I’d seen the photos.
They all look so rugged, and adventurous, with a hint of danger. And so, for quite some time I’d been fantasising of doing a Winter Tongariro Crossing. Dire weather warnings, and requirements of ice-axes and crampons had thus far discouraged me. That and the fact I had no experience with winter alpine tramping, which apparently is also a must according to DOC.
So, following our exit from a snowy four day tramp around Lake Waikaremoana, and a clear weather forecast, we decided to take the plunge. Not quite brave (and perhaps foolish) enough to do it on our own, we went on a guided walk. (When I had mentioned the possibility of doing this to my fellow Auckland trampers, I was greeted with a look of incredulity. “A guided walk?” “That’s for pansies!”).
Undeterred, I contacted a guide.
A very friendly New Zealand chap informed me it would cost $125 per person, and that this included complete gear hire and transport, and he also promised a potentially more exciting route rather than just following DOC’s Great Walk. I was sold. I quickly convinced Beau that considering how much gear hire costs from a ski shop ($40 for crampons, $20 for ice-axes, and usually upwards of $30 for transport), a guided walk was good value for money. He agreed, perhaps secretly hoping there would be Swedish tourists.
We set out early on Sunday morning, with 14 others. Other than our team of three guides (an avid mountaineer, an Antarctic field camp operative, and the third so rugged he was skiing on Ruapehu when it erupted in 1995), we were the only kiwis in the group.
The Tongariro crossing can typically be broken down into four sections:
- The long boring flat bit up to the staircase
- The staircase, formally known as the devil’s staircase, but now a well-maintained wooden track by DOC, leading up to the South Crater
- The tramp through the South Crater
- The trudge up to the peak along the Red Crater wall
- A steep trudge back down the other side
Part one was easy. Excited by the photoshop perfect blue-skies, brilliant snow about in the higher areas, and no wind, we raced along, eager to get to Part 2. Along the way we were entertained by our lead guide’s stories of Maori history and geological features, as well as the tourists’ grumbles of ‘I’m so sick of all this Maori legend stuff…’.
Part 2 was a little more challenging, surprisingly perhaps the most perilous section of the expedition. Following a day of rain, and then warm sunshine the steps were iced over, but not icy enough for crampons making it a difficult climb.
Part 3 was where we received cramp-on and ice-axe training. As I looked at the steep peaks ahead of me, this was where I started getting anxious. I couldn’t help but compare the ice-axe usage training with women being scammed into going on a 2-hour self defense course. If I really would slip, there is no way I’d remember all the weird contortions I’d have to apply to prevent the hasty slide to my death. Fortunately, our guide reassured us that the key to staying safe was to not slip to begin with. “Slipping is not allowed”. “Crampons are your friend. Use them”, he repeated.
We continued on.
The walk up to the peak was easy, easier than negotiating the loose scree in summer.
I no longer knew what I had been worried about. We didn’t require a guide at all, I thought to myself. Maybe I really was a pansy.
We reached the peak, about to go down the other side. And then I got nervous. This is a steep slope, with treacherous drop-offs either side. It is also a geothermal area, meaning it was covered with only a thin layer of ice.
Our lead guide didn’t seem too concerned, or at least if he was, didn’t show it. “Crampons are your friend. Use them”, he iterated again.
He was right.
Once I broke through the mental barrier that my body had been extended by 8 hardy spikes at the end of each foot, negotiating the slope was easy. Yes, slipping was not an option. But, it’s not an option in summer either.
But, it too wasn’t that bad.
We entered the next crater, before disappearing into a valley and then up another hill to another crater. I have done the summer crossing several times before, but this was new ground. This entire, usually barren area, was now blanketed in snow, and with only the company of a bunch of English tourists, walking through it was a fantastic experience.*
The Tongariro Crossing is typically a one-way walk from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi, requiring transport at the other end. Our guide took us on an awesome loop track doubling back only on the last 20 minutes of the track from Mangatepopo Hut to the car-park.
Having spent some three hours negotiating steep icy and jagged slopes I now feel a lot more confident to do the Northern Circuit this winter, another private fantasy.
Now seeking an expression of interest from other parties.
See all photos (including photos of what to do on a rainy day in Ohakune) here.