Saturday, February 22, 2014

New Zealand Day 12: Tongoriro Alpine Crossing

Or, I Climbed Mt. Doom Today

One of the Great Walks in NZ is a multi-day trek across Tongoriro National Park. The main attraction of the walk is the Tongoriro Alpine Crossing, a 19-km trek under the shadow of two volcanoes – dormant but not extinct – and a variety of vents and mineral-laden lakes.

The Alpine Crossing segment is easily accessible from the road at either end, and so receives a lot of traffic from day-hikers. On this day, I was such a one.The Crossing is generally done south-to-north, since there is a net descent in that direction. Most folks arrange with a local company to be dropped off at one end and picked up at the other.

There are eruptions or some sort in the park every few years. One occurred about a kilometer from the northern portion of the Crossing in 2012, and is still venting gasses today. As a result, the Ketetai Hut in the vicinity there is no longer staffed, nor are people allowed to camp there. Because of the threat that an eruption, there are signs posted here and there, warning of the danger, and a green-yellow-red system of flashing lights indicating the current threat level.

Due to its length and difficulty, it’s not a hike that B could do. So H and I split up: I got first crack at it today, and H could have a go tomorrow. Through our campervan site for last night (Discovery), I had a booking on their 5:35 am shuttle to the trailhead. I and about 20 others hit the trail a bit after 6:00 am. The warning sign at the trailhead was flashing green – all clear. There was enough light filtering from the pre-dawn sky through the low clouds that it was easy going without a headlamp along the track.

And what a track! The Kiwis must have conscripted an army of trailworkers on this route. There were long sections of well-constructed boardwalk, interspersed with sturdy stairs, sculpted broad and flat packed gravel, and numerous water-management features.

Less than an hour on the way I came to Soda Springs – the last privy for about 8 miles.

Then began the ascent out of the Mangatepopo Valley. This, too, was well constructed trail with many stairs features to prevent wash out. We soon had ascended above the cloud deck, with clear skies above that would last for the whole day!

We had been traveling roughly East up to a saddle and flat crater between Ngauruhoe (the “ng” is pronounced like a deep-N, similar to the “ng” in “-ing” words, or like “gnarly”) and Tongoriro. The sun had broken the horizon as we ascended, but we didn’t meet it until we reached the saddle and trail junction where the side-trek up Ngauruhoe branched off to the South.

This was a fine time to don the first layer of sunscreen. It was going to be a long day without shade under the sun. I’d gotten toasted a bit during surfing in Raglan, and so was already pretty sensitive. For added protection, I hiked in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, with a bandana draped under my hat to cover my neck. Although the shirt was cotton (usually a no-no when hiking – wet cotton is cold and uncomfortable), I figured the better coverage was worth the risk. It was dry up here, would remain so all day, and I had alternate clothes if need be.

Now is a good time to mention some other gear and preparations. In case of inclement weather, I also brought a fleece jacket, rain shell, fleece hat, and light gloves. I of course had headlamp with extra batteries, first aid kit, compass, knife, and matches (not that there's much to burn there). There is no water to speak of on the trail, and any you find is suspect, so you are advised to bring your own. I had a 1.5-L camelback for water, a 1-L nalgene to suplement, and a 20-oz bike bottle for sports drink (Skratch and Nuun). I ended the hike with perhaps 12 oz of fluid left, which is not a lot of margin. The official literature recommends 1.5 L at least for the crossing, plus extra for side trips. For a 6-8 hour trek out in the open, in dry lands, under the sun, this is perilously little in my opinion. Food I perhaps over-did - too much gorp, perhaps. I also had reviewed the official map and track description from the Dept of Conservation, and had a much more detailed map from Discovery (the shuttle service and campervan site). Interestingly, there is also a Tongoriro Crossing App for the iPhone, which has some interesting background information, maps that use the phone's GPS, and links to the weather and geologic warnings online, all for free. Neat!

Ngauruhoe is a prototypical-looking volcano – a nearly perfect conical pile of rock, gravel, and ash piled up as high and steeply as gravity will allow, topped with a central crater. It is so perfectly volcano-looking that it was the model and film set for Mt Doom in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Another volcano a few km to the south was the setting for various Mordor scenes.) Ngauruhoe is pretty quiet these days, but has let loose in recent history, as a trailside-sign reminded me:

Most of the side-track to the summit is unmarked, steep, and difficult. As I said, it is mostly a pile of volcanic material as steep as the angle-of-repose will allow, which is pretty steep:

This also means that hiking up it is like climbing a sand dune – take a step, see it slide back halfway. Repeat a few thousand times. The best strategy is to find large objects that stick out from the slope – these are solid rock that won’t move when you climb on them. This worked pretty well, though the rock is very sharp under the hands. You know that porous rock that people put in their gas grills to spread the heat? This mountain is made entirely of that.

