Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Tongariro Crossing. AKA Hiking Mount Doom!


  The Whanganui River left my metaphorical cup of happiness overflowing! How exhilarating to be so far deep into the wilderness on such a grand adventure, knowing it would take you days of walking in any direction to find a town or sign of homesteads. The beauty of the experience plentiful beyond expectations.
  When we arrived in Wanganui township at the holiday park, after showering and doing laundry, I researched the weather forecast in National Park, looking for a window to hike the Tongariro Crossing.  Everyone else had hiked it during my Christmas break away and it was the second part of the North Island I had no intentions of missing.  The Tongariro Crossing is a hiking a pass between two mountains isolated in a desert like region which reminded me very much of Idaho landscapes.  Mount Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are active volcanoes.  So basically the crossing traverses a recessed area between the two mountains and in the distance is the snow-capped mountain of Ruapehu, which is a large ski resort.
  I have several friends who have hiked it and they all say the same thing, "wait for a day with good weather."  The views are something you don't want to miss and when clouds encompass the mountain you might as well be hiking anywhere because you can't see anything. Also, being a small set of mountains essentially set in the vast expanse of its surrounding nothingness, when the weather turns south the conditions deteriorate exponentially.  The temperatures drop dramatically with each increase in elevation, pair that with the gale force winds and you have a recipe for fatalities.  Monday was the only day within a week projected to have "long periods of fine," which is the strangest way I have ever heard partly sunny weather described.  The three days prior and 4 days following Monday were suppose to be awful.
  Most of my friends hiked the crossing amid cloudy weather but managed to pass through during a 2 day window of the track being opened, but apparently two of my other friends passed through while the track was closed. There are flashing traffic lights at the base telling whether or not the crossing is open dependant on weather or volcanic conditions. Unfortunately the Te Araroa section of the trail hikes in the opposite direction of the usual traffic flow and isn't equipped with the warning lights, and my two friends who passed unknowingly while the track was closed found themselves crawling on hands and knees in a battle against wind. Scary, and very real!
  So, we spent the night in the holiday park and I hitched a ride to National Park, (which confusingly is both a national park, and the name of a town within the national park), with the canoe hire company as they were heading through on their way back to Taumaranui after their boat retrieval.  I had no plans or place to stay, I just knew the next day was my window.  When the van pulled over on the side of the highway I stepped out into the middle of nowhere. National Park is on one side of the road. It's a small village town catering to mountain bikers, skiers, and trekkers. I checked into the hostel 20 yards off the highway, booked my seat on the shuttle the next morning, and went on a walk to see what the village had to offer.
Vast expanses of desert scenery? Check!

A larger than life sized sculpture of a kiwi bird? Check!

This is the land where even rubber tires go to return to the earth

I have a feeling you might be waiting for a while.

Machinery junkyard? Check!
   I woke at 5:45 for my chia oatmeal and decaf instant coffee breakfast. I know what you're thinking. "When did you become so cool!?"  Well, I don't have an answer for you, I think perhaps it was a slow progression toward awesomeness. Translation: I know my breakfast is super lame, but that's how I roll these days yo! Judgers!  Anyway, breakfast was lovely, my daybag was ready and I waited for the shuttle out front of the hostel with more people than I expected. A collection of excitable morning zombies.  Maybe its from years of being a barista, but I take great satisfaction is watching the battle people go through each morning to grasp for a hold on the reality they live in. Prying their eyes wide open for the day, and possibly pretending they aren't upset about being awake.  Then suddenly the scales tip and they become a part of their surroundings, rather than a body floating through them.  Good morning sleepy heads!
  One shuttle filled and was sent on its way, so a second shuttle was brought in for reinforcement and we were also on our way across the plains toward possibilities disguised in rock formations.

Mount Ruapehu
The area known as Upper Te Maari Crater on the northern side of Mt Tongariro erupted quite ferociously from several vents as recently as November 2012 and steam is actively pouring from them in a constant sulfurous cloud.  I am about to hike across an active volcano. Ahem, did you hear what I just said!? An ACTIVE VOLCANO!!!!

