Saturday, April 3, 2010

Climbing Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe), our epic trip to Tongariro - 3/25/10

Last week was the second epic trip of the summer session here at Earthwise Valley. They plan two week-long trips per season, and did the first one the week before I arrived. But I'm glad I made it for this one, as I had been waiting to get back to Tongariro National Park after my two week trip here last July.

Tongariro NP is the NZ equivalent to Yellowstone. It is the fourth oldest national park in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site (one of three in NZ), and home to three active volcanoes in the highlands near the center of the North Island. Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapehu are quite old (~250,000 years) while Mt. Ngauruhoe is only about 2,500 years old. The latter though looks like a typical volcano, and is a much more convincing Mt. Doom for Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings than the former rather mountainesque volcanoes. Ngauruhoe apparently errupted 47 times in the 1900s, but hasn't blown its top since 1977, and is considered more stable than it used to be. When I head back to Tongariro in the winter, it'll be for Mt. Ruapehu to go snowboarding, as the only two major ski fields live there.

After arriving late the night before, we parked at the lodge in Whakapapa Village (pronounced Fakapapa, also the name of the ski field; yes the Maori have a sense of humor). We took the Tama Lakes trail toward Mt. Ngauruhoe and hiked through a bunch of different types of terrain as we went higher in elevation. The hike took about 6 - 7 hours and covered about 12 miles and about .75 miles in elevation. The first two thirds was fairly level, winding through alpine forests and groves of blooming heather. The last third left the main track, and the Tama Lakes, as we headed toward the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe itself. This area was much more rugged, desert like, and had high winds blasting the hillsides. The plants were clinging to the backs of rocks, where moisture might escape the howling winds to keep them alive. New Zealand is in what is called the Roaring Fourties in latitude terms. Across the planet, this is where winds are strong and constant, but Tongariro (and in a plane landing in Wellington) was the first time I really experienced this, as typically the mountains shield the rest of the country from the fierce winds. But in the highlands of Tongariro, and especially on top of Ngauruhoe, the winds howl at gale force, only to die down when the trail heads below the ridgeline.

We camped on a nice level area at the base of Ngauruhoe. While heading up to the site, I though "oh good, we're already going to be a third of the way up the mountain for tomorrow." How wrong I was... Yet, we were still above the lower clouds and had a spectacular sunset, which one of the girls caught on video: (I make a cameo at the 1:01 mark.) Soon after sunset, we went to bed, as it was starting to get fairly cold and we had no fuel for a fire. Sleeping was fairly pleasant once it finally came to me for about an hour or two. Then the winds picked up. And violently shook our tent for 5+ hours. The tent walls would actually hit me and it sounded like hill giants were shaking our tent, which made sleeping rather difficult for the two nights we stayed there. I eventually put my headphones on, and cocooned in my mummy sleeping bag until I could finally pass out for a little more shuteye.

The next day, we got ready to hike to the top of Ngauruhoe, taking a small pack with our raincoat (windbreaker), some warm clothes, water, and a small snack. I had developed some bad blisters on the back of my heels the day before (my laces were tight when we started, but weren't by lunchtime, and by then it was too late...) but fortunately after walking on them for 5-10 minutes, my body could mostly ignore it and trek on, until the next break at least. Climbing the volcano was like scaling a mile high cone of sand with loose rocks on the surface. I figured it would mostly be rocky with fixed places to climb up, but no. Several times I would take a step and cause rocks to tumble down the hill, and plenty of areas we had to dig our feet in to the sandy soil. The last third of the trek up was particularly difficult, with each step sliding back down half a step, and pretty much no solid rocks to hold on to.

I was pretty exhausted by the time I finally made it to the top, and the ferocious winds seemed like they wanted to blow us off the mountain. But the view was spectacular. Our tents were the size of pinpoints below. The two lakes, themselves about a mile apart and rather high in elevation, looked like puddles close to the base of the distant Mt. Ruapehu. The seemingly flat highlands below were far enough for a blue haze to interfere with the view, and the tops of lower clouds in the distance were noticeably below us. After a snack, the group decided to hike down into the crater to see the other side. With my aching feet, and being fairly exhausted from the climb to the top, I stayed behind and eventually walked along the edge to the highest point to take pictures of the group from a distance. With my camera fully zoomed in (55mm) they still were smaller than ants. The crater itself was rather walkable and didn't fall into a giant pit of lava, sadly. But there was a vent of steam coming out of one area, and several sections of the ridge were lots of different colors all mixed from the last firey cataclysm almost fourty years ago.

The way down was rather amusing at first, since each step was accompanied with sliding down in the sand. Slid down much of the top part in what I called the butt luge, which fortunately didn't hurt. My pants still got a little ripped, but not nearly as bad as some of the girls. The rest of the way down was less pleasant, due to Daniela and I getting separated from the rest of the group, largely due to our leaders impatience, and having to make our way down the more rocky base back to camp. All was well in the end tough, and after dinner we wrapped up the day with a game of Yahtzee

Hiking out the next day was rather quick, since it was mostly downhill, and the weather was getting nasty so we were extra motivated. Our group ended up spending the following night at a backpacker (hostel) in National Park village instead of hiking to the hut at the base of Mt. Ruapehu. Since my feet were pretty bad by that point, I stayed back at the backpacker with Daniela for a day while the rest went to climb Ruapehu. Apparently Ruapehu was a blast, but also had a lot of luck on their side. It was cloudy and rainy for the first part of their climb as they went past a couple huts. But near sunset the clouds broke and they were able to get to the top to watch the sun go down, and hike back to the hut under an almost full moon. But that's fine by me, I enjoyed my sandals and the leisurely day planning my next few weeks. And hopefully in a couple days I'll be able to put my boots back on without worrying about messing up my ankles.

More pictures here:

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