The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Published: January 3rd 2014
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Today I faced the mighty Tongariro Alpine Crossing! It's a day hike, about 20 km (13 miles) long, traveling up to the base of some active volcanoes and then over and down. It's ranked as one of the most picturesque day hikes in the world, and, importantly, mount Tongariro is what they used for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings.

The crossing does not begin or end in the same place, you hike from one carpark (parking lot) to another, so you have to arrange some sort of transportation to drop you off and pick you up. I'd arranged transport with the Alpine Hot Bus via email before leaving the states, and it was due to pick me up from Mike and Kicki's (see the next entry for all about Kicki and Mike!) at 0645 (ugh) and take me to the starting carpark (I can't remember its name, but I know I ended at the Ketatahi carpark).

I woke up all bright and early like I was supposed to and waited nervously on the porch, worried that they had emailed me or something canceling my reservation but I wouldn't have known because Kicki and Mike didn't have internet but on their phones. 0650 rolled around, the 0700, then 0705, and I finally accepted that I needed to ring (call) the hotbus to see what was up. Of course, I don't have a phone. But I'd asked Kicki last night if I could borrow hers in casey his happened, and she said sure. But she was asleep. So I sneak into their bedroom, feeling like a creeper, and shake her on the shoulder to ask to use her phone. At 0700 in the morning.

So then I call up the hot bus. Turns out the owner had forgotten to put me in the books so the bus had forgotten me. Even worse, the bus was full up that day. So I sit awkwardly on the phone while he hams and haws and then eventually hangs up to see if he can ring some shuttle driver. And I'm sitting on the porch, really not looking forward to the day without the crossing. And trying not to be too pissed or disappointed because that accomplishes nothing but makes me feel bad. After about 20 minutes, Gus hasn't rung me back so I pick up Kicki's phone to call him, just as it rings. To my everlasting delight, Gus has asked his shuttle driver to come back and pick me up after dropping that load off at the start. So we are in business! The only potential issue is that the driver passes word to Gus who passes word to me that it is bucketing down at the crossing. But, I've hiked in rain before, I'll do it again, and I'm only in NZ for a short time so I hardly pay any notice but to say I'm still going to hike it.

About 30 minutes later, the phone rings for the last time (good thing I had decided to keep it with me instead of returning it to Kicki until they were there), and it's the driver Nelson asking me for final directions through the neighborhood to Mike and Kicki's place. I deliver them flawlessly, pleasantly surprised and almost shocked that I remember the 4 street names, and soon Nelson is pulling up out front. I return the phone, snatch my bag, and load up into the van. Nelson turns out to be a very friendly, retired gentleman who only drives shuttles for amusement and we chat the whole way to the carpark dropoff. He'd owned several hotels, a few other businesses, and knew a fair amount about the volcanic activity in the area so it was great fun chatting with him.

The carpark was situated at the opening of a not-very-high but fairly long valley, with black volcanic rock and scrub growing all around. It was no longer raining cats and dogs, for which I was very grateful, and the wind had kicked up which meant that rain would not be very heavy. After a quick farewell, I started out on the crossing. Nelson hoped to pick me up at 3:30pm with the other hotbus riders, which gave me about 6.5 hours to hike the crossing, which he said was a fairly quick pace. So I didn't lollygag and set to it.

For the first section of the crossing you walk up the volcanic valley, going slightly uphill and walking upstream a small creek that runs through the valley. It's mostly flat, maybe a little uphill, and a few very short sections that are a little steep. Towards the end of the valley there's a very flat section, almost a small plain, where the little creek flattens out very wide into something almost marsh-like (except that it's rocky and sandy) and there's a boardwalk over the section. Eventually you reach the end of the valley, where there are small soda springs and some toilets.

After that, there is nowhere to go but up. And it's fairly steep, maybe one or two kilometers long. Steps have been installed sot he footing is not treacherous, and you're still surrounded by black volcanic rock. I was panting and sweating a lot, and I can tell you with certainty that I was the only one wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. It was fairly cold and windy. After climbing and hyperventilating and dripping, you reach the top point, which is the base of Mount Doom! I couldn't really see it because of the clouds, but what I could see was very cool.

The trail then continues between two peaks, Tongariro on the right (I think. Honestly, I can't remember the names of the volcanoes properly, let alone how to actually say them.) and another on the left. You then cross a red caldera that smells of sulfur, then begin to climb a ridge up. It's around is point that the weather really started turning snotty. Up to there it was cloudy and windy, yes, but not too cold, not too windy, and hardly raining. When i started to climb the ridge I was crossing over to the upwind side of the mountains, and it started to become obvious. Rain came down more, almost freezing rain, the wind really kicked up and I had to make sure not to lose Nagi off the mountain!

The ridge tops out on a flat spot, where there's a trail junction to the peak of the left volcano, but I didn't hang out long as there was no visibility and it was windy and cold (possibly as low as 40 with the wind and rain), so I tramped on. The crossing continues uphill along an even more narrow ridge with a huge and steep dropoff to the right, which I couldn't see much of because of the clouds. After topping out, there was a downhill section that was mostly volcanic sand with thick grains, so you could kind of surf down, which was a lot of fun.

At some point I walked be a few crater lakes of varying colors, but since I couldn't really see them I didn't really take notice. Another trek across a caldera, one that I really liked because it looked kind of like being on the moon, what with the fog blocking sight, then a few more kilometers over a small ridge then dropping down into an alpine valley. Things really got cold then, since I wasn't working hard going uphill, so I pulled out my long underwear top (which I'd been saving) and put it on. But I still couldn't really feel my fingers.

Eventually I came to the ketatahi hut, which is small hut in the active volcano area so they don'tre commend you stay long. The hut boasted a few tables, chairs, but most importantly a roof to get out of the wet. There were several other trampers in the hut and I chatted and shared food and tried not to let me shivers be seen. I stayed in the hut for over half an hour, because I was making really good time and at this rate I'd be off the mountain by 2:30pm and would have to wait in the carpark.

Leaving the hut sucked. I was cold, trembling as I walked, and wishing I'd had one more layer available to wear that wasn't wet from sweat or rain. Eventually I warmed up enough that I was enjoying the scenery (what little I could see) again, and I met up with a Russian guy names Sasha (his full name was Alexander, but apparently Alexander abbreviates to Sasha in Russian) and we talked a little bit here and there as we hiked out. The alpine region, where you're hiking downhill, lasts for a few kilometers after the hut, and then you pass into a region that looks like Jurassic Park, with overhead trees, thick fronds/plants, and lots of moss.

I end up getting to the carpark around 3:20pm and hang out under a shelter (it's still raining) until the shuttle comes. It's much warmer down by the carpark, probably hundreds of meters lower in altitude, so I'm ot dying of the cold even though my pants and socks are dripping. Nelson and I chat on the way back (I got shotgun haha!), and he says that Gus didn't think I'd make it out in time, but he did.

I'd love to do the crossing again sometime, ideally when the weather cooperates. I wasn't able to see much but from what I could see I knew it was beautiful. Even with the cold and the wet it was a marvelous adventure. On a beautiful day, it would be great to hike the crossing but summit one of the volcanoes and have a picnic lunch up there. All in all, an excellent adventure and I'm stoked it worked out.


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