Upper Te Maari Crater
  The moment you sign up for a shuttle ride to the crossing you are given a cautionary instructional paper of the possible escape routes and appropriate protocol in the event of a volcanic eruption. Here is the representative of the welcoming committee...

Nothing says have fun climbing the volcano like a mummified victim of an ash cloud!
The paper's warning and instructions are as follows:
  • You will be at some risk from volcanic eruptions if you are in the Active Volcanic Hazard Zone around Te Maari.
  • There are signs at the edge of the Active Volcanic Hazard Zone.
  • You should move quickly through this Active Volcanic Hazard Zone.
  • Another eruption could happen without warning.
  • The main dangers are burning ash clouds and flying rocks.
Should an eruption occur: 
  • Stop, look for burning ash clouds ad flying rocks. 
  • Run away from the path of fast-moving burning ash clouds.
  • Otherwise find shelter behind something - banks ridges or hollows.
  • Don't turn away from flying rocks unless you are sure they won't hit you.
  • Get out of the Hazard Zone along one of the indicated escape routes. Stay together.
  • Your escape route may be uphill, downhill, or to the west away from the eruption site.
Other Hazards:
  • Falling ash or gas: Not normally hazardous at Tongariro. If caught, don't panic but move away from the area as quickly as possible.
  • Lahar: move quickly through or avoid valley during heavy rain or eruption.
  I'll give you a moment to just let that all soak in...

Ready? Okay...where to begin.
  Essentially they have provided you with an instructional paper giving you a multitude of ways to run around like an idiot during a possible catastrophe.  In case of eruption I find it hard to believe a calm demeanor could be acquired and maintained...its an e.r.u.p.t.i.n.g. v.o.l.c.a.n.o!!!
  Stop and look? Absolutely, for that one split second before you shit your pants.
  Run away? Your damn right!!!
  Otherwise find shelter behind something like banks ridges and hollows?...oh, you mean the ones that are kilometers away unless you are already behind/ in them? Interesting how you forgot to mention your neighboring hiker as an option. Desperate attempt at a human body shield...hello!
Don't turn away? So, you want me to keep my eyes behind me looking for flying rocks and ash clouds (which incidentally travel at speeds in excess of 100km/hour), while simultaneously running away, sacrificing human body shields, and planning an escape route in an uphill, downhill, or westerly direction. Obviously!
  All these warnings for things that are "not normally hazardous" huh? And Lahar, what the hell is it?  How am I suppose to watch out for something when I don't even know what it is? I found out days later that its a landslide of water and ash.
  "Okay, now you have been educated in the possible dangers and solutions of today's hike! Here's the projected weather report for the day. Here is a phone number to call in case you miss the 2 shuttle times to take you back to the hostel. In case of emergency dial 1-1-1. Watch your step exiting the shuttle. Have a great day and enjoy the hike!"
  And so it begins!
Mount Ngauruhoe you may recognize as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  You have a choice to summit both Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in addition to just hiking the crossing between them, but each adds on an extra length of time to the trip, obviously, so you have to decide, which if any or both you would like to summit, keeping in mind the times the shuttle will be there to pick you up.  If you are late, you can call and the shuttle will return for you but there will be a hefty fee. This is hilarious, because cell service was spotty at best.  I chose to summti Tongariro.
  You may now commence browsing the photos of the days hike.

Behold the sun! Which spent the day burning my face off.


Have you ever seen someone so happy about doom?

  Let it be known that after climbing to the top of the crossing and before I tramped to the summit of Tongariro, just 20 feet from the sign pictured below, I caught the soul of my boot on a rock and biffed it hard, pinning my knee between two sharp volcanic rocks. Luckily for me, because of the small window of good weather for the week all the trampers were funnelled into hiking the crossing on this one particular day, hitting the record number of hikers for the season at well over 1,000 people, so at the very least I was not lacking an audience. Go me!

Blue Lake

Me, Blue Lake and an apparition?

View of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu from the summit of Tongariro


Red Crater

Emerald Lakes

A look back at the exodus

The exit scene


  1. What an ADVENTURE!
    Please know that Geia, Charlotte, and I are thinking of you.