Sunday, December 17th, 2017
Day 42: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 15km
I am currently sitting by Soda Springs waterfall in my pink nano puff and purple Smartwool leggings, listening to the water pound onto the rocks, waiting for the clouds to lift for a peak at the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, absorbing this other-wordly volcanic environment, and looking at my feet wondering if it’s even possible for them to get any more disgusting. While I feel completely relaxed and present in this exact beautiful moment, this morning was definitely a bit of a challenge. Unfortunately it seems that yesterday’s hike carrying a pack with 8 days worth of food was too overwhelming for Clea’s recovering Achilles. Tendons can be a real bitch and a half. Having recently come back from a serious knee injury, I am all too familiar with the difficult balancing act of not jumping back into activity too soon, but also not wanting to entirely sacrifice your sanity. Based on the level of discomfort she was feeling, and not wanting to cause further injury, Clea made the hard and heartbreaking but responsible decision to stay back and rest at our stealthy, hidden little forest camp. Especially with our Christmas paddle booked for Christmas Eve, this next section of trail requires longer mileage with quite a bit of vertical gain each day to finish on time. I offered to stay back for moral support and to help her make an alternative plan, but she insisted I continue. As I started up the trail, I felt pretty shitty leaving her behind for a multitude of reasons. Am I a shitty friend for carrying on with the journey? Should I have stayed to hang out and help her heal? Would I make things worse by being around constantly asking her if she’s ok? I also just miss my best friend and want to spend time with her. Am I selfish for not wanting to miss parts of the TA either? I don’t know if there is a right answer to any of these questions, and perhaps there are pieces of both sides that make sense. I just hope that she is able to fully heal her ankle and her soul to rejoin me later on. I am very grateful we have the Christmas paddle down the Whanganui coming up though! That is one experience we will get to share happily together no matter what. In the meantime I am going to finish the Tongariro area while she rests a little more. I know Clea really wanted to see these volcanoes, but the beauty of nature is that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. These views will be here next week, next month, next decade waiting for her! And the weather will probably be clearer for her than it was for me and Matt today!
Our ascent to North Crater was almost entirely in the fog. I could tell we were climbing a mountain based on the sweat dripping down my face, the more open tundra-like hills, and the occasional vista behind us, but we really couldn’t see more than one hundred feet in front of us until we reached Blue Lake. I kinda dig the blind fog life, it’s eerie, curious, and suspicious. The clouds broke as we walked down into the Mars-like Central Crater, offering incredible views of Red Crater and the mint-green Emerald Lakes. Clouds were rolling in and out pretty much all day so we never had a perfectly solid view, but they would clear enough to snap a mental picture. A strong scent of sulphur was present everywhere, a constant reminder that these craters are still active. The climb to the top of Red Crater was steep and sandy, but the red volcanic rock was something to be marveled at. We would have had a view of Mt Ngauruhoe too if it weren’t for the clouds, so I had to just imagine what Mt Doom looks like in person. But the clouds didn’t stop us, or the other thousands of people from checking out the Tongariro Crossing.
I have no doubt the breathtaking uniqueness of these natural features, combined with it being the setting for Lord of the Rings, explains why there was such an obscene number of tourists. On some level it feels weird to me that a part of nature has become so incredibly exploited for the sake of tourism. People pay for a shuttle to one trailhead, take all day to walk the 15 kilometers, snap a million selfies, and hop on a shuttle at the other end back to their accommodation. It’s another tricky situation that maybe doesn’t have one right answer. I know I’m biased because I happen to be an outdoorswoman who thrives on experiencing the wonders of nature as a result of my own manpower. I especially prefer immaculate wilderness settings that I don’t have to share because that’s where I find the most peace, the most beauty, the most simplicity. And I will go far out of my way to find those places. So when I’m in a pristine place but am surrounded by heaps of people who seem to have put in more money than actual effort for the view, I find myself feeling saddened almost. At the same time, can’t nature have the same empowering effect on someone else but just in a different way? Could taking a selfie with Emerald Lakes in the background provide the same level of fulfillment for someone as I find on say a remote, high alpine class 4 scramble? Do others not deserve those experiences just because they don’t have the same mindset or physical capabilities as me? Maybe I’m too sensitive because I have so much respect for the outdoors, a respect that is clearly not mirrored by the people leaving candy wrappers and shit-stained toilet paper on the side of the trail. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I’m too selfish in wanting solitude all the time. Maybe I’m overthinking the whole scenario entirely, but I can’t help it. Ok. Rant over. On that note, Matt and I did manage to find some solitude on the summit of Mt Tongariro!
