Whenever there is little time to get away and little time to plan for it I fall back on something I know.
After two months of six-day working weeks combined with a breathtakingly painful back problem I managed to find six days for a little trip.
Given that it is winter I thought I would run with the theme and go to find some snow. Off to the Central Plateau I went. I like taking the car rather than flying as the trusty Bighorn doubles as a camper van and gives me instant accommodation wherever I go.
I set off from Whakapapa Village to walk the Northern Circuit which circumnavigates Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom for all you non-New Zealanders) and in summer is one New Zealand’s seven great walks. I had done that walk in late spring about six years ago, but I hoped I would encounter more snow this time. And my wish came true.
Walking counterclockwise from the village you first come to Mangatepopo Hut. This only gives you a 55m height gain, but the constant down and up again, in and out of river valleys, makes that walk a bit harder than a quick look on a map suggests.
Luck, in the form of glorious weather, was on my side when I came to the hut. I had a late lunch in the sun on the deck looking up-valley to Mt Tongariro, the entrance to the south crater where I would walk the next day, and of course the majestic Mt Ngauruhoe. It is a spectacular view. I met heaps of day-walkers there. Some just came up from the car park to the hut for a picnic and a look at the mountains and others went up all the way to the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes.
Excited about some fun in the snow I started early the next morning and got spooky conditions all the way up to the Red Crater with clouds drifting in and out, only revealing parts of the surrounding landscape.
I like those conditions as it is often more interesting than plain blue sky. Having said that, I did appreciate the weather clearing in the afternoon as the Emerald Lakes really come to life in sunshine. These colourful lakes, surrounded by snow and with sulfurous steam rising around them, are a fantastic sight!
The descent into Oturere Valley is steep at first but then flattens off for most of the way to Oturere Hut and leads through a wide open valley strewn with volcanic boulders of all shapes and sizes that often look like characters out of a story.
Having the hut to myself for the night came as a bonus. It makes taking photos a bit easier knowing I won’t wake anyone up early in the morning. And what a glorious morning it was after a stormy night. Calm, blue sky, and some decorative clouds covering the valleys. Amazing!
Given the stunning conditions and after a quick phone call to confirm the weather forecast, I decided to go back the same way I came instead of finishing the circuit. I find the north side of the round walk just way more interesting, though it is more exposed.
But what can possibly go wrong when the day starts off being that stunning?! Well nothing really went wrong, but the day turned into a fair fight with the elements. Two hours after setting off and being the first and only one to set foot in twenty cm of new snow, the weather started to turn. By the time I made it up to the Emerald Lakes it had started to snow again and the wind had come up getting stronger by the minute. Getting a jacket out of the pack and putting it on in near blizzard conditions without anything flying away wasn’t straightforward…
The last 200 meters up to the Red Crater were seriously hard work with visibility reduced to 20 meters and snow clinging to everything including eyebrows and eyelashes.
I love it! I enjoy being challenged and having to work hard in the outdoors. It makes me feel very alive.
It also made think about how many people have asked me over the four trips I have done this year if I was scared to go by myself on these trips. I love these solo trips, going at my own pace, only being responsible for myself and making decisions that only have to suit me. And the harder it gets the happier I am to be by myself. I can swear at the wind blowing straight into my face without anyone hearing it and I don’t need to feel guilty at having talked someone else into walking in awful conditions.
I am happy in my own company, I trust I make the right decisions, I know how far I can push myself and when I need a break.
I am more scared walking down a dark road in town by myself than I am being outdoors on my own where I always carry a beacon for peace of mind and in case something doesn’t go to plan.
Having finally fought my way over the top, while pondering on the thought that I might be the only crazy person on the track, I ran into a guided group of 18 people doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as a day walk. Hell of a day for it! I had hoped that I could follow the track they made in the deep snow and would therefore have it a little easier, but five minutes after parting ways the wind had obliterated all traces of their having been there. So I had to cut my own track again occasionally sinking in up to my hips in the deep snow.
Despite being quite hungry I kept putting off lunch as that’s just not fun in a snowstorm and when I finally tried to get food out of the pack it filled up with snow in no time. So I abandoned the plan of making sandwiches, settling instead for an energy bar while keeping on going.
In 24 hours it had snowed so much that none of the many wooden steps were visible any more. It is awkward to walk steps in crampons at the best of times, but particularly so when they are entirely hidden under snow. I got caught a few times with my crampons and landed head first in the snow…
Walking into Mangatepopo Hut I must have resembled something like a Yeti and it took me 30 minutes to get the snow out of all the pockets, compartments and little creases in my clothes and pack.
As the wind kept howling and the snow kept coming I was glad to be in a hut. The two huts I stayed in on this trip have gas heaters and I hate to say it, they are very inefficient. Oturere Hut had a thermometer and therefore I know that I didn’t get the hut warmer than 9 degrees. And sitting down for a while at that temperature is not very comfy. But obviously this still gives the comfort of having proper chairs and tables, and benches to cook on, and beds that are raised off the ground. And after several hours I even got my snow-covered hat thawed out and dried.
I always take a tent in case I have to hunker down somewhere in between huts or if a hut is full, but this time I was happy that I didn’t need it and and just carried it around as “training weight”.
With the weather now properly turned bad it was no surprise the next morning that everything was covered in more snow and that the wind was blowing at about 70km/h. From the forecast I knew the weather was going to get worse before getting better, so staying put wasn’t tempting. And after all it is almost flat back to Whakapapa Village and it only took me a bit more than 3 hours on the way in, so how much longer can it take in snow???
Six long hard hours later of constant walking into the snowstorm we finally arrived. I walked that day with Chris an Australian whom I met the night before in the hut. Given the conditions we decided that walking together might be best.
It took a fair bit of determination and rationing our energy and focusing on something good at the end like a beer and a big burger. But even so the constant wind and snow in my face wore me down over time, but with no alternative it is just one foot in front of the other to the end. The only way out was through!!! I think Chris saw more snow on that trip than in all his life before and I wonder if he will bring gaiters and crampons on his next snow adventure.
Arriving at the village wasn’t the end of the odyssey either. I had hoped to have made it to the car in time to just get the hell off the mountain. Instead I found the road closed - and not just the road from Whakapapa Village but the whole Central Plateau had been shut down.
I don’t believe money fixes all problems in life. But this was an instance were it did just that and it did it beautifully. As mentioned above I was carrying a tent and my car doubles as a camper, but I didn’t fancy either. So the nice but more expensive thing to do seemed to find a mulled wine and then a room. The mulled wine was easy and after much negotiation with the reception of the nearly fully booked Chateau I was given a whole apartment for the price of a small room!
If I was going to be snowed in I decided I was going to be snowed in in style!!!
Heaps of food, a nice beer and lots of sleep and I was like new the next morning. It took me a long time to go to sleep though as I kept feeling the snow being hurled in my face and hitting my eyeballs.
Late in the afternoon of the next day all roads opened and I made it home safely from an awesome adventure. I would not have wanted to miss it for the world!