The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
By T. Dietz
Darkness – there are varying degrees. On this night, 27 June 2017, it was a darkest night and we were in the last one third of a three and a half hour drive from KatiKati near the Bay of Plenty, on New Zealand’s North Island to the Tongariro National Park (TNP) in central NZ. The we here is my wife Leslie, and sons Connor and Colin. I strained my eyes for what seemed like a never-ending drive using only low beams in a fog. Other than the not so occasional dead possums on the road that my headlights picked up, I could not make out any real distinguishing landmarks.
We arrived late at the Park motel, one of the few places to stay in TNP, and checked-in with a very quiet Kiwi behind the desk. Back out into a cold, 20F, moonless night we headed to extremely sparse but clean and comfortable rooms. Our goal for this adventure was the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered one of the world’s top one day treks.
As soon as we off-loaded our bags in the rooms, I put on a warm hat and started to leave. “Where’re you going?” my wife said, questioning my heading back out into the cold night. “Outside for some dark sky” I replied. It was cold, we were at about 2,600’ and the pitch black-moonless night of our drive remained. I knew I’d get to see the Milky Way clearly by walking to a spot that blocked the light from the sodium-vapor lamps around the motel. Not just that wispy, smoke-like white river in the sky I’ve seen before, but this view had dense purples and pinks like I’ve only ever seen in photographs. Not even during my time in Africa have I seen this intensity. 20 minutes later I headed back in to rally all the troops to follow me back out into the cold to behold the universe, and they did and they were wowed. Mission accomplished. Leslie even got a fantastic photo of the Crux or Southern Cross. The density of stars made it difficult to pick out Virgo, Jupiter and Saturn, all of which were on the menu this night.
Back in the room I sorted and checked through the required gear for our trek and loaded up my pack, Colin doing the same. We rose excited and easily at 0600 on a cold and dark morning, rechecked the gear, filled the hydration packs, and I put on my son Cooper’s watch. Colin and I headed outside in the 18F crisp air to await our pre-arranged transfer ride to the trek’s start. The very few cars in the lot had a thick frost on their windshields giving them that freeze-dried appearance.
Tongariro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the fourth national park established in the world. The Park borders on Lake Taupo, a lake resulting from the eruption of the Taupo Volcano, a super volcano. According to the Geological Society of New Zealand and several other sources, Taupo Volcano eruptions are some of the largest the earth has seen in modern geological times. Lake Taupo resides in the super volcano’s caldera from an eruption (the Oruanui eruption) about 26,000 years ago. At the heart of Tongariro are active volcanos having erupted as recently as 2012 – Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro.
We chose to have a guide (Josh) accompany us on the trek despite the good weather, principally to enjoy hearing about the history, myths, geology and biology of this magical place. This trek would offer more than just spectacular vistas and adventure. It would allow for some important adventure time with my youngest son.
We were a bit over-geared up but smart for doing it. Weather can turn quickly on the trek. When we started, the temps were in the low 20’s(F) and it climbed slowly to the mid 30’s(F). Perfectly clear skies at the start were followed by a slow cumulous build up over the course of the day. The weather can be very unpredictable in the winter so we were well prepared despite the great outlook. Our guide indicated he has been on several rescues of folks that have inadequate clothing or fallen because they started on a nice day that quickly turned poor.
The trek launched at the Mangatepopo parking area where we were greeted by a dramatic pink and orange colored sunrise. With the rising sun, the morning highlight was snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu to our South. We would have a couple from Japan with us but not for long. With day packs secured and layers on for the cold start we headed out to a flat expanse with imposing volcanoes straight ahead. We had heard there would be a group of about 20 hikers behind us so we started out at a fast clip to create distance and isolation. Josh encouraged us to move at our own pace but wait at the base of Devil’s Staircase, Soda Springs. The roughly flat, platformed track had several thinly frosted-over streams crisscrossing underneath and glistening frost-coated scrub brush was all around.
Dominating our forward view was Mt. Ngauruhoe. For Lord of the Rings fans, Mt. Ngauruhoe was Mt. Doom in the movies. The imposing mountain remained in our view until our decent down from the Red Crater. Climbing Ngauruhoe would be for another time. It’s an ascent that takes about 2 hours and a descent that can be only 20-30 minutes. The track we continued on gradually started to climb as we approached Soda Springs and the last relief facility for a few hours.
Here at Soda Springs we parted ways with the Japanese couple. Colin and I took our time stripping off layers, hydrating and anxiously waiting to get climbing. When Josh and the Japanese couple showed up they were already in distress from the hike so far. We would need to leave them behind, to be united with another team coming up later, and a decision made for them to turn back or complete the journey. They ultimately decided to go forward and arrived about 4 hours behind us.
Colin, Josh and myself attacked the Devil’s Staircase with speed (at least at the start).
This steep, one hour plus climb has a combination of wooden stairs, rock stairs, rock cuts, chain grabs and pulls, and volcanic rock paths all to assist in the climb. About 30 minutes into the climb my legs were getting heavy and breathing heavier. Colin forged quickly ahead while Josh and I hung back for a few minutes. Another 40 minutes or so that included 3 more stops, had me at the top with Colin who was resting comfortably and informing me of his 20 minute lead. Watching Colin taking in the views with eyes and camera, I knew he was enjoying himself.