Nobody else seemed to want to hike up into a mysterious, apocalyptic cloud covering black, deathly volcanic rock but it was fucking awesome. I can’t say I’ve ever climbed such dark, bulbous rock before. I especially loved seeing little yellow flowers growing out of random rock fragments, just a little hello from life! We half walked, half ran down from Tongariro into South Crater. The clouds were back in full force, covering the barren, empty landscape with a sense of impending doom. Flat, black and gray, sandy dirt was speckled with tufts of dull colored grass, sharp volcanic rock, and views of the rocky base of Mt Ngauruhoe.
Thunder rumbled through the fog as we sat down for a snack break, feeling like we’d just entered into another trippy dimension of gray atmosphere. We had intended to summit Ngauruhoe, but decided a sunrise attempt would be more enjoyable and have better potential for views given the current weather. So instead we meandered down to the waterfall, set up the tarp for rain protection, and have been straight chilling with nature all afternoon. In our attempt to be stealthy campers,
Matt decided to move his olive green tarp into a perfectly hidden divet where we ate some delicious dinner and finagled our sleeping bags into sleepable positions amongst all the weird lumps and bumps of plant life. Try to picture a massive valley beneath a huge, active volcano, full of black rock and dull grass, but also with a green waterfall, small stream, and distant mountain views. Then imagine rain falling under a thick, dark gray fog encompassing the valley as night creeps in. Then envision a tiny green tarp smeared into the landscape with two cozy bodies underneath just trying to stay dry and sleep well. That is my current reality and it’s fucking rad.
Monday, December 18th, 2017
Day 43: Mangatepopo Hut to Whakapaitu Hut, 21km
Our idea to wake up early for a sunrise summit was squashed when I woke up at 3:30 to rain and heavy fog. I was disappointed but also not too upset about sleeping a little longer. We started to hear people walking to the waterfall around 8am. Our tarp was pretty well hidden, but I wasn’t in the mood to deal with the awkwardness of some tourist making confused eye contact with me in my sleeping bag. I will say though that it’s pretty impressive how little attention people pay to anything that’s not within immediate peripheral eyesight of the trail. Regardless, we swiftly packed away evidence of our overnight adventure and enjoyed a misty breakfast by the waterfall. We continued down the trail in the rain until arriving at the Mangatepopo Hut for some map planning and a snack. There was an incredibly kind French Canadian man there who gave us bananas, bagels, and chorizo! I don’t think people understand quite how special that is. The track to Whakapapa Village was rolling bushland with views of Mt Ruapehu sneaking through the clouds. We couldn’t resist the chance to load up on candy, cookies, and ice cream before continuing on to the Whakapapaiti Hut, our first section of the Round The Mountain track. This next track is another off the Te Araroa adventure that circumnavigates the massive, snow-capped Ruapehu volcano.
We got incredible views of the enormous, striking feature along the trail, and even better views right from the porch of the hut. The stoke level is very high to climb Ruapehu tomorrow, but I am also very sad that Clea isn’t here to share this with me. There was a group of teenagers at the hut, one who wants to work at a summer camp in the United States so we chatted about Cheley for awhile. I indulged in a very long stretch sesh on the porch with Ruapehu in the backdrop before devouring a cheesy, chorizo couscous and finishing off the giant bag of cookies I’d bought an earlier. I was a fool for thinking those cookies would last until tomorrow. I’m going to bed full and ready to get high on a volcano in the morning.
Tuesday, December 19th, 2017
Day 44: Mt Ruapehu, 29km
Helllllll yesssssss today was mega!!! Mt Ruapehu felt like a dream…an epic, beautiful, unbelievable dream. We crushed some legitimate vert, played around on the top of a snow-capped volcano all day and looked at epic views of Mt Doom (Ngauruhoe) while doing so. Being back in a snowy mountain environment felt right. We exercised our route-finding skills to navigate between snowfields peppered with dead gnats making the snow look like chocolate chip ice cream, and sketchy scrambles, and I fucking shredded the gnar back to Whakapapa Ski Village. I’m talking world class glissading straight down the slopes of Ruapehu. I can’t wrap my brain around today being a real part of my New Zealand experience so far, I had so much damn fun and the climb/descent was so entirely unlike any part of the trail yet. My spirits are soaring, my stomach hurts from laughing, and my soul is smiling. I feel free. End of story.
Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
Day 45: Mangatepopo Hut to Mangaehuehu Hut, 32km
I woke up to misty rain covering Mt Ruapehu to the east, and a full rainbow to the west. We enjoyed the magical view just long enough for the rain to stop so we could continue our journey along the Round the Mountain Track. Initially seeing the distances of the track, we assumed we could zip through the whole track in two-ish days. Perhaps I let the conditioning from the Te Araroa get to my head a little bit thinking I can just crush, as the terrain turned out to be very slow going regardless of your physical capabilities. Steep hills up and down around the base of Ruapehu were full of narrow, knee to shoulder high, slippery ruts that looked like someone had just scooped away the trail. Maneuvering around them required careful stepping, butt scooting, high lunges and the occasional grass pull. Between the washed out track and multiple river crossings we weren’t moving particularly fast, but the views of Ruapehu were astounding so I really couldn’t have cared less.
