Journey to Middle Earth
Mt Ruapehu (2,797 metres), Mt Ngauruhoe (2,291 metres) and Mt Tongariro (1,967 metres) are 3 active volcanoes located in the beautiful Tongariro National Park, central plateau North Island of New Zealand. These sacred ancestral mountains, along with the surrounding rivers, forests, lakes and valleys, have been closely identified with, physically and spiritually, and highly revered by various tribes of the Maoris for generations long before they bequeath it to the people of NZ, as the first National Park in the country (and the first in the world to be given by its indigenous people). This breathtaking volcanic plateau is also one of the main backdrops for the magical land of Middle Earth in the awesome Tolkien trilogy, Lord of the Rings.
Nau mai, haeri mai ki Ruapehu (Welcome here to Ruapehu)
This is my first attempt at climbing an alpine mountain. Coincidentally, Mt Ruapehu is also the highest mountain in New Zealand North Island. And an active volcano too – Rua (pit) pehu (to explode), with its gorgeous crater lake surrounded by snow and ice.
I have one big realisation after this experience. This futile effort at trying to climb 1,000 vertical metres within 4.5 hours in 170cm thick snow and high altitude, really tells me one thing – of how amateur i am at mountain trekking and how shamefully sucky my fitness level really is! Never mention the easy 10-20 km daily city walks which i normally do while travelling abroad; those are child’s play compared to this.
To think that this was not even my original plan… The original plan was even more highly ambitious – The great world-renowned Tongariro Alpine Crossing, rated the best one-day treks in New Zealand and one of the best in the world, with its stunning scenery and dramatic landscapes. The challenging 20km-trek goes through the valley between Mt Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mt Doom) and Mt Tongariro and climbing all the way through all those awe-inspiring terrains you can imagine, and of course, various craters and gorgeous emerald lakes reward your weary eyes to distract you from your wobbly leaden legs all along the journey.
Face-to-face with Mount Doom
Left : Rainbow over Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe), as observed from the National Park Village.
Right : The 3 volcanoes : Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu in the distance.
For the Lord Of The Rings fans such as myself, this trek would almost be like some sort of a pilgrimage, for this is the very same trek in Middle Earth where the heroic hobbit Frodo and his loyal manservant Samwise Gamgee slogged through all the way half dead but never gave up, and still defeated 10,000 ugly Orcs to destroy the cursed One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, (which happens to be Mt Ngauruhoe, in our world).
Alas! An active volcano is still an active volcano, even though it hasn’t erupted in 115 years. Mt Tongariro has suddenly decided to surprise everyone, even the sophisticated early warning systems and risk management systems which were put in place just for this purpose. Nevertheless, no significant signs of any seismic activity were detected and Mt Tongariro has erupted without warning, just one week before our planned itinerary; spewing steam and ashes 5 miles up into the atmosphere, and covering the treks all around the mountain with boulders and debris. Hmm…. as fate would have it, no pilgrimage for the Ringer! 🙁 So, we decided to go for the next best thing, Mt Ruapehu Crater Walk. Which was supposedly a more “relaxed” trek, only 10km. Hmm……
Mt. Ruapehu Crater Walk
So, back to the shameful tale of how i failed to reach the beautiful Crater Lake of Mt Ruapehu. Firstly, there was the skiing to blame.. Haha… just kidding lol!. 😉 Skiing was pure fun, but after 3 consecutive days of skiing with much falling and some minor injuries, the strain on my legs was really felt for the first time when i started climbing Mt Ruapehu for the Crater Walk. Nevertheless, snow always manage to excite me so i’ve totally ignored the strain in the legs, and the continuous pain in the back, and the whole body too, for that matter.
It was the first time i geared up with alpine trekking equipment, complete with cramp-ons, ice-axe and gaters. I was also wearing 5 layers of clothing (which i ended up stripping off one by one eventually, until i’m only left with one layer of thermal wear.)
We started off at about 8.30am at the Whakapapa ski field base, 1650 meters, with an option to walk or take the chair lift up to the Knoll Ridge chalet (top cafe), where we would save about 3km of hiking. We took the chair lifts. From the cafe, we were supposed to begin our real trekking, slogging 7km upwards non-stop all the way until the Crater Lake.
The biggest hazard it seems, was to run into or get run over by skiers or snowboarders speeding downhill. This was the skiers’ mountain first, after all, and hikers’ second. Apparently, the biggest challenge for me was not even the skiers, but the act of walking in the thick snow itself. I have never walked in 170cm thick snow before, and an uphill climb too.
Having my partner gave up the climb almost at the beginning didn’t do much encouragement for my morale too. I was alone for most of the journey. Anyway, i didn’t have much breath for socializing. I was having a little trouble keeping my heart beat steady, and my leaden feet couldn’t quite keep up to pace. The ice-axe didn’t help much as a walking stick, all it does is goes right into the snow till it reaches its hilt.
I was also too busy taking photos of the awesome scenery all around, never-ending white powdery snow in all directions, skiers and boarders sliding gracefully down the slopes, hikers trekking diligently uphill in close knitted groups in single file, almost like ants in the distance. And of course, the jagged pinnacles of Mt Ruapehu in the distance but look like just next to us, as we walk humbly in its shadow.
This was where we said our silent goodbyes to the rest of our group, seeing them trotting off in the distance, sizes diminishing until slowly disappearing from view. And then there’s only the 4 of us “left behinds”.
My head couldn’t stop throbbing, not sure if it’s because i was over-heated, dehydrated, hungry, or simply because of the high altitude (we were at the elevation of approximately 2,200 meters then).
The guide asked me to strip off everything on me, so i took off my beanie, gloves, jacket, fleece, vest, and finally, my blouse. I ended up wearing only one layer which is my thermal wear, and it was a great surprise of how relief i felt!! The 4 of us (slow coach) all did the same, and we could actually see steam coming off from our bodies!
Time : 11.30am. Elevation : 2,300 metres. Temperature : -2°C. Time left : 1.5 hours
Sitting on the snow and taking a 5-minute break for lunch. I could hardly swallow my frozen ham sandwich. Scenery was gorgeous here. We were already at an elevation higher than Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. Both snow capped peaks could be seen from a distance, even Mt Taranaki in the far distance.
We have about 300 metres left to reach the crater. 300 vertical metres, to be precise. Based on our current speed and fitness level, there was no way we could reach the crater by 1pm, which was the time limit if we were to reach there at all. We were given a choice, to continue slogging uphill until 1pm, then turn back from wherever we were, or to turn back now and play a little in the snow, and slowly go back downhill. It was a difficult choice for us, (all of us wanted so badly to see the crater lake), but finally we chose the second. Not like we have any real choice, after all!
So we played a little sledding in the snow, but the snow was too thick for sledding, in my opinion. All our bums got caught in the snow instead of sliding smoothly down! Anyway, we started our walk back downhill. The walk downhill was even more difficult, in the thick but slippery snow.
Finally we arrived back at the Knoll Ridge Cafe where we started the climb, and while waiting for the others to return from the crater, i made a nice little snowman outside the cafe 🙂
So that was how i ended my supposed “Ruapehu Crater Walk”. Tongariro Alpine Crossing?? Who am i kidding??? Perhaps in 5 years….. 😉