The crater rim comes on very suddenly. One second you are looking at steep, sharp, red cinder sloping up ahead of you, the next you are standing at the edge of a steep precipice down:

Not bad for less than three hours’ work! I climbed Mt Doom!

The trip down is decidedly easier. Since the material is so loose, you can take great sliding leaps down the slope – glissading down rock! Ninety minutes to ascent, thirty to descend. I took some video with the GoPro, and hope to edit and upload at some point. The only downside to this method is that if you wipe out, your hands get pretty scraped up.

And you get a great pile of sand and gravel in your boots. I probably took about a year’s worth of tread from the bottom of my boots, too – they were brand new for this trip.

When I got back to the trail junction is was a bit before 10. The sun was fully up, and the crowds of day-hikers had arrived. I fell into line and followed the next part of the route: a flat straight section across an South Crater. This was my view of it from the summit of Ngauruhoe:

and from ground level:

I came across some trailworkers I had seen being dropped off by helicopter with their equipment, hacking away at the rock to improve the way.

Figuring that I’d handily beaten book time thus far, I felt I had enough time for the side trip to Tongoriro Summit, where I stopped for lunch around 11:15. Although I usually consider it tacky and out of wilderness character, I texted Hilary from here so that she wouldn’t worry (there was great reception!):

It’s also a fine place to admire the cone of Ngauruhoe:

The next landmark is Red Crater, aptly named due to the color. This, too, was active once upon a time. Ages ago there was an intrusion of magma that cooled around the edges before retreating. The result was hollow tube of material inside softer stuff, which gradually eroded away to this impressive feature:

Another glissade down from Red Crater leads to the Emerald Lakes. These are surprisingly large and deep, and deeply colored from the dissolved minerals. The water is unfit for drinking due the minerals and microbiologic content. Around the edges there are vents indicating that this is still indeed and active area. I was accustomed to the smell from our time around Rotorua.

The trail then skirts around Central Crater, which shows evidence of recent lava flows:

Then the trail heads up to the edge of Blue Lake:

We were at this point upwind from the vents around Emerald Lakes, and ahead was a long, switchbacking route down to Ketetai Hut and (many km later) the finish. However, it was here that some of the most serious warning signs started to show up:

The fine print makes it clear that the track is only closed if the red light is flashing. It was not, though I spent some time while walking along trying to guess my best way out if bad things started happening. I tried not to dwell on it, but it’s hard to ignore when a fuming hole in the ground is just around the corner…and it has been erupting since 2012.

So that is something to attract keep one’s attention. A good thing, too, because the trail from here on out is a bit monotonous: smoothly graded, well maintained, open to the sun, and endlessly meandering down.

Partway down you encounter Ketetai Huts, which has been out-of-service since the new eruption. The building is there, as are a set of pit toilets (the first since the Crossing ascended), but there are no services, no potable water, no caretakers, nor overnight stays. It does serve as a good congregating point for hikers.

It was by this point it was 1:35. I had been on the go since 6:00 and was pretty tired. The shuttle service that dropped me off has pickups each hour from 12:30 to 4:30. I had been figuring I’d get the 3:30 shuttle but, with just 6 km of well-graded downhill, decided to try to book it down for the 2:30 shuttle. It would get me back to camp an hour earlier, and leave me more of the day to chill with H and B.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a good idea. For one thing, my fast hiking pace isn’t quite that fast. For another, my legs were already tired, and my knees were starting to ache from the downhill already. Going fast on a downhill incline and many flights of stairs just made it painful. What is more, my nearly-new boots had started giving me hot-spots on the outside edge of my heels. These turned into full-blown blisters during the descent.

On the plus side, the final 3 km or so is actually under the shade of trees:

The sprint to the finish was a valiant, if foolhardy effort; I ended up five minutes shy of catching the 2:30 shuttle. Now I had the prospect of cooling my heels (perhaps literally) for nearly an hour with a spring-break-on-hangover crowd.

Yup, I shouldn’t have pushed it. However, I contacted Hilary upon my arrival, and since she was in the area already, she came and picked me up. I called the shuttle service to let them know I was off the trail (by local regulation, they need to account for all their dropoffs). We went off for some relaxed afternoon activities (next post).

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