The wind was chilly, the air was crisp, and I was happy. Being on day 5 of an 8 day stretch, our food supplies are running down to the minimum rations, which is always a bummer when you’re someone who loves to snack all day long. Just when I was wondering whether I would have enough food to avoid total hanger, we arrived at the Mangatururu Hut where a large group of older tramping club members were having a Christmas party. I’m still confused about the whole it being December thing considering the summer weather is not and sunny. But whatever. These incredibly kind trampers invited me and Matt inside to finish off the remains of their Christmas party meal! I was so stoked that I’m honestly not 100% sure exactly what I was eating, but I know there was bread, fudge, cherries and peanuts involved. A true Christmas miracle! We went on our merry way as they began their gift exchange.
The next stretch of trail included an awesome scramble up a pristine, rocky waterfall cascading over white and gray rocks with the southern side of Ruapehu in the backdrop. A few kilometers of the track had us pounding our knees down a paved road until we reconnected with the trail. Soft forest, swinging bridges and lots of wooden steps brought us to the Mangaehuehu Hut. I took a quick detour to check out the Blyhe Hut, but we definely made the right decision to walk a little farther. The view here is unbelievable. The group of teenagers from the other night is here again. I smashed my couscous I was so hungry and now I’m so ready to go to Dreamland.
Thursday, December 21st, 2017
Day 46: Mangaehuehu Hut to Whakapapa Village, 48km
Weeeeee crushed today. I woke up to the sound of teenage voices excitedly preparing themselves for the day, and socialized with some hut-mates before hitting the trail. First destination: Rangipo Hut. Especially with a new understanding of how complexities in varying terrain affect pace, Matt and I have adopted a convenient, malleable approach to planning our days. Of course our food supply is the main factor determining timing between tracks, but within the food timeframe we really just go with the flow. We look at the map, talk about potential distances and camping areas for the day’s final destination, pick a meeting spot for our first break, and start walking. At the first spot we eat a snack, check the time, look at the map and talk about potential breaking points for the rest of the day. Then we pick a second break point, start walking, etc. until dinner time starts rolling around and we find a place to camp. It’s a pretty sweet, flexible system that also makes it easy for us to hike separately but stay together. The system’s success, however, is heavily dependent on there having been clear communication about said meeting point. Which leads me to today’s story. So Matt’s pace is about 1% quicker than mine. I don’t understand how he does it. Our legs are basically the same length, but I swear I literally can’t move any faster and he’s somehow always a few minutes ahead. The track from Mangaehuehu to Rangipo started through mellow forest before entering rolling, rocky desert dunes passing up and over ridges, through river valleys, and across lahar zones. Some rocks were light colored and round, reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains, while others were black and bulbous, or gray and smooth.
The smell of sulphur lingered in the air as a constant reminder that you were, in fact, on a volcano. I met Matt at the Rangipo Hut which had a beautiful view of the mountains just south of us, and basked in the sun for awhile. We briefly talked about meeting at the Waihohonu Hut, then potentially stealth camping around Tama Lakes, or crushing all the way back to Whakapapa Village.
The conversation was short though, and nothing was officially confirmed so I just assumed when Matt took off that we’d just meet at the Waihohonu Hut and make a plan from there. I walked along a casual trail in the open, hot, volcanic desert around the east side of Ruapehu, through black sand, rocky paths, and brown dirt. I knew Matt was about 10 minutes ahead of me, but was very confused when I arrived at the hut and he was nowhere to be found. I checked the old historic hut too and still, no Matt. I continued down the trail for another 30 minutes and found nobody. Given we hadn’t picked a final destination and we still had 16 kilometers until Whakapapa Village, I was not really in the mood to be alone trying to figure out where Matt went. I put my pack down on the side of the trail, left a note, and walked back to the Hut to make sure he wasn’t there. Nobody there had seen him, and they all kind of looked at me like I’m a freak because I was clearly pretty flustered about my missing friend. I kept walking towards Whakapapa, thinking surely Matt would stop to wait for me, especially with night just around the corner. But an hour went by, two hours went by, and no Matt. I’ll be honest, I was pissed. Did he stealth camp without me? Did I piss him off somehow? I walked 45 minutes up to Tama Lakes but no Matt. I considered just stealth camping by myself, but what if he’d gone all the way to Whakapapa Village and was waiting for me there? I considered every possibility before deciding to just send it back to town. My legs were feeling the 10 hours of nonstop walking when I arrived in Whakapapa and borrowed a phone. After being pretty pissed for a few hours, I found Matt at the Tussock Tavern drinking a beer and eating wedges. How can you be mad at someone for drinking a beer and eating food? You can’t. I was just glad to be reunited! I joined him for a few drinks as we let our tired legs relax and watched the sunset over Ngauruhoe. To make the night even better, turns out Clea was at the local holiday park!!! So we headed to the lodge and spent the rest of the evening catching up with her.
