When asked in the early 1920s why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, legendary English mountaineer George Mallory famously replied: “Because it’s there.” Mallory died on Everest in 1924 and his body was found 75 years later. So, as it turns out, he was “there” a while himself.
My reasons for undertaking the slightly less challenging Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the center of the North Island of New Zealand were different from Mallory’s… as was my intended fate.
The Crossing, as it’s known in New Zealand, was “there” of course, but so was the bed I was sleeping in when the alarm went off at 5 a.m. My buddy Andre and I did The Crossing because his research revealed it to be “the best one-day trek in New Zealand.” Some even say it’s among the top ten single-day treks in the world. I thought that title might belong to the distance between, say, the couch and the bathroom on a Sunday afternoon during football season. Evidently not. Nevertheless, if those titles were bestowed upon it by anyone, it had to be worth a look. It’s also an active volcanic area and we’d never climbed one of those. If it erupted, much excitement would surely ensue.
The Crossing is 19.4 kms (about 12 miles) from one trailhead to the other. It supposedly takes 7-9 hours to complete—though you’d have to be drunk and on crutches for it to take 9 hours—and begins a few minutes from a tiny outpost called National Park. The town consists of a few hotels, a couple of bars, a small market, no stoplights that we could find, and a train station that welcomes one passenger train per day, except on Wednesdays when no trains come through. (Just keep that in mind if you’re ever looking to ride the rails of New Zealand toward National Park on a Wednesday.) After waking in the dark in Taupo along the shores of Lake Taupo, we made the scenic, hour-and-40-minute drive to our hotel in National Park, dropped our bags with the lovely pregnant, pajama-clad woman at the front desk and headed back to the trailhead at the end of a long, climbing dirt road. There, we’d leave our car and commence the walk, hitching a death-defying shuttle ride back to it when we reached the other end.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts at an elevation of 3,670 feet and crests at 6,188 feet. There is hardly any vegetation to be seen. Much of the views are of the surrounding volcanic rock and the bulk of the walk is quite exposed to the elements. There are no trees to protect visitors from wind, rain or snow. The route itself is unique in that it’s not an up and back down climb (hence the term “crossing”), but rather consists of flat areas and a number of climbs and descents along the way. In fact, the last three hours are spent going downhill, which sounds simple unless you’ve done much downhill walking for three hours at a time. Rest assured you’ll feel the downhills more than the uphills the next day.
The oldest lava in the Tongariro area started flowing 300,000 years ago right up until the Ice Age. The youngest volcano in the area formed 2,500 years ago, with its latest eruption coming in 1975. Another eruption took place a little more recently; like two and a half years ago. On August 6, 2012, an eruption occurred at Te Maari Crater, a mile from the Ketetahi Hut, the final hut on the trail. No one was evacuated or injured, but an ash cloud nearly four miles high filled the sky and deposited two inches of ash along two nearby state highways. That point about no one evacuating seems impressive to me, as I imagine my reaction to a volcano erupting in close proximity to my location would be slightly different than: “Hey, honey, the volcano up the street is erupting again. Can you hand me the remote? I just want to catch the end of the rugby. Thanks.”
Being called “perhaps the greatest one day walk in the world” lends itself to one major drawback: tons of people show up from all over the planet to do said walk. On ideal summer days, The Crossing can see upwards of 1,500 visitors. I like humans as much as the next human, but one of the many appealing aspects of outdoor pursuits is that you often get to do them away from lots of other people, not to mention your phone, computer, email or kickass blog. This didn’t seem like it would be the case when we arrived at the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. Even knowing the trail’s popularity, the number of people piling out of buses and cars and onto the trail in the bright, early morning light was slightly confronting, especially given the 25-degree (F) temperature and winds gusting above 50 m.p.h. To keep warm, we hit the trail straight away.
After 30 minutes walking alongside a small group of Scandinavian 20-somethings—fellas, picture that however you’d like—we skirted past a class of high school students whose teacher decided it would be a great idea to walk in a pack of 80. Even better, she must have thought, let’s do so by occupying the entire width of the trail and move slowly enough to ensure we all finish by winter. Surely, they could have split into smaller groups based on pace for everyone else’s sake, a point I muttered aloud while crawling behind them for 20 minutes. I am ALL for kids getting outside, off the couch and away from video games. I just don’t think they need to do it in front of me…on a trail…in New Zealand…in a group of 80…moving at the pace of the slowest kid in the class…who must have had one leg that was substantially shorter than the other. That was mean. I apologize.
After the herd finally let us by, we were peeling off layers as the route climbed sharply for 40 minutes through an area more protected from the wind but steep enough to remind our quads that we’d mountain biked for three hours the previous day. A few hundred yards into this steeper section—and for the next three plus hours up over the highest point—the ground was covered in an inch of overnight snow, despite it being early summer in New Zealand.
The steep section plateaued in a field of lava beneath the exploded cone of the South Crater and after a 10-minute walk across a flat, but spectacular moon-like landscape, the trail continued up the steepest section of the entire trip. For 30 minutes, it ran along a ridge to the highest point of the climb near Red Crater. The snow was slightly deeper and those who decided that running sneakers were a good idea for a 20 km hike across a snow-capped volcano were flailing around like fish. This provided more amusement than it probably should have.
From the top, the view of the surrounding peaks was sensational. A large sign cautioned visitors that they were in a hazardous volcanic area. This seemed to be a bit late in the game to be informed of such a detail, though you would have had to have ignored a wealth of signs earlier to just be catching on to the whole This Is a Volcanic Area thing. Steam vents made the visibility foggy and left the air stinking of sulfur. Below, the trail dove sharply down a very steep pitch toward the beautiful green Emerald Lakes, the highlight of the Crossing and a photo you see in many New Zealand guidebooks. The lakes fill explosion craters and get their eye-catching colors from dissolved minerals that have washed down from the thermal area near Red Crater. On this day, the contrasting freshly fallen snow beautifully framed the three lakes. The soil on the sharp downhill toward the lake was thick and dark, making the footing challenging. Several people took spills as they made their way down the hill. Again, some personal amusement ensued.
We labored down the hill through the soil and lunched just beyond the lakes out of the wind. The sun was still shining brightly and it felt as though we were a million miles from anywhere. I love that feeling, unless I’m hungry or need a bathroom. Twenty minutes later we commenced the final three hours of the trek.
Six hours and 15 minutes after we began, we were in the parking lot paying $30 for a 20-minutes shuttle ride back to our car. Unbeknownst to us, this would be the most dangerous part of the day. The driver careened down the highway and back up the dirt road, taking corners at a frightening speed in a beat-up van whose best days looked like they might have been in some Beach Boys photo shoot in 1963. To avoid pondering how far my body might land from the vehicle in the event of a crash given that there were no seat belts and the driver’s insistence on TURNING AROUND to speak to us, I shifted my thoughts to the cold beer and soft pillow I’d be enjoying in that order (not simultaneously) once back in the concrete jungle of National Park.
The next morning we swung by the train station, where I purchased a hot chocolate from the pleasant, young lady working in the shop. It was Wednesday and I felt bad for her. She wouldn’t be seeing anyone all day.