New Zealand 2016 – Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongario Alpine Crossing is the most amazing, changeable hike. For more than 14 miles – with side trips, crests, and sulfuric springs to explore – one passes past bare, volcanic terrain and alpine slopes, steaming, emerald pools and jade-leaved jungle.

I think I fell romantically in love with Mount Ngauruhoe, the active stratovolcano that rises in perfectly conical, grumpy splendor to 7,516′ feet. Lord of the Rings-loving bros may recognize its formidable face as “Mount Doom”, where Frodo has to destroy the One Ring. I have no doubt that getting up to the steep and tricky crater rim the day I was there (illegal – too much wind!) would have been much like the harrowing, furnace-blasted hobbit heroes’ journey.

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(6 March 2016)

6:18p – Back at Mangahuia Camp – At sunrise, I had already been up for three hours and was watching the light pour like melted butter down the bowl of slopes all around me on the trail. Currently, I’m parked in the campervan, eating terrible canned ravioli and swigging ginger beer, and all the windows are open to bees.
I’m spent. And exhilarated. And no doubt will sleep hard tonight.
Today, I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, all 19.4 km of it. (That’s 12.054 miles for those of us playing at home). It was so. incredibly. incredible. I love volcanoes, and three of them make up Tongariro National Park, plus all their vents and craters, fumeroles and pumice, jagged rocks and ash. They are: Tongariro, Ruepahu, and Mount Ngauruhoe.
All the signs and brochures warn of volcanic hazards, and activity and lahars took out parts of the trail just a few years ago. They mention to watch out for pyroclastic flows, as if the warning to “escape quickly” would do any good, as if the event of a sudden avalanche of 2000° molten gas and rock speeding toward you at 400 mph is something to plan around.
It was wild and literally awe-inspiring.  

Much of the first half was full of agonizingly lovely and raw vistas, as red and glorious as Mars, with punishing ups and tumbling downs. There were chains to hold to climb up, and pumice dunes at a 60° incline to trudge down. I fell twice. If there had been Mars’ gravity, we would have been leaping up and loping down. Mom would not have liked the sheerness and heights. We topped off at 1886 m and bottomed out at around 700m. My knees hurt!

They do not lie when they warn you of the weather in NZ. I wore a dizzying mix of layers throughout the day and needed every one. Scuffling up volcanic scree on the ridge of Red Crater, I was so hot that I took off everything, only to throw on my wool hat against the howling wind. Sweating profusely in a tank top under the glowing martian sun – braid flayed and hair flying everywhere from underneath a black beanie in 50 mph wind – is strange fashion, I think.

The luscious smell of wax flowers through the alpine meadows mixed with hot sulfur from nearby vents, switched odorous gusts with every blast of wind. 

From the rocky slopes, we descended into a riotous jungle of ferns and vines on trees, with the scent of damp leaf litter everywhere. The shade was so welcome after so many long hours under the broiler. There were bird and bug sounds in a disorienting cacophony, and – at one point – I’m sure I heard a dilophosaurus. 

After seven hours, I came through the lahar zone (WARNING, WARNING – DO NOT STOP) and down the final, flattening home stretch, limping jerkily like a dumpster Barbie, legs robotic and clicking.

At the final adieu, a woman with a neon orange, tiger-striped backpack snot-rocketed a solid torpedo from both nostrils, and I passed her with a smile at a hobbling clip, her iPod blaring “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac – the Queen of the Tongariro Crossing.

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Be well, my preciouses.

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