Saturday, June 16, 2012

Journey in the shadow of Mt Doom

Don't advise getting a tattoo in a bus, but to each their own.

We finally got to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  We thought about it last week, but I ended up being sick and there were gale force winds.  So it wouldn't have been possible.  This week, everything aligned and we were able to complete the tramp with some awesome weather and a lot of gnarly views. 
Start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Ready for action.

Prior to leaving for Taupo, I let our intentions be known at work.  Alice expressed interested in doing the tramp as she has never done it, but she didn't have the time off.  Faye told us to have fun as she did the tramp and the other summits during last summer.  The other summits aren't possible/recommended in the winter because of the early sunset.  Jesse isn't really into that thing and just said to be careful.  Sarah said to have fun.  From work I ended up buying, an emergency solar bivvy bag, fire steel, and rain jackets for Beth and I.  I was tempted to get a gas canister for my stove and some back country meals.  My time at the WFR course has me thinking about safety and what I pack a lot more consciously.  Some may say I'm paranoid.  More on that in my original and revised packing list.  The woman at the front desk told us to pack warm as it was supposed to be very cold. 
Mt Doom, minus the eye.

We took Naked Bus again down to Taupo and stayed at Rainbow Lodge, who advertises heated rooms!  This place is a lot more low key than the place we stayed at last time as there is no bar.  They even had a dry sauna for our use.  Beth made use of it after kayaking.  We got a double room with a private bath.  The room was definitely hot for us when we went to bed.  Strange how heating works in this country.  They even have government funded PSA about the benefits of insulation.  Things I take for granted.
Ready to turn this thing to 11.
We booked a trip with Tongariro Expeditions, with an early morning pick-up at 6:20 am.  Before turning in we checked out the weather forecast and we were looking at a low of 0 when we woke up and then a high of 10 in Taupo.  That is all fine and dandy, but we were going to be at elevation and we had reports of ice on the top of the crossing so I'm expecting it to be colder than 0 at the summit.    We turned in early in order to allow for a full nights rest for the 19.4km tramp we would be doing tomorrow.
Raised wooden bridge from the DOC.  Not poll friendly.

We were out of the hostel at 6:18am and the bus had already left our location and they had a van waiting to drive us to the bus.  This is a first.  Most of the time, it is kiwi-time which is not unlike island time.  The van drove us around the corner and dropped us off.  We were accompanied by 15 other trampers and a driver and guide.  Since there was ice on the summit, we were issued an ice-axe and crampons.  The only knock I had with the equipment is the guide assumed people knew how to use it as there was no demonstration. 
Seriously?  More pictures? We got to go up!
We started the trek at the Mangatepopo car park with the bus waiting to pick us up at the Ketetahi car park some 19 odd kilometers later.  The estimated time for completion is between 6-8 hours if you don't do any of the side tracks.  The entire trek is a well traveled path with markers to show you where to go, so there is little chance of getting lost unless your name is Robert ;)  The first part is through some low laying brush that had a thin layer of morning frost on it.  We had Mt Ruapehu (largest ski field) to our far right, then Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom) in the center, and finally Mt Tongariro to the left. 
Can they put in escalators?
The morning chill wore off once we got to the convenient staircase provided by the DOC.  I keep expecting there to be an escalator or chair-lift to be installed at these types of outdoor wonders so that everyone can experience them, but that would just be lazy.  We quickly shed our outer layer and tackle the steps before we find the turn off to summit Mt Doom.  This trail would have added 3 hours to our already long day and there would have been plenty of snow and ice to combat against.  I would really like to summit both Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, but that will have to wait spring or summer. 
The clouds come rolling in.
We reached a large crater and were pretty quickly surrounded by clouds.  We were on our way to meet Collin, our guide, at Cathedral Rock.  This was a long barren area that became dark and foreboding and as you turned around you could see the sunlight starting to be consumed.  Almost felt like the darkness from the NeverEnding Story.  We had to put on the layer that we removed on the previous step as the sun was no longer beating on us.  Once we got to the meeting point, Collin was there to advise us that we did indeed need to use the crampons we were issued in the bus.  He said there was bullet-proof ice on the next section. 
Cathedral Rock front and center.
The next section took us about 30 minutes to clear and it was probably the most technical part of the tramp because you had to be very sure of your crampon enclosed feet and the slippery terrain.  We did get a little bit of flurry type of action, but for the most part it was cloudy with a little wind.  I felt like Luke stumbling around on Hoth whining about having to go to Dagobah.  Putting on the equipment reminded me of my time with Eden Guides this past winter in MN when we went ice climbing.  I was excited to get on this section as it wasn't just a walk. 
Wonder which way the wind was blowing.  Ice was kinda thick.

