National Park, New Zealand (Friday)
This day is worthy of its own post as it recounts my experience on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC). The TAC is regularly cited as the best day hike in New Zealand. I have to agree it is pretty amazing.
I got up with plenty of time to be ready for the shuttle from the YHA Hostel in National Park. YHA is the New Zealand affiliate of Hostelling International. I ate breakfast and re-packed my bag to act as a day bag with all my layers. At the appropriate time I went to the main desk and there was already a group there discussing the weather. The people who ran the shuttle service were concerned because there was a moderate avalanche risk for the north side of Mt. Ngaruhoe. The pass for the TC went just under that side of the mountain. According to the weather report it had been snowing over night and was going to warm up, thought the temperature at the top of the pass was expected to be -11 C (~12 F) during the day. The shuttle people said one company had sent people to a lower pass that had a shorter hike and that another company had called up to ask if they were sending people. The resounding advice was that they couldn’t really advise us, but it would be safer to not go. Advice that wasn’t very useful. We (the hikers) resolved to wait for the next forecast (not that it would provide more info) and then we would make a decision. I know that for me and one other gentleman this was a stalling tactic. We knew that the professionally guided groups would probably be going and that they started later than the shuttle service drops off. If we could delay the shuttle for an hour they would be breaking the trail for us rather than the other way around. The second report came out and we resolved to give it a try. We all rented crampons just in case the trail was icy at the top. I rented an extra fleece layer, waterproof pants, and gloves. In total I had a mid-weight base layer, a tech t-shirt, a sweater, the rented fleece layer, my waterproof jacket, long underwear, travel pants, the rented waterproof pants, wool socks, rented boots, a fleece & wool beanie, a floppy sun hat, and the bulky gloves I bought. There were five people in our group and we resolved to stay together. The party consisted of two extremely fit European ladies around my age, a married couple a little older than us and much less fit, and me in between.
On the road to the crossing to was clear we weren’t the only ones on the trail. In fact we passed over a dozen other shuttles, so the trail was likely to be clear. It turns out the predicted overnight snow had been rain and the amount of snow had actually reduced overnight.
Near the base I stripped down to my mid-weight base layer and t-shirt for my torso. I was quite warm while hiking. The trail was extremely well maintained, at points we were using steps and elevated walkways. I heard later that some days over 2000 people cross the pass, so erosion is a significant problem. They did a good job as the landscape on either side ofthe trail was pristine. After a while we finally got to the first plateau, just above which was the snow line. The trail rose steeply above the plateau with plenty of switchbacks. Shortly into the switchbacks I put back on my water and more importantly wind proof jacket. We were anticipating the second plateau. One of the amazing things about mountain hikes is the ability for the next climb to be hidden from view until you hit the top of the current one. You can’t help thinking, the plateau is just around this corner, though it rarely is. In a way this is a wonderful psychological trick that keeps you going better than if you could see the path ahead. Eventually we did hit the next plateau at the same time a cloud did. The visibility dropped steeply and was less than 10 meters, but was enough for us to see two trail markers ahead and two behind, then nothing but white. At the other side of the plateau it was around 11:30 am, and we had our lunch.
The climb after the second plateau was where the climbing got tough. The snow on either side of the trail was anywhere from ankle to knee high and the path itself was getting very slippery. Others questioned whether we should stop to put the crampons on, but I knew they would slow us down significantly, so I voted not to. I was definitely climbing at the top of my ability to keep up with the the lead European girl and we had to wait for the married couple to catch up quite often. The wind kept picking up as we got higher and the snow started to squeak, which I have always known as a sign that the temperature is below 16 F. Finally we got to the worst spot, there was a chain to assist in a short climb and than a wire mounted to use as a railing along the windy ridge. The cold didn’t bother me, but the wind on my face was bitter. I still hadn’t added any other layers and felt fine since the climbing was hard. I abandoned taking out my good camera and got my GoPro out. At that moment a gust caught my sandwich container and it was lost over the side. That frustrated me. I don’t like littering.
We left the narrow top of the pass and had the peak ahead, but because we were out of the pass the wind had dropped down significantly. The peak was beautiful, though The top of Mt. Ngauruhoe was lost in clouds. The downhill scramble was interesting because the initial descent was along a steep path of volcanic sand. There were no obvious erosion countermeasures here, though I have no clue how they would implement them. At the bottom of the initial descent were three volcanic lakes, still ice free because of thermal heat. We stopped for a snack and a rest there though I had eaten all I had brought.
The next part of the trail brought us along another plateau, up a small climb, and along the side of another larger lake, a little climb after that and we were on the other side of the mountains. We then saw our first Rahui warning sign. That side of the mountain had erupted a couple years and the crater was still quite active, so the aboriginal Maori tribe that was in control of the land had banned people from going near the crater and left warnings that people were to pass through and not stop for long on this section of the trail, and gave tips for what to do were there to be an eruption. The biggest danger during an eruption in mountains like this one are lahars, which are high-speed super-heated mud slides. As such getting to a high ground relative the slide, but continuing to get off the mountain is important.
The second we past the lakes the erosion countermeasures started again. The amount of effort they have put into the paths at this park is very impressive. After traveling along the zigzagging ridges of the mountain for several kilometers we came across a cabin that was eased shut. It had provided shelter for backpackers before the eruption, but was since deemed to not be safe from lahar risk. There were also several signs saying that the hot springs to the left of the trail were on private property and therefore off limits. At the end of the plains was a path going off in that direction that was of the same construction as the park paths, but had a sign mounted across it stating that the trail was closed. This makes me think the springs were once considered part of the park, but I haven’t researched this yet.
We the entered dense forest and a sign said we were out of the lahar danger area. We were all tired but kept up the pace because we had agreed to meet the bus at 5 pm. When we got down to the bottom of the forest there were now more lahar warning signs and there seemed to be strong evidence that the path of the river and therefor also the trail had been changed by one of the recent eruptions. We made it to the shuttle right on time and the driver seemed quite surprised. He was also glad we stayed as a group and didn’t have to wait for others to catch up.
We got back to the hostel and I had a cup of tea and then a shower. After that I cooked some more pasta for dinner and played Zombie Dice with the married couple before heading to bed.