Friday, December 22nd, 2017
Day 47: REST DAY WITH CLEA!!!
We woke up early considering we stealth camped on the couches at the holiday park and wanted to day hike up Ngauruhoe. Matt and I headed down to Ferguson’s Café for some brekky and coffee. While devouring a pastrami bagel and some banana cake, looking at the cloudy, kind of rainy weather, we decided that hanging out with Clea all day would be a WAY better use of a day. I hadn’t seen her in a week and was really missing my best friend! Plus I wanted to cheer her up given the ankle situation (more on that later). On our way back to the lodge I ran into Pete and Cass, our Vermont friends from the first week of the trail!! I swear over the last week I’ve run into just about everyone I’ve met on the trail so far. It’s awesome. Anyway I was stoked to tell Clea we get to hang out all day! We all took a fat nap in the morning, made lunch, did laundry, and awkwardly tried to steer clear of the cleaning people. Tussock Tavern opened promptly at 3pm, so we were there for a beer promptly at 3pm. We sat on the porch looking at Ngauruhoe, talking about life, laughing, eating fried food, drinking beer, and cursing the sandflies straight into the evening. While in line for a drink, I ran into the people I had been freaking out to at the hut yesterday! They were very pleased to see I had made it safely back and was no longer so scary pissed. Deb, Graham, and Mark joined us for more beers and amazing conversation. I got to pick their brain about New Zealand skiing too so that was dope. Next thing we knew it was 10pm! How does that even happen?? Our new friends were also staying at the holiday park so we all walked back together and hung out in the kitchen making pizza. After 7 hours of beer drinking we were definitely a little drunk, which probably explains how we got such an awesome band started. Clea, Matt and I were playing the bottle flute, Mark got a doorknob beat going, and Deb slapped metal spoons like a pro. Our shenanigans continued up until 11:30 when our old asses were finally ready for bed so we packed day packs for tomorrow’s early hike and passed the fack out. Today really turned out to be a hilarious, super chill day in Whakapapa.
Saturday, December 23rd, 2017
Day 48: Whakapapa Village to Taumarunui, 30km
Despite having drank beer for basically all of yesterday, we wanted to beat the massive crowd of tourists we knew would inevitably show up so Matt and I forced ourselves to wake up at 3:30 for a dawn patrol mission to the summit of Ngauruhoe. I was pretty determined to get up there since weather had deterred us the week before. We passed only a handful of people on our way up the steep, scree-filled, sandy, rocky slopes of Ngauruhoe before topping out at the bowl of Mt Doom. The volcanic crater up there is so crazy, you can see giant red boulders falling all around the rim. There still wasn’t much of a view because of clouds, but I was so impressed by the volcano itself that I didn’t care. The descent was a fun scree run past herds of tourists that had appeared while we were enjoying Ngauruhoe to ourselves. Even without our packs I felt like we still stood out. First of all, our clothes are permanently dirty at this point no matter how many times we wash them. Secondly we move about 5 times faster than everyone else, especially without our packs. To be honest though I enjoy being different. The 15 kilometers of basic track back to Clea in Whakapapa was pretty brutal as the lack of sleep started to kick in.
We showed up hungry as fuck after 9 hours of hiking, so naturally went directly to the Chateau for some more spicy wedges with sweet chili sauce. I swear I am such a fat ass these days it’s disgusting. We followed up our wedges with some ice cream before hitching a ride back to Taumarunui. We had a little bit of trouble finding a ride, despite Clea’s ankle boot being an obvious reason to need a lift. Matt managed to find these two incredibly kind American women in a camper van who offered to drive us all the way to Taumarunui despite it being 30 minutes in the opposite direction. We did some last minute Christmas shopping before checking into Kelly’s Motel. We utilized our perfectly sized bedroom with a full bath and kitchen to prepare for the upcoming Christmas paddle. We bought enough food for a small army at New World, knowing we would eat all of it in pure gluttony. The rest of the evening was spent packing our waterproof bins, eating candy, wrapping presents, drinking Scrumpy’s Cider, listening to Christmas music, and decorating Clea’s boot with glitter glue, flowers, and butterflies. The holiday spirit was alive!