It is very hard to imagine temperatures of minus seven degrees Celsius, in icy winds and sleet, when you are tucked up cosy and dry in front of a fire. We were contemplating the day ahead over a cold happy hour beer in the comforts of The Park lodge in National Park Village, before turning in for a good nights sleep.
In the morning we chatted about the weather to the gentleman who prepared our breakfast – a friendly old bloke who’s probably lived around the area forever. He gave the mountain one good look as thick clouds were rolling over the mountains tops, and announced with a chuckle: “maybe your hike will turn into an adventure!”. Bummer? Yay? Always trust the local knowledge. But not to be deterred, we quickly grabbed out stuff and headed towards the Mangatepopo Road End where we parked the car for the day, hoping we might beat the looming inclement weather.
With the cook’s words in mind, we opted to be overzealous and kit ourselves out for all eventualities. Not being used to snow and alpine conditions (hailing from a semi desert country), we packed for just about anything that might be thrown our way. Rain gear, spare thermals, down jackets, stove and even a tent, just in case. Rather safe than sorry!
The route follows the same path as the Tongariro Crossing, but instead of crossing between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe to go down the other end, we took the detour up Mt Tongariro (at about the halfway mark on the crossing), shortly before you reach Red Crater. After reaching the peak at 1978m above sea level, we quickly turned around and followed that same path all the way back down again. Another group just ahead of us decided to take an alternative route down but not being experienced enough ourselves, we decided to stick to the well-marked trails.
The first bit below the snow line was chilly, but with a windproof layer over some thermals, we were warm enough. Until we reached the mist where the snow got more and thicker, and from which point the weather just got progressively worse. By the time we reached the last 1.5km side track to the summit, I was seriously questioning whether we should turn around or push on. The wind was howling and the drizzle and sleet, coupled with mist, spoiled all the wonderful views as well as our plans to make a little warm lunch on the mountain.
All hopes of getting some nice photos from the top, was also out the door, so the big camera stayed in the drybag in our packs. With the point-and-shoot we manage to get a few pics, but the poor camera got soaked and we ended up giving up for the most part on pics. What I didn’t anticipate was that the minus temperatures turned my fingers red and frozen within seconds of taking off my gloves. And trying to operate a small camera with bulky gloves and/or numb fingers is no easy task. Another reason to just enjoy the outing and forget about taking photos.
After returning from the summit of Mt Tongariro, we decided to stop at South Crater (1650m altitute) on the way down for a few snacks and a short rest. We were out of the brunt of the wind and the mist, but it was still freezing cold. It is absolutely amazing what a difference only a few hundred metres change in altitude can make in terms of weather patterns. Although we were perfectly fine and safe on the mounting (I think), anything can go wrong at any point and I’m glad we were prepared for almost anything.
All in all a very nice outing and I would do it again tomorrow if I had the opportunity. We should really try to get out into the mountains more often.