One of the things James and I were most excited about experiencing on the North Island was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4 kilometer hike through a volcanic and geothermal landscape.
Billed as one of the finest one day walks in the world, the Tongariro Crossing starts at Mangatapopo Carpark on the southwest side of the park and goes up amongst three volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. The single-way track ends at Ketetahi Carpark, on the northern side of the park.
The Tongariro area is known for rapidly changing weather and inclement conditions even when the surrounding areas are calm and sunny. For this reason, our plan was to camp out at a bach in Turangi, a small town at the south end of Lake Taupo (the largest lake in New Zealand).
James found a great bach near the Tongariro River and booked it for a week. We figured that would give us the maximum chance of a good weather day or two for James and I to each do the hike individually.
We arrived from Napier on Monday with an eye on the weather forecast for Tongariro Park. It looked great for Tuesday and, for a variety of reasons, we decided James should make the first tramp.
HIS (written by James)
The starting carpark was a 50 minute drive from our bach. Janel and the kids dropped me off just before 9AM. It was a beautiful weather forecast for the day with mostly sun and partial cloud, no rain, around 60-70 degrees, and most importantly only 30-40kmph winds.
Daylight would last until just after 5PM which gave me 8 hours to work with. My plan at the outset was to try to make it up Mount Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings) and through the Alpine Crossing track. According to DOC timing the crossing is a 5-6.5 hour hike and the Mount Ngauruhoe summit side trip was 2-3 hours. I never quite trust their timings as some can be very accurate and others I can almost halve the time. As I approached the junction for the summit track I knew I was making good time and should be able to finish by 5PM.
I am pretty sure everyone who was with me at the top of the mountain quoted Tolkien and/or mimed throwing a ring into Mt Doom. I did the same and also celebrated my second summit over 2000 meters (at 2,291m this was my highest climb). Most of my pictures I took special care to not include the many others I shared the trail with, but during my half hour lunch break at the top of Mount Ngauruhoe there was not a time when less than 20 people were with me at the summit. After a tough 1:30 of climbing up it was an easy 30 minute scree “slide” down to the original track.
Having made good time so far and after checking my legs/knees after the descent I decided I would be good to go with another side trip. Knowing that this would mean running some of the later track to make time, I headed up the Mount Tongariro side track (a DOC 2 hour return and 1978m height).
I left Mount Tongariro and began jogging all of the downhill portions and walking the uphills. The views from the entire portion of the track from Mount Ngauruhoe through Mount Tongariro to the Red Crater and through the Emerald Lakes are otherwordly. The accessibility and closeness of volcanic features and landscape were surreal.
Once I crossed the blue lake I knew I would soon exit the red sands and unique sights of the park, but I still had about 9-10km to go until the car park. The familiar New Zealand scrub, hillside, and river/forrest tracks were a welcome and peaceful finish to hike (even though I had to run most of it to beat the sunset). Altogether a highlight of a trip and one that I wanted to make sure Janel was able to experience. I also really thought that our kids would be able to do the main track so I started angling for a way to do that.
HERS (written by Janel)
Even while James was off on his hike, I watched the weather predictions. The rest of the week’s weather looked pretty bad, except for the next day, Wednesday.
After enjoying James’ tales and photos from the trail, we agreed that I should take the opportunity on Wednesday. Although wind was forecast at the Red Crater portion of the trail, the winds weren’t supposed to be very high winds until later in the afternoon.
I gambled that an early enough start would enable me to make it across before the winds rose. The weather was clear when we got in our car in Turangi, but as James drove us through the hills toward the trailhead, it got cloudier. James dropped me off at the trailhead at 7:45am.
The trail starts out for the first couple kms through scrubby, relatively flat land.
I was five minutes into my all-day hike when it started to drizzle, then rain steadily. So I stopped and put on a raincoat and pack-cover. It could have been my imagination, but the temperature also felt like it was dropping.
As I walked up the trail, the low, dense clouds covered the surrounding hills and views. All I could see was odd-shaped volcanic rocks within a few meters of the trail.
James had told me that he’d seen many, many people the day before on this section of trail. After nearly an hour of hiking, I had seen only six people. One of them, coming from the opposite end of the trail, told me that he’d been really scared at the exposed crossing part because of high winds.
The Devil’s Staircase, the steepest climb of the track, led me up closer to the Mangatepopo Saddle between Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, but I couldn’t see much. I walked amongst gloomy, other-worldly landscapes, with gray rocks and signs of ancient and recent volcanic activity.
A couple times, feeling lonely and wanting to hear a human voice, I would just say, “MORDOR” or “MOUNT DOOM” in a creepy voice. (as James already pointed out, Peter Jackson used Mt. Ngauruhoe as the setting for Mount Doom in the final LOTR movie.)