Almost ready for ice climbing.  Kyle do you want to belay?
Can you see me?
After this section we were able to take off our crampons in the nice "sandy" area that smelled like sulfur.  Well it did to Beth any way.  It was about 11:30 and we had our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some hokey pokey bar.  A group of 3 french visitors sat down next to us and broke out half a pizza each.  I was expecting to see a 40 of malt liquor as well, but we departed before they pulled it out. 
Shaky descent.
Just about ready.
We started to walk through what looked like a cloud but it was steam from the geothermal activity.  Beth was in the lead and looked a little unsure on the unsure ground.  I didn't fare much better and decided to traverse the entire trail in order to remain stable.  We were walking down a pretty gnarly ridge, but the view about a quarter of the way down was well worth it.
Clouds depart and a frozen lake appears.

Walking the steep sandy ridge to the lakes.
The clouds took maybe 10 minutes to dissipate and the view was well worth it.  I could only imagine seeing it from the summit.  The lakes were frozen and I wonder what it would be like to host a hockey tournament up here not to mention having a half marathon over the crossing.  The groups ahead of us missed out seeing the cloud free lakes and had to settle for up close views.  I'm glad we stopped to eat! 
We just came down that ridge.
After the ridge and passing the pools, we entered another crater.  This was a pretty volcanic looking area that reminded us of Mt Fuji, which we hiked in 2004.  Off in the distance we had yet another ridge to cross over.  However, in this crater I thought of a new sport.  Ice Bouldering!  I pulled out my axes and put them to a ice covered boulder.  Too bad the ice was shoddy and wouldn't hold much weight.  Kyle or Bethany, do you think we can register this as a legitimate sport?
Ice covered boulder.

Sit start?
Beth also had fun with the grass-cicles, but don't talk about them or they will melt.
Elusive grass-cicle in its natural habitat.

Don't tell anyone.
After the lakes and the last ridge, the rest of the trek is downhill.  Still have amazing scenery and you have to be careful as you are going down some well traveled and rutted trail.  From the ridge, you can see Lake Taupo off in the distance.  You can also see lush green forest, which is a vast contrast from the other side of the ridge.  We experienced a wealth of vegetation on the trek and saw many types of weather over the day.  We were blessed with rain after we got  on the bus to go back.  Everyone completed the trek today and we were on the road a little after 4pm.  The trek grade was a 2-3 and I would have to agree.  Its been a couple days and my calves are the only thing that is sore. 

First bathroom in over 4 hours.

About to start our last 2 hours.
The rest of the trek was a brief stop at the Ketetahi Hut for a snack and a bathroom break (the first available in over 4 hours), a crazy series of switchback trails, monstrous sized shrubs, a forest, and some rapids.  The downhill journey took 3 hours and we saw some awesome sights, but we had summited and saw the lakes and the went through the motions to get to point b.  Much like this post, I put a lot of time in the beginning and toward the end, I feel like I just wanted to be done.
Over the last ridge and its downhill.

Lake Taupo in the distance.

Steam coming out of the ground.  Can you cook in it?
Larger vegetation starting to grow.
Now into the forest. 
Last 2km you walk next to some rapids.

After my Wilderness First Responder course, I have become much more aware of what I pack and how things can be used in different situations.  Some may think this is paranoid, but I would rather be in a position to act instead of short-handed.  Many of the things taught in the course are how to make do with common things in your day pack.  My day pack is just a little fuller than it used to be.  I'm not a minimalist like a guy I know named Robert who likes to dump out his water before a hike as he doesn't want to carry the bottle nor do I carry a the kitchen sink.  I'm still trying to find the right amount of mandatory gear and what is specifically needed for the occasion.  

Packing List for Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
(Not used, but will always take)
(Not used at and probably over kill for conditions)

Rain Jacket
Rain Pants
first aid kit
wet wipes
WFR book
Food & water (3 litters)
Soft Shell (worn)
sunglasses (worn)
long sleeve wool shirts (worn)
zip-off pants (worn and rolled up for a lot of the trek)
light weight wool socks (worn)

hiking boots (worn)
knit hat (worn off and on)
wind-proof non-insulated gloves (worn off and on)
Fleece top (not worn)
snowboarding wool socks (not worn)

Fleece pants (left at apartment)

short sleeve wool shirt (left at hostel)
jogging tights (left at hostel)

thermal pants (not worn)
light weight wool hat (not worn)
fleece lined knit hat (not worn)
leather gloves (Beth did use these)
glove liners (not worn)

2 ice axes


  1. Awesome pics! Wish I could have been there, except for the cold. Were the temps you gave in C or F?

  2. Those temps are in C and most distances are in km. People here don't really grasp a mile or inches. Nor my slang.