Sunday, 6 January 2013

Mount Ngauruhoe & Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Recently Natahl and I travelled to New Zealand to attend a wedding of one of my cousins. As it has been a while since we have been for a walk we took this opportunity to take a stroll along one of New Zealand's so-called "Great Walks"; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

This walk is one of New Zealand's most popular with over 65,000 people doing it every year. It climbs up from the Mangatepopo Valley towards Mount Tongariro, ducking and weaving its way across volcanic craters and over their associated rims, past lakes and then descending to the north. Total length is just under 20km.

Due to recent volcanic activity the northern part of the crossing is closed, effectively turning the journey into a return walk terminating at Emerald Lakes (near the half way point). As there is limited car parking at the start of the walk this meant we had to catch a shuttle bus both to and from the walk at $NZ35 each.

We set off from the carpark (1120m) around 6:45am in an attempt to beat the worst of the crowds. It was the largest party I've walked with for quite a while, comprising 10 people in total (two cousins, my parents, an aunt and uncle, my sister and her husband and Natahl and myself).

The track starts off gently for around an hour before climbing up from the valley to the Mangatepopo Sadde (1650m). Most of the climb is across old lava flows and hence is devoid of vegetation.

Just below the saddle my cousins Adrian and Tyler and I turned off the track to climb Mt Ngauruhoe. This peak is a near perfect cone and the stereotypical volcano. There is no vegetation on its slopes, which are graced with plenty of scree and hence are difficult to climb. During the ascent we aimed for the more solid areas of rock.

Near the top it was blowing a gale. We came across a snow drift just below the summit itself, and after crossing this it wasn't far to the crater rim. Tyler was a bit perturbed by the wind so we left him beside the snowdrift and Adrian and I continued to the top. There were great views over Mount Tongariro to the north across to Lake Taupo. To the left of Blue Lake is steam coming from near the closed section of the track.

At 2991m the summit is the highest altitude I have been to (excluding pressured commercial aircraft). You can see the crater itself in the right of the photo below. To the south lay Mount Ruapehu, still graced with snow.

It felt pretty good to be on top of a volcano that last erupted less than 40 years ago (1975). There were still signs of volcanic activity on the mountain, including a steam vent near the crater rim and another vent partway down.

I followed Adrian back to Tyler, which included being blown across the snow drift on my backside. We then commenced our descent. The route we chose was different to our ascent route, as we opted to head straight down a scree slope to minimise travel time.

It was the first time I had done any significant distance on scree and I was quite impressed at how easy it was to travel at speed. That said, I would still have preferred to be on my beloved telemark skis as the slope of the mountain was perfect for some turns. Next time, perhaps?

We intercepted the track and its associated hordes of walkers at the base of the mountain. Our descent route is straight above Adrian's head, with Tyler on the right.

From here we continued along the track, traversing what appeared to be a large claypan. This turned out to be the South Crater, which has obviously been dormant for quite some time. The landscape seemed similar to the shots the lunar rover sends back from Mars.

After this the track starts climbing up the rim of the crater towards the highest point of the crossing, the Red Crater. The track surface here is not as good as the other areas but still much better than the climb up Ngauruhoe. I was feeling quite unfit at this point so I let Adrian and Tyler continue ahead. One advantage of panting my way up towards the top was being able to enjoy the views, including that of the Red Crater itself.

Near the top I saw Tyler, who said that Adrian had gone off to climb the summit of Mt Tongariro itself. I continued along to the high point to look down on the Emerald Lakes.

Returning to Tyler I came across my sister Clare and her husband Paul. They said the rest of the party had gone to Mt Tongariro, and soon we were all reunited. Here's the bulk of the party from left to right, with my relationship in brackets; Paul (brother in law), Clare (sister), Robyn (mother), Greg (father), Natahl (my girlfriend), Jeff (uncle) and Carol (aunt).

We then began retracing our steps back along and down the mountain.

It was a great feeling to get amongst the vegetation again at the bottom.

We arrived back at the carpark in time to catch the 3:30pm bus back to the cars. Total distance for me was just over 20km.

Overall, I enjoyed the walk as being on a volcano is pretty unique. However I did miss the vegetation whilst being up there. Spending a day in the volcanic wasteland is fine, but if I had to spend many more then I think I'd go crazy!

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