As I rose higher in elevation, the wind picked up more and more. Then I passed a young couple who were descending. They had started at the same place where I had, hiked up toward the Red Crater, and been forced to turn back due to high winds. They urged me to be very careful if I continued upward.
With sinking expectations but needing to see the conditions for myself, I hiked across a misty moon-like landscape before another rise. The wind blew hard into me and I had to fight hard to walk straight.
Along a ridgeline approaching the highest part of the trail, visibility dropped even lower, to around 10 or 15 feet maximum, and the winds kicked up even higher. I estimate consistent speed of around 80 or 90 kms with gusts even higher. I went as far as I could safely, and then I listened to my gut and turned back.
It was pretty disappointing to have to retreat, but I was confident that I was making the right decision. Even if I had continued on, wind-blown and cold and wet, I couldn’t see any of the scenery anyway.
James and the kids came to pick me up at about noon. I had hiked nearly half of the crossing but seen none of the sights.
Amazingly, better weather presented itself on Saturday, the second to last day we had in Turangi.
I had hatched the idea of taking Charlotte (9 years old) with me on a second attempt to do the Crossing. While Evelyn is, at 12 years old, overall a better hiker and usually has a better attitude, I thought that Charlotte could use the one-on-one time. It’s always in short supply on the road as a family. James was fully supportive of this plan, and said he’d like to walk a short bit of the track with the other two kids.
The morning dawned much better than my ill-fated, rain-and-wind-disrupted hike earlier in the week. I carried the pack with our cold weather gear, first aid pack, water, and food for the day. Charlotte was proud as we set out, leaving James, Evelyn, and Calvin behind.
For about an hour we didn’t see them; then we stopped for a snack and who should I see but our little family, following us at a distance!
Charlotte joked, “Well, that’s embarrassing.”
But Calvin, it seemed, was having one of his intrepid hiker days. Sometimes we struggle to get him to walk just a few kilometers. We ask him to pull out his “Abel Tasman Guy” and he comes through sometimes.
On this day, however, he was really hiking well and wanted to make it.
Charlotte and I enjoyed views that had been completely obscured on my last hike! The summit of Mount Ngauruhoe was sharp and beautiful against the blue skies. After a couple hours of hiking we reached the precipitous ridgeline up to the Red Crater (elevation 1886 meters, or 6,187 feet).
We passed groups going up and going down, including some whose footware looked unequal to the task.
Although the wind was much lower than when I had turned back earlier in the week, it was still gusting strong enough that I had to clutch the back of Charlotte’s jacket at a couple points. She soldiered on, however, and we were rewarded with outstanding views down into the Red Crater, over the Emerald Pools, and out to Te Wai-Whakaata-o-te Rangihiroa (Blue Lake).
It was pretty special to reach that outlook with Charlotte by my side. We had long before lost sight of James and the other two kids behind us, so I assumed they had turned back. (It turned out that they had continued along the trail as well, stopping only a few hundred meters behind us when I was taking this photo!)
We skree-slid down a few dozen meters before stopping behind some large boulders for a snack. We were even warmed a bit by the geothermal venting, a welcome steam.
From there it was a lot of down hill, alongside the Emerald Pools, three bluish-green (I’d have named them Turquoise, not emerald…) bodies of water surrounded by rock and dust. Their color comes from volcanic materials disolved within them.
I was getting a bit tired at that point*, but Charlotte insisted that she felt great, and we still had about half the distance to go to reach the opposite carpark by dark. Sunset was 5:20 and we really didn’t want to still be hiking at that point.
The hike from about 10 kms on was pretty mundane, to be honest. There were some pretty views down off the hills and out to Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo, but the volcanic portions of the trail were what truly made it a stellar walk.
Charlotte and I stopped just one more time for a snack and a stretch (Charlotte’s glutes were locking up a bit so I taught her how to stretch them out) at the Ketetahi Shelter. From there it was switchback upon switchback upon switchback back down.
At about 4:30 I had cell coverage again and texted James to let him know that we were on target for him to pick us up at 5pm. I was surprised to hear back that they had made it to the Red Crater and overlook to the Emerald Pools! This means that Calvin had hiked nearly as far as Charlotte had, probably just about 17 kms! That was a new record for him, and it certainly was *not* easy walking.
(This part from James):
Janel again: Charlotte and I finished strong, right before 5, and James pulled up in the car just a couple minutes later to pick us up.
It was a family triumph. 🙂 And “Abel Tasman Guy” graduated to “Red Crater Man.”
///janel and james///
*I woke up early the day after this hike quite ill with a stomach virus I caught from Calvin (who had thrown up nearly a week previous). I spent all day in bed and couldn’t have been more thankful that the hike was behind me and not being prevented by my illness…