Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Day 43

October 14th, 2015

Oct 13 day 43 Tongiriro Holiday Campground to Whakapapa Campground 35 km (track official, not what happened) 7:15-2:00


A day started in uncertainty. The Tongiriro Crossing involves some serious altitude, including the edge of the Red Crater at over 1800 meters. There is still snow up there. A lot of it. All advice is not to attempt in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Soon the door opened and a French couple came in, also shivering in the cold. They just wanted to see the first blue lake which is a couple kilometers further. Eventually the man did go up, but his smarter partner stayed behind in shelter. Then some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in this weather and relieved that we had decided to return down the way we had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. In little over an hour, I was off the mountain and in the carpark (for a day’s actual hiking total of about 24 km), where I met Toby and Gabe, two English tourists who were considering the climb. They changed their mind on hearing my story. As a bonus, they offered to drive me around to Whakapapa Village, my destination anyway, so inclement weather kept me from summiting but, after a great deal of effort, I did end up where I was supposed to be. The rain continued hard all the rest of the day, very glad not to be up on the mountain. After doing laundry at the camp (more to get it all dry than clean) I went to treat myself to dinner at the Tongiriro Chateau, a grand place we usually visit for refreshments on the Georgia Tech Taupo trip, so it was familiar ground. They have a large, old fashioned lounge for high tea, and it was filled with a mass of seniors who were on a north island train tour. All kiwis, voluble, funny, delightful. The kind of people who give aging a good name. This morning, while I was hiking back down the mountain, I thought about Thoreau in The Maine Woods where he climbed Katahdin, though, as most claim, he did not achieve the summit. His description of the mountain is some of his best writing, but I was thinking about how to him Katahdin was a cloud machine, making its own weather world. He did not end up posing at the top for pictures the way Appalachian Trail thruhikers do today, but he experienced the mountain in a number of its weather cycles and in its fury. His was a successful climb, as was mine.