Over the course of the climb and as we approached the top of the Devil’s stairway, the large volcanic boulders gave way to a field strewn with much smaller volcanic rock.
We then followed the ridgeline up and to the north to our highest point of the day, Red Crater Summit at 1,886m (6,187ft). Standing at the summit and on the south end of Red Crater we could see the varied, volcanically active, landscapes all around us. It felt like it was a trek of discovery as so many are for the first time. Although thousands have trekked here before it was ours that day. In fact, the crossing can see thousands of people in a single day during the summer but we had few and in sections none to contend with. I peppered Josh with geologic and biologic questions to which he stood up quite well. This remarkable, other worldly landscape was captivating and it becomes clear why the Maori peoples sought myths and stories to describe this place.
Josh told us of a Maori legend of an epic battle of the mountains where Mt. Taranaki wanted the beautiful Mt. Pihanga all to himself. Mt. Tongariro won his love in an epic battle by erupting in anger. Mt. Phihanga, Tongariro’s love laid down in Lake Taupo after the battle and upon seeing her reflection refused to leave her spot. If you look closely in the photo below you can see her lying face up in the waters of the Lake in the background. Mt. Taranaki’s fate was worse. He cried in despair and uprooted himself leaving the other mountains and gouged a deep trench on his departure. The gouge’s depths were filled by waters from the remaining mountains and formed the Whanganui River.
While taking in the view of Red Crater and the surroundings, we had our first strong sulfur smell from the volcanically active area.
We could see others making their way up the Devil’s Staircase and anticipated they would stop for lunch at the Red Crater Summit. From there we took the short but steep descent down to the Emerald Lakes.
The Emerald Lakes – I felt like walking into a picture as I had viewed the lakes many times online in preparing for our trip. They are quite a sight in person with active fumaroles nearby highlighting the landscape with white steam. Colin took a few minutes to throw a fairly large sized rock into the first and largest lake, only to find it bounce as it hit clear, thick ice covering the green/blue mineral colored water. A second pointed rock dislodged by Josh and tossed by Colin found itself impaled in the ice to
everyone’s satisfaction. I chose to use my trekking poles to ease the descent down to the Emerald Lakes and after a time, northward for the trek across the edge of the Central Crater plateau. The track then ascends to Blue Lake. The Central Crater highlights lava flows that emanated from Red Crater long ago. The scoria, a dark and highly textured volcanic igneous rock, was loose and unstable on the descent and resulted in more sliding then walking.
Blue Lake feels like an isolated place as the volcanic prominences keep it isolated from other views on three sides. The lake is an acidic body and sacred to the Mauri peoples. It’s disrespectful to touch the Lake’s water or eat/drink at its shores. We took a brief respite away and above the Lake to fuel up and enjoy the view. From Blue Lake we continued around the west side to an ascent to North Crater and its level lava surface. Here a whole new vista presents itself as you can view Mt. Pihanga, Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo.
As we zigzagged our way down to Ketetahi Hut we encountered new fumaroles created by one of the 2012 Mt. Tongariro eruptions. The Temaari craters on Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope erupted. The August eruption had flying rocks while a November eruption produced only an ash cloud. Expert advice for a trekker if there is an eruption while on the track – RUN don’t hide!
The August eruption produced volcanic rock that pummeled the surrounding area with one rock going straight through the roof and a bunkbed at Ketetahi Hut. Luckily no one was staying there that day. From the Ketetahi Hut we continue the descent adjacent to Ketetahi Springs and private land that Josh explained contains a scared hot spring that is off-limits except for Maori priests who use it to wash deceased priests. Its easily an hour and a half down from these springs to the car park so it must be quite an undertaking to bring a body up to and back from the sacred springs.
On the descent we crossed paths with two volcanologists, one with a very heavy looking equipment pack, on their way up from the car park. A brief conversation revealed they were on their way to take readings with their test equipment from one of the newer fumaroles. We continued the descent on the well-kept route down to the Mangatetipua Stream. Until we met native lowland forest again, the trek until that point had been devoid of observable wildlife. We were finally hearing bird sound and as Josh pointed out the New Zealand Bellbird [Anthornis melanura (Sparman 1786)] in particular. He mentioned that many more birds used to be around but that possum and rat predation has taken a toll on their numbers.
As we approached the last 45 minutes of the trek we came across a lahar hazardous area. I was unfamiliar with a lahar by name but not its devastating potential. A lahar is a volcanic mudflow or debris flow that can, with the strength and consistency of wet concrete, take out most obstacles in its path and can move quite quickly. Josh informed us that a lahar from this area caused a train to fall into the Whangaehu River on Christmas eve in 1953 taking 151 souls.
We finally arrived at the Ketetahi car park for pick up. A bit tired and toe sore mostly from the downhill but also a bit sad that this adventure had come to an end. We had finished the 19.4km (12.06mi) trek in 6 hours 15 minutes and traversed almost 2,100m (6,890ft). Colin of course pointed out that he could have shaved at least an hour off of the time if he hadn’t had to wait for me on the climbs. On the van ride back to the Park Hotel I asked Colin what were the highlights of the day. “everything, except I didn’t get to use my ice axe”. He then said “Pop, would you climb Denali with me for my 18th birthday”. I smiled and said “I’ll try”.