve had. As an aside, I’m writing this on our way to Wellington, and last night was dreadful. After we got to our campsite it poured cats and dogs all night long – so badly that by the time we went to bed, our entire campsite was submerged in massive puddle 2 inches deep.) Anyways, my new MEC jacket is an awesome windbreaker and water-proof, so that would protect me from rain, and I had three layers I could put on under that. And a tuque and mitts, a really good first-aid kit, and lots of powerade and food. So I figured I could probably survive with all that for a night.

The foggy outline of a lake in the South Crater.

The foggy outline of a lake in the South Crater.

Anyways, the first 4 km were great – I passed a bunch of people heading up, and by the time I hit the 4km mark, only 50 minutes had passed. There was also an ominous sign that said “STOP! Are you sure you want to proceed?” blah blah… there’s a big incline up a crater right away… blah blah… check the weather and your food… blah… IGNORED. I started hoofing it up the steep incline, and passed a bunch of people coming down, and all of them said “don’t bother going any further – it’s really windy and you can’t see anything.” Well, I wasn’t about to turn back, mostly because I had promised myself I could do it, and to prove all those naysayers wrong. So I kept going. At about 6km in, there was a sign that pointed out the volcanic rocks all around me, which it said were deposited there in 1975, the last time this peak had erupted. The sign was accompanied by a “What to do in case of eruption” sign. It said that lava could flow as fast as 100 km/hr, but run down the mountain anyway. Useless advice, if I’ve ever heard it, kind of like “duck and cover in case of nuclear explosion”.

A bit further up, I passed a group of people coming down and one of them warned me “we planned to go all the way, but had to turn back because it was so windy and you really couldn’t see anything.” Wusses.

What I thought was the peak at the time, and nothing but grey abyss beyond.

What I thought was the peak at the time, and nothing but grey abyss beyond.

So, on I went – on my right was what looked like the edge of the crater. This must have been the South Crater mentioned on the map, so I climbed up to the edge. At the top, the wind was so strong it almost tossed me into the crater. And of course, I couldn’t see hardly anything except the outline of a lake. There was a sign that said there was a 3 hour return-trip to the Mt Tongarira peak, but think I could see any sign of this peak? Nope.

On I went, and met another steep ascent. By this time, I was squarely in the clouds and visibility was less than 30 ft. Thank god for the sticks marking the trail, otherwise I’d have had no idea where to go. I came to what I thought was the peak of the crater, and looked out over the edge into a big grey abyss and snapped a picture. I thought “I wonder if this is what climbing Everest is like?” then snapped back to reality – this was a lot of volcanic rock, not snow. But being up there alone was a little scary, and I kept thinking that I was probably the last guy to come up here that day, so if the wind tossed me off the edge, they probably wouldn’t find me until the next day.

But I continued, and the trail still edged higher. With each rock I climbed, the wind got colder and stronger. If I tilted my head the wrong way, the wind literally ripped the earphones out of my ears (I was so cold I had every piece of clothing on, including my earphones to stop the ear ache). I started to think I was a bit insane for continuing, and about 15 mins after taking the aforementioned picture, I slipped off a rock and tumbled a bit. That was it, I turned back. It was exactly 2:00pm, Kenna would be there until 4:00pm. So I was right at the point of no return, but I could probably make it back if she didn’t leave early, so I decided it wasn’t worth it getting tossed off the edge.

A moment before this was taken was my Aha! moment - I finally saw the lake! Then it was covered in cloud when I snapped the photo.

A moment before this was taken was my Aha! moment - I finally saw the lake! Then it was covered in cloud when I snapped the photo.

I made it back to the point where I had taken the picture – and lo and behold, I saw the crater below and a few patches of sunlight! Well hell, I wouldn’t ever forgive myself if I headed back and the weather cleared, so I said “Scott you’re insane, but let’s go.” So I turned back up the mountain and kept going. About 20 mins later, I met a couple girls coming from the other direction, and they said the lakes I was looking for were only about a kilometer away. I had made the right choice to stick it out. They hadn’t lied, but that kilometer felt like three. It was a lot of thick sand, like trying to hike up a steep sandy beach in strong wind. Eventually I saw a lake dead ahead. I reached into my pocket to snap a picture, but by the time I grabbed the camera, it was gone, hidden by cloud.

I made it down to the lakes in a hurry, as the same sand that made it impossible to go up was really easy to surf down. As I was walking beside the lakes, I smelled a strong sulphur smell, and realized I was walking through the crater of an active volcano by myself. Eerie. There was also steam rising everywhere, and I realized I wasn’t quite sure what was volcanic steam and what was fog. Remembering the warnings from before, that didn’t comfort me much.

From there, the wind calmed down, and I knew I’d make it under 5 hours, maybe 4:30. My new goal was to make it to the parking lot before Kenna did.

And sure enough, I did. The rest of the trail was pretty much downhill, so jogging down it was pretty easy. I stopped at the Ketetahi hut, where I met some people from Quebec city and had a quick lunch with them. I was easily going to make the 4:30 deadline, so I doddled with them a bit. The hut was really nice, with a kitchen, running water and camping facilities, it would be cool to stay there sometime. After about a 15 minute lunch, I was freezing, and decided to press on.

The Emarald and Blue Lakes.

The Emarald and Blue Lakes.

A little ways down, there was a natural hot spring, and again the line between steam and cloud was blurred. That was pretty cool. Not 15 mins down from the hut, I got out of the clouds, and immediately had to start stripping off the layers. It really irritated me that the clouds were just around the peak and nowhere else…

Finally, I got into the forest, which was a stark contrast to the other side of the ascent, which looked closer to Nevada desert than anything with a forest. I made it out at exactly 4:30pm, which meant a total time of about 4:20. And I had beat Kenna there!

Tomorrow, we’re on a ferry to the south island. Lots more hikes to come!

The people from Quebec City snapped my photo at the Ketetahi hut.

The people from Quebec City snapped my photo at the Ketetahi hut.

Walking through the center of the crater, I figured I should get a picture.

Walking through the center of the crater, I figured I should get a picture.

What the gorgeous peak really looks like (courtesy of the internets).

What the gorgeous peak really looks like (courtesy of the internets).

4 comments to Crossing the Mountain called Tongariro

  • Dad

    Good Work Scott! Roughly 2 1/2 miles per hour under those conditions! Loved the commentary too! Kenna I still can’t get anything through on that email addy you gave me. Any others I can try? Does hotmail addy still work?

    Keep on truckin!

    Love

    Dad & Lorna

  • Dave

    Wicked hike Scott. Too bad you could not have done it together. Although I am sure kenna enjoyed her alone time
    Everyone we met said the south island was way better so enjoy the rest of NZ

  • Meredith

    SCOTT! UNBELIEVABLE! AMAZING! I can’t believe you did that hike! Kenna feel better! I’m sure you will be as good as new in no time! You guys are making my workday bearable. ;) xo Mer

  • Kim

    You’re amazing. Then again, I remember Elly and I setting out to do Cinquo Terra about 4-5 pm and it’s supposed to be a 6 hour hike or something, which we accomplished in 1.5 I think. Now I no longer believe any hike time estimates. Way to not die while hiking alone. :)

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