So many tourists arrive at TRM fizzing about the Tongariro Crossing – enthused by Tourist Operators who immediately book their shuttle bus without warning of the weather issues. So this STUFF article was very welcome to hopefully warn prospects of the real dangers. TRM tried to warn of the dangers several years ago by producing two brief videos below:
Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s best (and potentially most disappointing) day hike
Lorna Thornber, Mar 03 2020
A journey through Tongariro Alpine Crossing
A journey through Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Spring.
OPINION: The last time we saw each other we were catching our breath at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase, disappointed that cloud thicker than London fog on the darkest of winter days was obliterating much of Tongariro’s world-famous volcanic alpine scenery, but still hopeful we’d climb high enough to break through it. And that the forecasters who’d predicted afternoon fine spells would prove correct.
An hour or so later, I was doubled over on the vertiginous track to the top of the 1886-metre-high Red Crater, trying to keep as low a centre of gravity as possible as high winds ably assisted by driving rain did their best to push me into the abyss below.
All around me, strangers cowered beneath boulders of solidified lava testament to the crater’s long history of eruptions and braced themselves against gusts of winds that came at us with increasing violence.
My mum and sister were nowhere in sight and, with the cloud so thick by this stage it made silhouettes of those even a few metres from me, I forged on, naively confident I would soon see them on the other side.
Finally reaching the summit, I saw nothing of the burnt red rock that lends the crater its name. Nor of the mineral-stained Emerald Lakes photographs of the 19.4 kilometre trek through New Zealand’s oldest national park had told me to expect. Skidding and sliding down the scree the hikers alongside me said led to the lakes felt like being sucked down the dust-clogged hose of a vacuum cleaner. Or navigating the dark side of the moon.
It was not what I had expected from the trail often touted as the best day hike in New Zealand – and one of the best in the world – but my mum, sister Claire and I had realised that tackling it in inclement weather wouldn’t be ideal.
Far from seasoned trampers, we’d watched the official video warning of snow, gale-force winds and freezing temperatures even in the height of summer and taken heed. I guess we’d just placed misguided hope in the dicey-but-not-too-terrible-sounding MetService forecast that came through on the afternoon we were set to leave. A dark rain cloud had been replaced with the words “clouds increasing”, “a few showers” and “fine spells”. Having psyched ourselves up to go, Claire and I were keen to convince mum we shouldn’t let an okay weather weekend pass us by. Against her better judgement, she (eventually) agreed.
Arriving at our accommodation in National Park well after midnight, we had the kind of fitful night’s sleep you often do when you know you have to get to sleep straight away or suffer painful consequences the next day. Rising in time to catch our 8am shuttle on Saturday morning, the cloud was so low we thought the hotel had conned us into believing our room had a view of Mt Ruapehu. In its thick, woolly coat, the North Island’s tallest peak at 2797 metres looked like little more than a hill. But it wasn’t until we were en route to the start line that the rain set in.
Setting out along the Mangatepopo Valley, we were happy trampers as we took in the (to us) alien landscape of burnished tussock grasses, blooming bushes of pink-purple heather, creamy rugs of moss sprinkled with bright yellow flowers and the blood- and bruise-coloured scars of the Ice Age glaciation that ripped Tongariro and Ruapehu apart.
We’d worked up something of a sweat by the time we reached the foot of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to Lord of the Rings fans as Mt Doom), although, in the thick cloud, we had no idea it was there. We beamed in ignorant bliss as we took pictures next to the sign warning “that was the easy part: it’s much tougher ahead” but failed to stick to the postscript “stick together”. Which was my fault.
Telling my fellow trampers I’d see them at the top when they stopped for a breather on the well-named Devil’s Staircase, I soon got caught up in the rising tide of hikers that sweep along the crossing on a daily basis in season. It wasn’t until I’d arrived at the Emerald Lakes – faint blue splodges in a sea of grey – that I realised I mightn’t see them again until the finish line. And that was still more than 10km away.
The rain only intensified as I made my way past the Blue Lake, although again I had no idea that the mirror-like body of water bluer than the sky on a clear day was there.
By this stage, my “waterproof” jacket had long since made me aware it has its limits, my shoes sprung puddles and my non-waterproof tights soaked me to my skin. The hand gripping my single walking pole (my sister had its sister) was so cold it felt frozen around the top.
Somehow, my discomfort sped me up. I couldn’t get down the track that descends through mountain daisy- and buttercup-studded alpine foliage fast enough. While I’d expected to find the crowds on the trail frustrating, in these conditions they proved quite comforting. Misery loves company after all.
Making my way through the moss-covered trees of the primordial-feeling forest that marks the final section of the track, my overwhelming feeling was one of relief. Until I texted Claire and learnt she and mum were back at the start. They had turned around, they told me later, when hail added potential injury to insult on the Red Crater.
Stuffing ourselves with super-sized portions of steak, lamb shanks and fries that evening, we concurred that while the hike hadn’t been what we’d envisaged, it had certainly been a hell of an adventure. We’d tested our endurance and been pleasantly surprised by the results – save, in my case, the still-sore-after-three-days legs and a destroyed DSLR camera.
Driving back to Auckland, we decided we’ll do our best to tackle the trek again before winter sets in, in their case so they can say they have completed it and, in mine, to get the full experience.
Have you really completed the crossing, after all, when you don’t have the Emerald lakeside selfies to prove it? You’ve shown us what you’re made of Tongariro but we’re not done with you yet.
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