Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tongariro Crossing

It was a cold morning trying to prepare breakfast in -9 degree Celsius. It was too cold to wait outside for the bus to come pick us up so we parked the car in front of reception with the heating on. When the bus finally did come I was happy it was well heated. We were fitted with hiking boots, crampons and were given the option of borrowing fleece pants and rain gear. The day was very sunny without a cloud in the sky so we knew we wouldn’t need the rain gear, and we also knew once we started hiking we would warm up so we didn’t take the fleece pants either. We were confident our cargo pants with the under layer of under wear we had bought the day before would keep us warm for the day.

The Tongariro Crossing is a 19.5km crossing in-between the Tongariro & Ngauruhoe mountains. Most people do the crossing in the summer months, with thousands of people completing it every day, but it is possible to complete the crossing in the winter as well. In the summer you can complete the crossing by yourself but in the summer months most companies will provide a guide to assist you. As we got off the bus we were handed an ice axe. I had never used one before and I became a little worried as to why we would need one, but decided not to worry about it too much. There were a total of 3 guides on the trek and the first guide, Sarah, started walking as soon as she was off the bus. We didn’t bother waiting for the others and followed her as soon as we had obtained our ice axes. She was a good 500 meters ahead of us with others from the bus who had caught up with her. We didn’t mind walking alone as we’re pretty quick walkers and it allowed us to walk at our own pace. Pretty soon we had caught up with Sarah and the fast walking group.

After walking for an hour we had our first break. Up until that point it had been an easy walk as a lot of the trail had been a manmade walkway. At first Andrew said it ruined the “experience” for him to walk on a manmade walkway, but since in the summer up to one thousand people complete this crossing, it was understandable why it was there. As we were resting, there was a group of guides from another company who were completing training, and they pointed out the beautiful view of another mountain, Mnt. Taranaki, about 120km away. It was such a clear day that we could see it clearly but it was disturbing to see smoke coming out from the top of it. Mount Taranaki is an active volcano and everyone was speculating as to whether it was really erupting or if it was just an illusion. Perhaps a passing cloud? Our guide, Sarah, said she had never seen it do that before and thought it was strange. Everyone laughed it off however and we continued our hike. Here is where the real work began. This was the beginning of the Devil’s Staircase. Before we started however, we were separated into 3 groups. Sarah took 11 people as part of group 1, and we were part of her group. There were over 900 stairs we had to climb. At first I thought, this will be hard but it won’t be there hard. Boy was I wrong. About ¾ of the way up the staircase I had a really bad cramp in my left side, and was panting like a dog. I had to stop because I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath and was suffocating. Every breath I took made the cramp even worse. I was also very hot in my jacket so I took the opportunity to take it off. After a good 5 minute rest I continued on trying to catch up with my group who had continued up. As I came around a corner, I saw the whole group standing there waiting for me. Sarah said to me “You’re going to have to keep up, okay sweetheart? If you want to be part of group 1”. I was furious. First of all, I don’t like it when people are condescending enough to call me sweetheart. Second of all, I really couldn’t care less about her stupid group. We had paid a lot of money and as far as I was concerned, she was there to guide me through the crossing and it was her job to make sure I crossed safely. There had been no discussion on how quickly we would be climbing as part of group 1, and the other 2 groups were well behind us. I nodded my head but didn’t say anything and decided to hold a grudge.

Once we reached the top of the staircase, it was a pretty flat walk in between the two mountains. Sarah had insulted me further by asking Andrew, and not me, if I was okay. Like I wasn’t even there! I was boiling inside and but there wasn’t much I could do about it so I decided to ignore her. Although she did keep my blood boiling as she told another girl, with me right next to her, that she wasn’t concerned about her climbing abilities. There were other people’s climbing abilities she was concerned about, but not hers. And she said she was ruthless in telling people to keep up. Unfortunately I knew exactly who she was talking about. Who the hell did she think she was? But I had decided to ignore her and not speak to her, like the mature person that I am. Soon it was time to put our crampons on and Sarah had us form a circle to be able to watch how to do it properly. She was getting frustrated that people weren’t listening to her, and I could see she wanted to kill me when I told her my crampons broke. The look of death she gave me made me smile. I obviously was not getting on her good side anytime soon. She ignored me for a while with my broken crampon but came over a few minutes later and said this happens all the time, and luckily she had spare parts. She fixed the crampon and helped me put it on. The next part would be a steep climb on ice, and it would also be the first time we would be using our ice axes. Luckily it wasn’t a difficult climb, just a dangerous one as we could slip on the snow and ice, but I had no trouble keeping up and I’m glad to say I was one of the people at the front of the group. It was a small victory for me.

Finally we reached the top. I was completely out of breath but the view was stunning! We could see the peaks of different mountains around us and 2 beautiful turquoise lakes right below us. We were having lunch at the top. One of the mountains right next to Mt. Ngauruhoe, Mt. Ruapehu, is an active volcano, with the Ruapehu mountain erupting as recently as 2007 while people were on the mountain skiing! We were sitting on the ground while eating lunch and it was surprising to find the ground warm with steam coming off the sides. Although the ground was warm the wind was quite cold, since we were 1978m (6490 feet) above sea level. After lunch we started our descent down. Sarah told us usually in the winter there is so much snow on the top that she has everyone sit down and slide down on their butts. Unfortunately winter was taking it’s time to get to NZ, and even though there was snow at the top, it wasn’t enough for us to slide down and we had to walk. The walk down was easy as we still had our crampons on. Sarah had Andrew and I lead the way (first again!) and along with 3 other people, very quickly we had left everyone behind. The 5 of us waited for a while to see if they would catch up, but they didn’t so we kept going. We figured it couldn’t be too difficult to get down and there was a marked path we had to follow anyway. The further down we went the less snow there was on the mountain so we decided to take off the crampons. Right after that we saw Sarah, alone, trying to catch up to us. We waited for her, but the other 3 people went on. Sarah just asked if we had taken our crampons off, which we had, so she passed us and went down trying to catch up with the other 3. She finally saw them a bit further down the mountain and called out to her to stop at the hut. I guess they would know when they reached it. We continued at our own pace, and the views from the other side of the mountain were stunning, although clouds were starting to roll in which was limiting our visibility. We finally made it to the hut and had to wait for everyone else to come down, including the 2 other groups. Once they did, we were told this was a “free” walk from now on, and that it would take us another 2 hours to reach the bottom and the bus, but that we could all walk at our pace and leave as soon as we were ready. Andrew and I decided to head off right away to make it down as soon as possible. No need to sit around and wait for nothing.

Going down turned out to be harder than going up. My thigh muscles were on fire. Although going up is hard on the lungs, going down you’re constantly using your thigh muscles to support your weight to not walk too quickly. I estimated we would be down the mountain in an hour and a half and when we finally made it down I was only off by 2 minutes! Andrew wouldn’t give me the victory however and said it doesn’t matter if you lose by an inch or a mile, you still lose. He was just jealous of my accuracy. At the bottom the bus was waiting for us with sprite and I was so happy when I could finally sit down. My legs were jello.

We made it back to our room, ate some food and showered in the freezing bathrooms. The guy at reception said this is the coldest they had ever had it. Of course it was…because we were there. It seems no matter where we go in the world we are always experiencing the biggest, the worst, the hottest, the coldest or whatever. Not sure if this is people’s tendency to exaggerate or just our luck. Either way, we were cold and again bundled in for the night. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and into a heated room! I would be a lot more diligent when booking accommodation from now on.

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